We did that awkward sidewalk dance. You know, the one where two strangers mis-read who should go right and who left as they pass each other on the pavement.
Tired of reading and sitting all morning, I took a post-lunch walk from Regent Park to Rosedale, heading for the nature oasis of the Don Valley ravine. The little shuffle with the stranger got me thinking about sidewalks and the rules for using them.
Sidewalks are an outdoor public space that anyone can use. There are social rules about their use, such as, walk in a straight line, don’t bump into others, and skip over the dog shit.
It turns out that the rules also reflect the race, gender and class hierarchies in the city. How far do you walk behind someone on the sidewalk? Research shows we walk closer to women and further away from men. We walk closer to a single person and further away from a couple. Sailing on a Half Moon
And when it comes to passing on the sidewalk, the lower status person tends to be the one who moves out of the way. The codes about sidewalk use were more racially explicit in the USA. Black people are expected to move over, or off the sidewalk so that a white person can pass. In the past those who refused to obey this rule faced dire consequence. Shoving and beatings. Jailing and lynchings.
There was more street furniture on the sidewalks in Regent Park. Things such as bus shelters, post boxes, phone booths, clapboards, and poles for parking signs. Pop-up vendors in Regent Park use the sidewalk as their open air stores. Most sold second-hand clothes and knick-knacks. I could buy a red suitcase, running shoes or pick from a wide choice of jeans and dresses. There were none of these sidewalk hustlers or entrepreneurs in Rosedale.
More people were on the sidewalks in Regent Park. Most were pedestrians, and there were some children on scooters. There were quite a few adults on mobility scooters, some zipping past faster than I thought sensible, and beeping their horns for walkers to get out of their way. Really?
Women pushed strollers, one with a toddler’s face contorted into a meltdown from hell. Some people pulled shopping carts, and a few cyclist shared the pavement too. Panhandlers begged for spare change in front of the dollar, liquor and grocery stores. The sidewalks in Regent Park buzzed with city life. Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love
Only a handful of people were on the sidewalks in Rosedale. Most were attached to dogs. The area had more and bigger trees and hence green and shady sidewalks. There were fewer rubbish bins in this low-density enclave filled with its single family mansions. Regent Park has more bins on the pavement as it is high-density with its multi-story apartment blocks and clusters of townhouses.
There were also more manhole covers in Regent Park than Rosedale. The pavements were cleaner in Rosedale compared to Regent Park. This might just be due to the difference in the number of people using the sidewalks. Research does show that rich neighbourhoods have smoother and well-maintained sidewalks compared to poorer ones.
Regent Park is one of the most multi-cultural and poorest areas in Toronto, even as it’s being rapidly gentrified. Rosedale is just up the hill. It is one of the richest and whitest neighbourhoods in the city.
You can’t be arrested for using a sidewalk – unless you are Black.
In England the police used the sus’ laws to harass Black men. That is, those hanging out on the pavement were arrested on suspicion that they might commit a crime. The practice led to the race riots in the 1980s. Decades later the practice still continues, albeit at a lower rate. 50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London
In Canada we have carding. Here the police disproportionately stop and question Black men in case they might know someone who might be thinking about a crime.
Walking while Black, on the city’s sidewalks, is a racialized and gendered experience.
Some forty minutes later I was in the ravine. City life, Regent Park and Rosedale, and landscape theories drifted away as I turned my eyes and ears towards nature. A pair of blue jays squawked as I passed by. A cardinal flitted in the bushes, I wondered if it was the same one that I saw earlier in Regent Park.
© Jacqueline L. Scott. Donate now to support the blog.