In a recent post, I posed a question I thought was somewhat rhetorical: “Is walking a form of activism?” Might a simple stroll down the street, I mused, constitute an act of dissent in a transportation network and broader urban landscape built mainly for cars? Within hours of posting it, I started seeing news stories seemingly everywhere, revealing with mounting vividness the shocking, sickening details of Trayvon Martin’s murder while strolling the streets of the gated community in Florida where his father's fiance lived.
Once you get past the ridiculous line of reasoning, advocated most prominently by epically misguided pseudo-journalist Geraldo Rivera, that Martin’s hooded sweatshirt in and of itself constituted grounds for suspicion, the main reason Martin first drew the attention that led to his murder was the simple fact that he was a pedestrian in a neighborhood where that is a strange enough act to attract the interest of the local vigilante.
Since the full details of Martin’s murder broke, commentators in numerous venues have attached the same phrase to the boy’s transgression: “walking while black.” Here’s how Marian Wright Edelman described the phenomenon:
Every parent raising black sons knows the dilemma: deciding how soon to have the talk. Choosing the words to explain to your beautiful child that there are some people who will never like or trust him just because of who he is — including some who should be there to protect him, but will instead have the power to hurt him. Training him how to walk, what to say, and how to act so he won’t seem like a threat. Teaching him that the burden of deflating stereotypes and reassuring other people’s ignorance will always fall on him, and while that isn’t fair, in some cases it may be the only way to keep him safe and alive.
Obviously, the emphasis is (and should be) on the racial implications of the phrase, but I think it’s also worth exploring the pedestrian aspect of it. Martin appeared suspicious and threatening to George Zimmerman because he was black, but he attracted that suspicion because he was walking.
For half a century now, urban planners and critics of a certain persuasion — the Jane Jacobs school, more or less — have been arguing that America’s predominant suburban design model, where the car is king and communities are cleaved into separate pods for living, shopping, working and playing, is a drain on social capital and robs neighborhoods of the rich interplay of random, multivalent activities that breeds — and protects — healthy community. In shorthand, this is often referred to by one of Jacobs’ most famous phrases: “eyes on the street.”
Here is Jacobs explaining the phrase in "The Death and Life of American Cities," her groundbreaking urban philosophy text:
A city street equipped to handle strangers, and to make a safety asset, in itself, out of the presence of strangers, as the streets of successful city neighborhoods always do, must have three main qualities:
First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.
Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.
And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.
I can’t think of a case where a street has failed on all counts as fully as the streets of the Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Fla., failed Trayvon Martin.
Like any gated community, the Retreat fails to clearly demarcate public and private space by declaring the entire community to be private space. Martin believed he was walking innocently down a public street like any other; Zimmerman evidently understood him to be trespassing on private property. In the Retreat, there were no “natural proprietors” or “effective eyes on the street” at all — no shopkeepers, no old timers on the corner or mothers out on the stoop, not even much in the way of passersby.
Zimmerman had stepped into this void — or driven around in it, actually — to proclaim himself the one and only natural proprietor, the only effective set of eyes, the neighborhood cop, plus judge, jury and executioner all in one. In a landscape completely denuded of its natural social life, the pedestrian was an intruder by default and the armed, motorized vigilante was in complete control.
There are any number of sad dimensions to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, and one of them was the way that the street failed him. Completely. Let’s hope the Retreat at Twin Lakes represents the end of the war on public spaces that belong to us all.
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