Third Pre-Class Thread: May 15th: Street Life

“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with improvisations.” -Jane Jacobs

“Out of the bars and into the streets!” -Harvey Milk

In a walking city, the ability to claim or be claimed on the street is a core aspect of everyday life. As noted in her quote above, Jane Jacobs suggested that it was not neighborhoods that allowed us to flourish in urban environments but the city streets. The “sidewalk ballet” afforded a form of intimacy that any larger scale erases. New York City’s streets are famous, especially in the lgbtq imagination and it was no surprise that Harvey Milk paralleled the interior of bars to the public streets as a framing for protest and change in 1970s San Francisco. From Wall Street to Christopher Street to Riverside Drive to Fifth Avenue–in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, streets have defined and served as the hubs of queer life. How? Why?

George Chauncey suggests that for gay men “privacy could only be had in public,” but the stories we ave shared so far in the course and the experiences of our everyday lives tell us that streets work differently for different people. Race, class, age, disability, and gender especially are often most clearly demarcated in the simple act of walking or rolling down the city sidewalk. What some lesbians refer to as the “the dyke nod” is a sign of eye-to-eye recognition while such a gaze between men is often referred to as cruising. For many queer youth, like in the interview with Jay Toole this week, streets are the homes of many lgbtq youth. Where you are also shapes who you are and can be, just as much as our bodies define the possibilities and limitations of spaces. The street is a key space and place in forming lgbtq identity and culture.

Our Discussion Questions

How can the streets serve as a space of change for good? How do they work work for or against the needs of lgbtq people? How can the streets be the home to our most vulnerable and the galvanizing place for action as well as the hub of public sexuality? What ways do streets work in your life?

*See the Further Recommended Readings for this week to see the citations for the works mentioned here.


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