Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Bike Justice Book

This summer, Routledge released Bicycle Justice and Urban Transformation: Biking for All? The book's 18 essays explore marginalized communities and bicycle advocacy, planning, and policy. The editorial team consists of Aaron Golub (Portland State University), Melody Hoffmann (Anoka-Ramsey Community College and author of her own recent book, Bike Lanes Are White Lanes), me, and Gerardo Sandoval (University of Oregon). 

The Backstory
A little less than two years ago, editors Stephen Zavestoski and Julian Agyeman published a collection of essays called Incomplete Streets. The book argued that the “complete streets” policy and design trend could benefit from an environmental justice approach to social inclusion. It was right up my alley because at the time, in my day job as Equity Initiative Manager at the League of American Bicyclists, I felt caught in a gulf between the bike movement I’d been part of for years and the transportation justice field that had inspired me to work on race and sustainable transportation in the first place.

Practitioners in transportation justice, which has roots in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that made it illegal for federal funds to be distributed in a way that led to racial discrimination, tend to focus on public transit systems. Before I got into bike activism I’d been a member of Los Angeles’ Bus Riders Union, a groundbreaking grassroots effort that has for decades made the case that transit systems like Metro need to do a better job of serving their majority people of color and low-income users. I thought that because I was aware that the bike advocacy world did not match the diversity of who actually rides, other people working in transportation knew about this gap too. But when I brought up bicycling in transportation justice circles, I was told to take my shilling for a white man’s pastime elsewhere.

I could see why bicycling seemed beside the point. For many families, bicycling for transportation is something that you work hard to get away from, rather than a desirable end in itself. When people have a hard enough time even gaining access to driver's licenses and dealing with the issue of tickets turning into debt, I can see why owning a car is still central to civil rights projects. I’d moved to D.C. because I thought that building a racially inclusive bike movement would help transform the symbolism of bicycling, making it something more positive for more people. But instead I grew to feel invisible within my own movement, where it was controversial to simply state that infrastructure couldn’t fix the vulnerability that different people face in our unequal streets.

There are plenty of people of color working in environmental professions who sit with me in this space between ecological commitment and knowing how hard our communities have worked to achieve middle-class consumerism. Wasteful living is a sign of success. Environmental movements still have a long way to go in co-creating visions for a better world that empathize with people scarred by the hatred of poverty and racism, rather than judging them for not “going green.”

When I learned that Zavestoski and Agyeman were also on the editorial team for Routledge's series on Equity, Justice and the Sustainable City and they wanted to include a book specifically about bicycling, I signed on to be an editor of what became Bicycle Justice and Urban Transformation.

The Book
Our introduction explains the gap between transportation justice and bicycle advocacy, and how this gap contributes to the public’s association of bike infrastructure with gentrification. We make the case that situating bicycling within a transportation justice framework will require addressing the blind spots of what we call “organized bicycling.” To get away from the dehumanizing term “invisible cyclist,” we argue that most bicycling takes place outside of the advocacy movement and planning efforts to promote it. Differentiating bicycling in general from “organized bicycling” provides an alternative to othering people of color and/or low-income bicycle users. Then the project becomes expanding organized bicycling to encompass more kinds of users, rather than putting the onus on those users to make themselves visible to organized bicycling. In the second chapter, co-editor and transportation justice scholar Aaron Golub goes more in-depth about whether bicycling can be a civil rights issue.

Since it’s the first book to define bicycle justice, the collection goes in a lot of directions from there. The common thread (besides bicycling) is that we asked our authors to present solutions that would make sense for practitioners.

