Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Friday, December 02, 2005
 
Lingering and Loitering

My blogpost about the use of high-pitched noises to repel "loitering" youth from the front of shops seems to have touched a slight nerve. It's an interesting follow up to the post before that about city-planning.

The City, the illustrated guide to building a generic Roman town, makes it clear that Romans valued public spaces. Last night on the Colbert Report, Colbert was making fun of the Italians for designing Tourino 2006's medals to look like large metalic lifesavers--supposedly evocative of the round piazzas, a symbol of Italy. We may joke about their fora and piazzas, but we're sorely missing them. In New York City, you may think that there's copious public space across the street from Madison Square Garden--but it's actually private space, replete with private security guards, who will happily kick someone off, say, if they don't like the fact she's taking pictures of the building. (Why they didn't like me when busloads of tourists were snapping away is part of the question--regardless of their intentions, part of public life is that it can't be arbitrarily picky. Policies should be justified and fair.) When City architects hand out permits for commercial buildings, they're often supposed to extract promises from the builders to create public spaces. If citizens aren't vigilant enough to oversee those permits, the promises can be weak commitments at best. How many of the famous public spaces of New York are really public? Rockefeller Plaza is owned by someone. Just because they usually let people hang out doesn't mean they have to.

Because so many of our seemingly public spaces are actually private, I think we've lost some intuition about what rules can apply where, and so we are easily bullied. Who owns a sidewalk outside a shop? If it's a regular shop and a regular sidewalk, the city does. But if it's one of those outdoor malls or Disneyland, the landlord (and by extension, through contract, the shopkeeper) probably does. So the question of marketing and property rights hinges on knowing what the boundaries are, and how they were assigned. Which is why citizens should pay attention to planning commission meetings.

Then there's the matter of loitering, so ill-defined. Hedgehog finds it an offensive term, Echan reluctantly insists that belligerent loitering is a real problem. I find it offensive in its imprecision and application as a catch-all. Like the infamous no-dancing-without-a-permit law in New York, loitering is too often an excuse to throw people you don't like in jail or shut down their establishment whenever they bother you. Instead of making precise, justifiable rules about crowd safety and fire code and noise pollution, the City--which was then really more concerned about preventing white people and black people dancing together--made a vague, inconsistently enforced rule about dancing. If four well-dressed, serious-faced young people stood outside the shopkeepers door and spoke seriously about, say, school, I find it hard to believe that he would have tried to repel them. But should wearing scruffy clothes and talking loudly about illsounding subjects be a crime that gets you kicked off the public sidewalks of your own city? I don't think so. Particularly when notions of dress and conversational topic are so subjective--and subject to prejudice. Laws should be about behavior, and then they should be fairly applied to everyone.

On the other hand, I also have to agree with Echan. There is such a thing as "belligerent loitering." Maybe it needs a new word (neology team?) or maybe the compound phrase needs to be used exclusively, and defined carefully. I've been--fairly rarely--tripped, shoved, spat on, and loudly yelled at on streets, and I certainly feel like such behavior impinges on my right to walk down the street or go shopping. It's the behavior that matters, though, not the clothing or the age or the interests of the people bothering me. Have I experienced such behavior more from street punks than from suits? Sure. Does that mean I think all street punks should be kicked of the streets? No, not really. There was a time when a lot of those street punks, in Berkeley, anyway, were my friends and former schoolmates, and knowing them helped me discern that very few of them were actually bothering me. The fact that an even a smaller proportion of the suits have been likely to trip me doesn't mean any guy in a suit has more right to the sidewalk than someone sporting a bihawk has. However, I don't want to have to call the cops and press charges every time someone shoves me just to prevent that behavior. I may just not show up anymore. And that's also bad for a city.

It's hard work to legislate what behavior is and is not acceptable in what public spaces, and to justify that legislation in terms of constitutional rights and safety issues. It's much easier to put something vague on the books and let the cops apply it where they see fit. If I was sure that the cops would not resort to applying it to whom they saw fit, rather than to what behavior they saw fit, I might be content with that. As it is, I'm pretty bothered by the language of loitering. I'm also bothered by the notion of elderly people not being able to get their groceries without feeling threatened. It's sticky. While we wait for better cops and better laws, I suppose the one thing we can do is be better street companions. If an easily threatened, vulnerable person feels that they're surrounded by hostile people, they're much more likely to make somewhat unreasonable demands on the system. If we all walk along with sharp-eyes, looking around, and smiling, we send a signal to the threatened that we'll help them if they need help, and to the threatening to keep to themselves. Other than that, I'm not sure what the solution is.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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