Permit Pattys and “eyes on the street”

In my undergraduate class, we have a section where we talk about public space and its uses, as well as the important extant criticisms of public space within structures of male, white, cisgender, etc supremacy. My goal is to help students understand the tension at play: public spaces are important, but it’s also important not to romanticize them. We can’t ignore the policing of black, female, trans, gay, lesbian, disabled, etc bodies and lives at the hands of dominate groups in those spaces.

I have spent quite some time thinking about this in the parallel trends of securitization, privacy, camera, drones, etc. When I was in my master’s and my PhD program, I would bring up security issues in public space only to be condescended to. Smartest Boy Urbanists you know, and at UCLA there were quite a few that were more emancipatory than thou, if you know what I mean. I was told that Jane Jacobs had the answer, and the answer was eyes on the street.

At the time, I had my doubts. Jacobs noted that the natural eyes are the street are small business owners. Cough. Another romanticized group. Are you really trying to tell us that small business owners have the general good in their hearts when they call the police? They are capital; they likely will behave as capital does with regard to police. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has pointed this out in the many years following Jacobs.

I do think it’s entirely possible that people in public spaces can look out for each other, demonstrate care and decency, and protect each other in public space. I read a wonderful story to that effect here:

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To the point: Eyes are necessary but not sufficient. Eyes on the street and the practice of looking out for people–especially those most vulnerable to harassment and violence–has to be an active social virtue. It doesn’t happen “naturally.” Instead, it a conscious, active ethic of taking collective action for a stranger’s welfare. And when it happens, it’s powerful, beautiful, and potentially life-saving. It’s not libertarian; it’s communitarian. Or perhaps it’s uniquely urban.

As awful as the Permit Patty stories are, they do provide me with contemporary exemplars for the class in trying to understand what security in cities means: security for whom, exactly, and how? Many of my students come from real estate development with ideas about how regulation is strangling–strangling!–developers. But Permit Pattys illustrate just who is subject to regulation and just who uses the police to control “public” space in cities.

Edited to add: BTW, the point has been made, in spades, about white people calling the police on black people for no good reason. So maybe we white people could get it together and knock off endangering people. Ok?