I recently had an interesting conversation with several women friends about “feeling safe”, in the context of street harassment—a part of city life that people experience in many different ways, and which many people never experience at all. What makes a street or neighbourhood “feel safe” to be in, particularly relating to gender? And what makes it actually safe?
A Walk In the Dark
One summer evening, I decide to walk from my Parkdale apartment to a bank in Liberty Village to deposit a cheque, and pay attention to what I see on the way.
It’s 10:30 at night, but there’s still quite a few people out walking on King St. W.—not just hipsters who got lost, but a wide range of locals. It strikes me as important that there are people of all ages out on the street. The streetcars are running frequently and people get off and on. There are also people just hanging out on the street, sometimes smoking, in front of donut shops, corner stores, bars, or apartment buildings. I am a little surprised that I don’t run into any neighbours coming to or from the building, as is usually the case.
Liberty Village feels very empty by comparison. There is virtually no one out walking or sitting on benches; I am passed by quite a few cars. There are a lot of people around the parking lot, which is close to a couple of restaurants/bars. The Jamba Juice and the Aroma coffeeshop are actually quite busy. (PARTY HARD, Liberty Village.) Everything is cleaner and people are dressed very fashionably. Nevertheless I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb.
Parkdale is universally considered “sketchier”. But I feel a bit more uneasy walking in Liberty Village. Why exactly is that?
A Broke Theory of Safety
What makes Parkdale feel safe, to me, is that there’s always people around. I don’t mean police, who seem just as likely to be frisking neighbourhood folks as protecting them, but just ordinary people going about their day. While Parkdale is known as a low-income area, there are a lot of middle- and upper-middle class residents as well. This means that people have different kinds of jobs and schedules. There are street people who use the library during the day, and students who come after school lets out, and hipsters who frequent the bars late at night, and service workers who wait for the bus at 5:00 in the morning. A lot of people are just as likely to walk, bike, or use scooters as drive.
Major streets like King, Queen, Lansdowne, and Dufferin run through the neighbourhood, so it’s easier for people to get into and out of Parkdale. Queen is a commercial strip with apartments above the stores; King is largely residential with convenience stores, fast food places, laundromats, and coffeeshops on the corners and concentrated along the block just west of Dufferin. All of this makes for a generally busier neighbourhood.
The population of Liberty Village, on the other hand, seems to be much more homogeneous. All the housing seems to be made for the same market—well-off relatively young people who live rather similar lifestyles. So there are times when nearly everyone is at work or asleep. People are rich enough not to depend on public amenities like library computers or laundromats, so instead of going out, they can do all that at home. There is a 24-hour supermarket, but most places operate within normal business hours. The late-night spots are mostly bars and fancier restaurants, although there is clearly call for all-ages places.
While Liberty Village is surrounded by major streets, there really aren’t any roads going through. So, rather than streets lined with stores or restaurants, there are central plazas that people drive to. It’s more convenient in some ways, but it creates a space that feels insular, isolated.
So street layout is an important factor, but Parkdale also has a lot of residential streets with not much traffic. What I’m getting at is that Parkdale’s relative diversity is a big part of why it feels safer. It helps to have people who aren’t at work during the day, or who are too broke to go out, or who have kids, so they sit on the porch in the evening. Or they sit in the laundromat. And they watch the street. They know who’s a local and who’s not.
I don’t mean that poverty is necessary; I mean that isolating low-income people in shitty versions of Liberty Village doesn’t benefit anyone, even rich people. Mixed-income neighbourhoods are safer neighbourhoods.
In a nutshell, such neighbourhoods have a kind of crowd surveillance that makes it more difficult to get away with things in public. If a couple of drunk men started making lewd comments to me in Liberty Village, it would be an altercation solely between them and me. It would not be a good idea to mouth off, and if I wanted to get away from them, there would be almost nowhere to go. People driving by in cars would be momentary observers, with no means to interfere. In Parkdale, people would hear me. They might not interfere, but they would be watching. I could pop into a corner store where a harasser might be afraid to follow. I would have more options.
My friend Astrid, who studies urban planning, introduced me to the concepts of “nightspace” and gendered wayfinding. Nightspace is the place the city becomes at night. It gets a special name because it often feels like a whole different city, and people navigate it differently, depending on who they are and where they’re coming from.
Women are taught to see nightspace as dangerous. It’s a difficult lesson to resist (I say, with many years’ experience of worried adults coaxing me to accept rides home rather than take a 10-minute walk). The primary concern is that strange men will harass or assault us. White and Asian women are meant to fear black and brown men in particular. These reasons are not always stated so explicitly, but it’s important to do so. It is absolutely crucial to defuse gut fears and separate stigma from actual risk.
It’s a little like climate change. We think of weather passively, as something that just happens. But, in fact, we have helped create the conditions that cause things like sea level rises and extreme weather patterns. And we can actively do things to change how the climate will be in the future.
Yes, we can implement programs like the TTC’s Request Stop, or intercoms on subway platforms. But that approach shies away from the deeper questions: what makes certain streets desolate, others well-travelled and friendly? Why are certain areas considered unsafe? Who gets to feel unsafe? Women travelling alone? Youth of colour at risk of racial profiling? Sex workers on the street? Homeless people worried about their safety in shelters?
It’s not a great situation, and we can only work with what we’ve got. But nothing’s going to happen until we understand the underlying conditions—otherwise, cultivating nightspace will continue to be a zero-sum game where we make one group feel “safe” at the expense of another.