Whose Sidewalks? Our Sidewalks…?

I like to think that I have an acute sense of my surroundings—sometimes annoyingly so. For example, when reading a book at a cafe, I usually blast some version of hard rock or metal in my headphones to create a constant audio backdrop. If I do not do so, I’ll hear every conversation within range, and it’s not because I’m trying to eavesdrop! Similarly, when I was a kid, my father and I would get home from a short trip to the store, and he would ask me, “What was the phone number listed on that car for sale at Sunrise Market?” Most of the time I would get it right. Maybe this is a skill, a testimony to my memory and sensory abilities. I don’t know.

However, I do know a person(s) does not need to have similar capacities to recognize when they are taking up the whole sidewalk, or walking so slow as to create an ever growing crowd behind them! I live in New York City’s East Village, and I encounter this everyday, multiple times a day; and I refuse to believe it is merely a matter of cluttered, narrow sidewalks, because many times the perpetrator is a sole individual walking on a desolate sidewalk.

I know people out there know what I am talking about and your ensuing thoughts. You are walking briskly—but not necessarily fast—and a bit in front of you is two people. As you get closer, you think. “they’ll hear me as I get closer.” Maybe they do, but they don’t react to it. They maintain their position in the middle of the sidewalk. There is room on their right, left, and in between, but not enough to squeeze by. As a result you are forced to slow down your pace. The following few moments are spent with you tailgating them, trying to figure out a route past them, to no avail. Making matters worse, they don’t recognize your plight and continue on the same path. At this point, I say excuse me and walk past them. Also, in the, sadly, not so rare cases of them not responding to multiple “excuse me’s,” I assert my way through them or walk in the street and around them.

Since I live in a place where lots of walking is required, this kind of behavior has become such a pet peeve of mine. Yet, beyond my own personal discomfort, I think this seemingly minuscule point has a lot to say about today’s society and how it reflects the values of our dominant institutions. It shows how individualism and anti-sociality are fostered, trumping solidarity. Along these lines, it shows how people need to become numb to their surroundings to deal with the harsh realities—like homelessness amongst a jungle of luxury apartment construction sites. Because when you do this, you don’t only block out the homeless, you block out everyone else around you, avoiding unneeded human interaction. Just like when you sit across someone on the subway and spend the whole ride avoiding eye contact with your counterpart—all that matters is getting to your next destination. I also can’t help to think there is a sense of entitlement to the sidewalks correlated to the class and race make-up of my neighborhood. For the most part, my frustrating sidewalk experiences occur at the behest of the white coordinator class and middle strata folks that have gentrified the Lower East Side over the past 20 years.

I don’t want to go into a whole, grand analysis. Just let what I said marinate a bit. I’d like to hear some thoughts on the issue.

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