Sidewalk Terror and the Logistical Hauntings of the Flâneur

Photograph Source: Jeffrey Zeldman – CC BY 2.0

You are waiting for the morning bus at the curb. You are getting ready to cross the block at a traffic light. You are stepping out of your house to empty the garbage. You are walking home from a friend’s house at night.

Each of these mundane acts could easily be part of the “sidewalk ballet” that the urban thinker and activist Jane Jacobs once praised as the definitive marker of vibrant stranger sociality.

But then you get knocked down in front of your bus stop. Some random person punches you in the face at the crosswalk. You get doused with burning acid on the curb in front of your house. You get kidnapped and killed before you can reach home.

The sidewalk is not a social space most people think about in terms of its terrors. But when COVID happened and the lockdowns followed, leaving your bubble space for the street suddenly required a new calculation of risk.

For most people, this was a question of the airborne dangers of the virus. For some of us, there was the additional worrisome contagion of Sinophobia (thank you, #ChinaVirus, #KungFlu…). Not to mention the longstanding and persistent dangers of sexual harassment and racial profiling.

From Haussman’s grand Parisian boulevards to Jacob’s friendly neighborhood blocks, we tend to romanticize the mobile worlds of pedestrians. We celebrate the flâneur – that walking embodiment of modern street life – for animating the social buzz of “the crowd.” His moves inspire writers and scholars as very public and leisurely acts of loitering. When we step onto the sidewalk, we’d all like to imagine that we could navigate the streets just like him.

But then the flâneur can only be him. Change the gender and you get the street walker. Her loitering is something else. An invitation for policing. And for violence on the streets. Hell, she could be just heading home and still be eroticized as a street walker. She could do everything “right” in trying to secure her presence on the street. And yet she could still be marked as a dead-woman-walking. Just ask Sarah Everard.

And could the flâneur ever be mistaken for the #ChinaVirus? His aura of romantic vagrancy – with its utopic promise of freedom of movement — depends way too much on the erasure of embodied particularities. He is unmarked by gender and race. And don’t even ask about migrancy.

The flâneur is one of those “people who think they are white.”  And he also thinks he owns the right of way on the streets.

Just look at that intersection at Market Street and Charles J. Brenhman Place where the 75-year-old Chinese grandmother, Xiao Zhen Xie, was about to cross when she got punched in the face by Steven Jenkins, a raging white dude who had just knocked over another elderly Asian en route to this violent encounter. Odds are that like most traffic lights designed according to federal standards controlled by civil engineers, the signal for crossing this intersection would have been timed to the fast-paced gait of an average healthy white man – at 3.5 feet per second – resembling the walk of the very engineers who set the norms (a profession where over 85% are male, 80% white, as noted by journalist Angie Schmitt).

Research shows that someone elderly and non-white like Ms. Xie would have faced heighted dangers in crossing that street even without the viral threats of Sinophobia. In fact, well before this pandemic hit, the sidewalk and its logistical designs could already be considered a public health crisis in the U.S. Pedestrian deaths have increased by 45% over the past decade with communities of color, the poor and seniors bearing the bulk of the violence. According to Angie Schmitt, people over 65 like Ms. Xie are 35% more likely to be killed while walking than people in their twenties. Black and LatinX men are twice as likely as white men to be the subject of pedestrian death.

So even if this Chinese grandmother had not been clocked by Steven Jenkins, she’d still have to face the dangers posed by whiteness already built into the very logistical designs governing pedestrian flows across American streetscapes. In contrast, if her assaulter had somehow managed to miss the blow to his face when she whacked him with the wooden board she happened to grab off this street corner, he would have easily skedaddled across that intersection with nary a scratch. Most traffic lights, after all, have been customized for his speed of walking.

While clickbait headlines for this case often showcased this old Chinese pedestrian’s triumph in fighting off her assailant, it’s noteworthy that her grandson could only describe Xie’s experience as one of reverberating sidewalk terror: “As you can see, she’s extremely terrified,” he told reporters. “She’s terrified to even step out.”

It’s true that there’s a tad of comfort knowing that Xie’s attacker got beaten back and arrested unlike the many other sidewalk terrorists who routinely get away with assault and murder. But while you can take this white man off the streets, you can’t purge the streets of the white maleness engineered into logistical designs.

The flâneur can’t help but haunt our sidewalk lives. He’s built into the very streetscapes we all navigate. The ghost in the grid.

A #LogisticalNightmare.

Julie Y. Chu is a sociocultural anthropologist with interests in mobility and migration, economy and value, ritual life, material culture, media and technology, and state regulatory regimes. Her book, Cosmologies of Credit: Transnational Mobility and the Politics of Destination in China (Duke University Press, 2010), received the 2011 Sharon Stephens Prize from the American Ethnological Society and the 2012 Clifford Geertz Prize from the Society for the Anthropology of Religion.