Major themes:
  • The everyday vulnerabilities that overlooked bicycle users experience in their racialized bodies
  • Bicycling in particular regional and cultural contexts 
    • “Freedom of Movement/Freedom of Choice: An Enquiry into Utility Cycling and Social Justice in Post-Apartheid Cape Town” by the great thinker Gail Jennings
    • “Rascuache Cycling Justice” by Alfredo Mirandé and Raymond L. Williams
    • “Civil Bikes: Embracing Atlanta’s Racialized History through Bicycle Tours” by Nedra Deadwyler
  • Barriers to inclusion embedded in emerging data tools 
    • “Advocating through Data: Community Visibilities in Crowdsourced Cycling Data” by Christopher Le Dantec, Caroline Appleton, Mariam Asad, Robert Rosenberger, and Kari Watkins
  • Grassroots programs such as rides and repair co-ops 
    • “Aburrido! Cycling on the U.S./Mexican Border with Doble Rueda Bicycle Collective in Matamoros, Tamaulipas” by Daryl Meador 
    • “Community Bicycle Workshops and ‘Invisible Cyclists’ in Brussels” by Simon Batterbury and Inès Vandermeersch
  • Community tensions around bike planning 
    • “Is Portland’s Bicycle Success Story a Celebration of Gentrification? A Theoretical Analysis and Statistical Analysis of Bicycle Use and Demographic Change” by Cameron Herrington and Ryan Dann
    • “Community Disengagement: The Greatest Barrier to Equitable Bike Share” by James Hannig
    • “Mediating the ‘White Lanes of Gentrification’ in Humboldt Park: Community-Led Economic Development and the Struggle over Public Space” by Amy Lubitow
  • Scholarly analyses of traffic and social justice 
    • “Advancing Discussions of Cycling Interventions Based on Social Justice” by Karel Martens, Daniel Piatkowski, Kevin J. Krizek, and Kara Luckey
    • “Theorizing Bicycle Justice Using Social Psychology: Examining the Intersection of Mode and Race with the Conceptual Model of Roadway Interactions” by Tara Goddard
  • Efforts to transform the bike movement 
    • “Decentering Whiteness in Organized Bicycling: Notes from Insides” by yours truly
    • “Collectively Subverting the Status Quo at the Youth Bike Summit” by Pasqualina Azzarello, Jane Pirone, and Allison Mattheis
  • Bicycling programs as public health interventions 
    • “No hay peor lucha que la que no se hace: Re-Negotiating Cycling in a Latino Community” by Martha Moore-Monroy, Ada M. Wilkinson-Lee, Donna Lewandowski, and Alexandra M. Armenta.
My chapter in the book chronicles the othering that I experienced while working in bicycle advocacy at the national level and suggests directions for changing the movement’s agenda to include more people’s perspectives.

Bicycle Justice and Urban Transformation is a first step toward creating an interdisciplinary conversation about bicycling and inequality. I hope it can be a resource for students, scholars, and practitioners alike. Thanks again to all our authors who made it possible to get the collection out there on a really short timeline!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Unsolicited Advice for Vision Zero

Last week I spent time in Los Angeles City Hall for the first time in almost five years. I moved back to LA at the beginning of September, returning after living in Seattle, Portland, and Washington, DC. To be perfectly honest, I'm a little shell-shocked and unsure of how to answer friends who ask me what I'm doing next.

I've been studying the bike movement and professional bike advocacy since 2008, and I spent the last two years working to operationalize that research to further equity, diversity, and inclusion in the field. It wasn't until about eight months ago, though, that I recognized my peculiar position: I wasn't just raising awareness about exclusion in bicycle advocacy, I was experiencing it. As a woman of color, I didn't have the power to solve the problem I'd been hired to fix. In fact, taking on that task had made me the target of more resentment than I'd ever experienced. I found that in bike advocacy people like me were being tokenized. We were expected to use our non-threatening otherness to promote a vision of the world that was determined before we came in the door. Accepting that I couldn't accomplish what I'd set out to do was a big step forward for me personally, because it helped me to see that I shouldn't be living a life where colleagues treated me like something to be feared. That treatment takes an emotional and even physical toll, and the only thing I could do to make it stop was leave.

Now, as new ideas march forward in bike networks, I've been wondering if I should even keep trying to share my thoughts about how to embrace diversity in the bike movement because all I see is the dominance of white norms and my inability to change that dynamic. I don't see the point of offering advice to people who see me as an interloper, an attacker, rather than as an ally. At the same time, I think it's baffling that a closed group could claim to speak for everyone. A seasoned social change strategist recently told me that lessons learned in a particular movement usually can't be applied in that same movement by that same person. It was a relief to hear that I am not going through something unique. But the question remains, what do I do with my bike activist self now? Can she exist in this world?

One place I've been seeing white norms dominate is in the policy trend Vision Zero, which is what the event at LA City Hall was themed around. I happened to have a peculiar bird's eye view of the spread of Vision Zero around the United States last year, while I was managing an equity initiative at a national bike advocacy organization. I remember the meeting in summer 2014 where my boss told us that Vision Zero would be the policy framework the organization furthered from then on. With my inclusion filter on, it sounded like another example of white bike advocates looking to Northern Europe for solutions instead of turning to urban communities in the U.S. to find out how they've managed to get by walking, biking, and using transit all these years. The urgency of adopting the language at the national level illustrated another familiar phenomenon: advocates looking to impress their like-minded peers rather than vetting strategies with a diverse range of thought partners (there's some foundation-speak for you). While I was working in DC, the groups that the nationals wanted to impress were Transportation Alternatives in New York City and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the origin point for Vision Zero in the United States. And then, over fall 2014, I saw the third sign of a bonafide bike advocacy trend: a developing intercity competition where bike advocates try to get politicians on board with their projects by naming the other cities that are supporting it. These three tendencies within bike advocacy draw attention away from local community realities and have helped turn bike projects into symbols of gentrification and change imposed without local input. (Bike share is another example of these tendencies in action.)

