Just in case it wasn’t clear in my debut post that I believe being a pedestrian is political (the post was about the womxn’s march against Trump on Saturday), there’s always this pro-ped article about the protests that New York magazine published Saturday night; it may as well be the mission statement here at Pedestrian Chronicles.
I guess I had hoped my simple post about the march would have succinctly kicked off what I’m trying to capture here: First, that public space is political space.
From Christopher St. in Greenwich Village to Selma, Alabama (and Montgomery too, if you include public transit in the civic debate over public right of way), America’s sidewalks, streets, and city squares have always served as unplanned meeting spots for emerging political sensibilities as well as coordinated rendezvous points for planned political organizing.
Second, commuting day to day as a pedestrian or a bicyclist (or even taking mass transit) in a country where most infrastructure is designed for cars, is oppositional—and so, political.
New York magazine’s article about the day of marches, titled “For One Day of Protest, Every City Belonged to its Pedestrians,” was a mini-manifesto on these ideas.
Across the world, marchers commandeered traffic arteries, bridges, highways, squares, and streets, offering a glimpse of what cities could be if they were permanently retrofitted for pedestrians. The Women’s March was also a de-facto Metropolitan March, a global act of resistance to the new administration’s profoundly anti-urban philosophy. Cities — not just on America’s coasts, but in the Rust Belt, the South, and the heartland, and even in Finland, France, and Nigeria — came out in force because they are havens for the openness and hybridization that Trump detests. One of this political moment’s innumerable ironies is that a dyed-in-the-wool New York kid should grow up to be so unsympathetic to urban culture.
The metropolitan energy expressed on this one day didn’t die when the marchers went home. It has profound implications, because a global network of cities can tackle shared problems more nimbly than sluggish national governments can. While Trump erects walls and tariffs and invokes the fascistic slogan “America First,” city leaders know they need each other. The mayors of Paris (Anne Hidalgo), L.A. (Eric Garcetti), Bogotá (Enrique Peñalosa), and Seoul (Park Won-soon) belong to an international cohort of city wonks who swap war stories and wisdom. While they all have to dance around different political obstacles, they often sound interchangeable when they talk about climate change, inequality, transit, and civil rights.
If mayors can link arms across oceans, it’s because city dwellers everywhere are more similar to each other than to the small-town relatives they’ve left behind.
This ped context has been in the ether all year. The Washington Post published some similar analysis last summer.
Citing A) the role that highway construction played in displacing African American neighborhoods in the 1950s & 1960s (those highways simultaneously created the white suburbs too) and also B) the significance that public transportation played in the Civil Rights movement, the Post published an article titled “Why highways have become the center of civil rights protest” back in mid-July, 2016. This was when Black Lives Matter protests focused on shutting down highways.
The article begins:
Interstate 94, like urban highways throughout the country, was built by erasing what had been black homes, dispersing their residents, severing their neighborhoods and separating them from whites who would pass through at high speed.
That history lends highways a dual significance as activists in many cities rally against unequal treatment of blacks: As scenes of protest, they are part of the oppression — if also the most disruptive places to call attention to it.
“If you can find a way to jam up a highway — literally have the city have a heart attack, blocking an artery — it causes people to stand up and pay attention,” said Nathan Connolly, a historian at Johns Hopkins University. “Highways still perform their historic role from a half-century ago. They help people move very easily across these elaborately segregated landscapes.”
Block a highway, and you upend the economic life of a city, as well as the spatial logic that has long allowed people to pass through them without encountering their poverty or problems. Block a highway, and you command a lot more attention than would a rally outside a church or city hall — from traffic helicopters, immobile commuters, alarmed officials. …
“When people disrupt highways and streets, yes, it is about disrupting business as usual,” said Charlene Carruthers, an activist in Chicago and the national director of Black Youth Project 100. “It’s also about giving a visual that folks are willing to put their bodies on the line to create the kind of world we want to live in.”
And the article concludes:
“People occupied [lived in] these spaces long before they felt they had to occupy the roads we built on top of them.”
Meanwhile, my beloved PubliCola published these great pictures from the D.C. march this morning.