Saturday, December 11, 2004

Activism and Space

At the weekly peace vigil I attend, I was really noticing tonight the way in which the built form of the neighbourhood influences the nature of the event.

The vigil is held at an intersection. The corner on which we stand is at the edge of a large neighbourhood park. The blocks beginning at the other three corners are residential, mostly single-family homes. The neighbourhood as a whole is mostly residential, a mix of low-rise apartment buildings and single-family homes, with some strip mall-style commercial space at major intersections. It is very much constructed around the automobile as the primary means of transportation, and is not conducive to walking or to street-level activity and culture and people. (Stacey mentioned me last week that she'd seen an article in the LA Times stating that only 3% of people in Los Angeles walk as a significant means of transportation, yet 22% of accident injuries are pedestrians). In other words, the built form in the neighbourhood is not exactly pure suburban, but it is relatively suburban.

Suburban built form is very privatized compared to urban built form. There are fewer communal areas, and the density of people in areas where interaction with other people can be expected is much, much less. You have lots of people on the roads, but they are in those little, mobile blocks of privatized space called cars.

In an area with urban built form and high pedestrian traffic, a periodic vigil can be substantively communicative -- you give people leaflets, you get in conversations, you have human-to-human interactions. In a suburban area it is reduced to being largely a spectacle -- people see you as they drive by as an image with political content, and they ignore you, they honk in approval, or they flip you the bird and shout pro-Bush and/or pro-war slogans out their window. Apparenlty this vigil used to regularly produce handbills to give out, but hasn't in some time. There is little opportunity to engage in dialogue. A number of regular attendees respond to aggressive shouting from passing cars with their own aggressive shouting -- I'm not against political efforts that are primarily expressive in nature, as opposed to educational or dialogue-based, but I'm not sure how shouting is any more effective in expressing our message than being the spectacle that caused the passing driver to shout at you to begin with.

Anyway. I like the fact that this vigil is neighbourhood-based, so we're stuck with doing it in the context of this particular built form. Heck, most of LA is similarly suburban or semi-suburban (and car-centric) in terms of its built form. But it is still interesting to note how the insidious, ongoing, long-term erosion of the public and its transformation into the private by capital seeps into our political practice in ways we can't really help even when we can see and name them.


Thivai Abhor said...

Thanks Scott--this is great!

I'm a native South Californian currently living in Lexington, KY and they have succumbed to this kind of spatial antagonism toward pedestrians--I literally risk my life walking home...

Anonymous said...

...a little correction, which actually makes the statistic even more alarming....pedestrians account for 22% of all traffic-related *fatalities* in LA. Other major urban areas have similar statistics, not just LA.

In a way, it's not surprising that pedestrians would be over-represented among fatalities, given our lack of physical protection. But in my experiences of being almost hit by cars (frighteningly frequent), it is most often the case that drivers appear to be focussed so much on navigating through the rest of the motorized traffic that they fail to consider that non-motorized traffic even exists.

My near-injury-or-death experiences have almost always been when a driver was trying to turn into oncoming traffic, looking exclusively in that direction, and hitting the gas the moment they see an opening, oblivious to pedestrians who may have been approaching from the other direction. I see it ALL the time. I've had some fearfully close calls; the most scary was at Sunset & La Brea, when a left-turning vehicle completely failed to see that I was crossing (with the favour of the "walk" sign) -- thankfully his wheels squealed as he accelerated, because if I hadn't noticed what was happening, I'm pretty sure me & the stroller would have been hit at high speed.