A talk with Renia Ehrenfeucht

The higher meaning of the humble sidewalk

'The sidewalk is probably the one place in the city where we most interact.' (David Grunfeld for The Boston Globe ) "The sidewalk is probably the one place in the city where we most interact."
By Chris Berdik
January 25, 2009
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Consider the city sidewalk. To most of us, it's just a means to an end, a concrete strip that takes us from office to coffee shop, from the T to a restaurant.

But in an upcoming book, scholars Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris of UCLA and Renia Ehrenfeucht of the University of New Orleans argue that sidewalks are something much more important: a crucible for the city's sense of its own identity. Sidewalks trace the shifting boundary between the city's public and private realms, and create a space where the lives and ambitions of all its citizens can jostle against each other.

"We really don't appreciate how much they influence our urban experience, both what we think about the city we live in, but also how and why we enjoy the city," says Ehrenfeucht. "The sidewalk is probably the one place in the city where we most often interact, albeit fleetingly, with people who are different from us."

In researching "Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space" (MIT Press, May 2009), the authors spent five years pondering the pavement in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle, interviewing sidewalk users, combing through newspaper archives, and examining city ordinances governing sidewalk use -- from public sleeping to tree-planting to where (if anywhere) it's legal to set up a food cart.

Particularly since America's 19th century urbanization, the sidewalk has been coveted, disputed territory that reflected the social dynamics of the day -- a place where new immigrants set up shop, where the wealthy promenaded and labor unions picketed. A sidewalk could mean one thing for a woman alone there at night -- she might be suspected of prostitution -- and something very different for a black man expected to step off in deference to white passers-by.

As city life rebuilt itself around the car, the prominence of sidewalks receded, but they remained a stage for what Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht label "urban messiness" that forces the question of just how public we want our public spaces to be.

We recently reached Ehrenfeucht on the phone and got her thoughts on Boston's sidewalks and why we shouldn't undervalue what's underfoot.

Ideas: Haven't sidewalks always been an afterthought, compared to the buildings and roads they border?

Ehrenfeucht: It's not that people in 19th century cities spent a lot of time trying to foster sidewalk culture, but sidewalks were more seen as the extension of buildings and were often paved more rapidly than the roadbed. There was this understanding that the sidewalks would be heavily used, because they connected where people lived, worked, shopped, and socialized.

Ideas: What's Boston's sidewalk signature?

Ehrenfeucht: One thing that's really different about Boston compared to the other cities we studied, is that the people we interviewed here had much more of a sense that sidewalks and other public space were for everybody, and that this was the tradition and part of Boston's history{hellip}. Another way Boston sidewalks stood out was that they were more tree-covered than any other city we looked at.

Ideas: How much does sidewalk culture depend on urban density?

Ehrenfeucht: Well, in Manhattan, there's a definite connection. It's so dense and housing is so expensive. New Yorkers tend to have small spaces, and so they go out, and there are people on the sidewalks at all hours. But our sidewalk use is also influenced by the housing traditions we have in the United States. As opposed to cities in countries like France and Spain, where people are much less likely to have visitors over to their house or apartment and much more likely to meet up in public spaces such as cafes, plazas, and parks, American cities like Boston were more influenced by British tradition in which houses have rooms designated for visitors. So people in these cities became much more private in that way. It was a mark of being upper class not to have your kids running around on the street. And having a yard for your kids to play in, instead of on the sidewalk, has always been part of the suburban appeal.

Ideas: What do you think about the sidewalk life in tourist-oriented urban shopping destinations, such as Faneuil Hall?

Ehrenfeucht: I'm ambivalent about them. They are more constrained than a typical city street, but that makes them feel safer; kids get to run around in a way that they often can't in many urban areas.... We're concerned that some of these places are not truly open to everyone, because these are semi-privatized spaces, and so there are stricter ordinances on everything from panhandling to smoking. And ironically, the more we frequent these idealized streets, the more nervous we may feel about spending time on less-sanitized urban sidewalks. Then again, the fact is that some of these idealized streets are very vibrant, and very usable and desirable to urbanites. I mean, we have a whole tradition of differentiating between different kinds of public spaces. For example urban parks, like Boston Common, were also meant to be different, and constrained, and more civilized than the unruly street.

Ideas: Are sidewalks becoming less democratic?

Ehrenfeucht: Yes, when it comes to large-scale protest events. Take the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston. There was so much hype about the potential for trouble, which brought police checkpoints, bag searches, and cordoned-off streets, that it not only silenced the protesters, but the city itself was deserted.

Ideas: Can the "urban messiness" you advocate be designed into sidewalks, or just not hindered?

Ehrenfeucht: Having well-designed cities is important; it's what makes Boston an incredibly walkable city with all these downtown neighborhoods with beautiful, human-scale streets. But we shouldn't equate great city design with great urbanism. It's not that well-designed areas won't have that urban messiness, but I think that a big part of it is just that when there are a lot of people together, things become complex. So, in a sense, it's about accepting this messiness and accepting that it's often uncomfortable, even though more often than not the messiness is enjoyable or neutral. We can have design that makes places more conducive to people using them but we can also have malls that are easy to use and not have that same sense of vitality.

Ideas: Any sidewalk advice for Bostonians?

Ehrenfeucht: We should realize that life on the sidewalk is going to be uncomfortable and conflictual at times, but that is a city, and we're better off accepting some of that complexity rather than trying to fight against it{hellip}When more people get out there, the more engaging and the more comfortable our sidewalks, streets, and cities will become.

Chris Berdik is the senior writer for Bostonia, the alumni magazine of Boston University.

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