Beyond questioning the inequitable tendencies of these familiar bike movement traits, I was alarmed that a pillar of Vision Zero was increased police enforcement of traffic violations, in the same year that multiracial groups were filling streets across the United States to call attention to the deadly effects of racial profiling in policing. When I raised these concerns at work, nobody connected me with the national Vision Zero organizing committee. Due to a fearful organizational culture, I was ostracized for bringing up these blind spots. It added to my growing awareness that I was allowed to write inspirational blog posts and host webinars about “bike equity,” but I wasn't supposed to have an opinion about the organization's strategy work such as forwarding the Vision Zero trend. I decided to leave my job in early 2015.

But I couldn't get away from Vision Zero. There was the Twitter pile on where NYC Vision Zero activists called me a supporter of street violence. There were the job announcements that showed that resources were already flowing in this concept's direction. Vision Zero became a symbol of my powerlessness to address the exclusion I was disappointed to find when I reached the national level in the advocacy movement I thought I'd been part of for years. It became a symbol of my own dilemma. This is what it is to be a woman of color in this world: you're in demand based on what boxes you can check, but when your expert recommendations go against the grain, you can be dismissed as a nuisance. They want my exotic face but not the brain shaped by living in this skin. The ups and downs are enough to make you seasick. You find yourself hoping that they just dislike you personally because that cuts less deeply than knowing that others' racism/sexism keep you invisible as an individual.

As for Vision Zero, I have a lot of friends in the bike movement who are supporting it, which made me think I needed to ignore my personal experience of hurt and exclusion. As an activist, it's become important to me to remain open to ideas that I react to on a personal level because this can have effects on a movement level. The bike movement is a subcultural network trying to redesign streets for everyone. Some participants want it to be more open to diverse perspectives; others are comfortable claiming that broader social issues are irrelevant to their own bikey desires. I want to be as open as possible to a range of ideas. So, my experience aside, and regardless of the coincidence that Vision Zero emerged just as I was becoming aware of how far from diverse national bike advocacy was ready to be, I know that Vision Zero will mean different things in different places and will surely make good strides in addressing traffic violence. That's why I decided to attend the Vision Zero meeting at City Hall, eager to see old friends and learn how the concept might be more tied to local realities in Los Angeles.

The main speakers were Leah Shahum, who is the national Vision Zero strategist, and Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of LADOT. Malcolm Harris of T.R.U.S.T. South LA joined them on a panel at the end. What I heard was promising, but also isolating. I heard a lot about Europe and San Francisco. I sat there among an audience that was soaking up every word, the same things they'd been telling each other for years. These events feel like church to me at this point, with the opulence of council chambers heightening the effect, and I felt once again in the throes of my crisis of faith. There were a number of people of color in the room, involved at many levels, which made me think I shouldn't trust my instincts in hearing a white-centered strategy for Vision Zero. Afterward, walking to the metro with a friend, I was surprised to learn that I wasn't the only person with misgivings. She encouraged me to share my thoughts.

For what it's worth, here are four themes that I know from investigating exclusion in bike advocacy that sound out loudly to me in Vision Zero. There's more to Vision Zero than bike advocacy, but I saw it develop through that particular network, so the analysis I'm offering here situates it in that movement.

1. Dismissal of concerns about influence of eurocentric thinking.
A woman in the audience asked whether a model from Sweden made sense in Los Angeles, and the response from Shahum was that she tries not to overemphasize the European origins because that bothers some people. It's important to recognize that what ruffles feathers isn't a “perception” of eurocentric thinking; it's a real domination of eurocentric thinking in bicycle policy, planning, and advocacy. Eurocentric thinking is the norm in those circles, with PeopleForBikes taking politicians on study tours to Copenhagen and a number of planning schools doing the same with their students. Over and over, in many ways, advocates tell themselves and the public that European cycling is best, and we'd better follow suit. This reinforces the invisibility of people making bicycling work around the United States today, people who don't have the privilege or resources to offer competing visions centered in their own realities. We are all affected by eurocentric thinking, just as we are all affected by racism. It'd be great to see more bike advocates display some self-awareness around this.

2. Racial profiling as a street safety afterthought.
My biggest concern with Vision Zero stems from its overlap with but disconnect from the moment of Black Lives Matter. A remarkable amount of mainstream media and policymaking attention has gone to the issue of police violence against criminalized black and brown bodies. Here in LA, Sahra Sulaiman at Streetsblog has covered a number of recent instances of violence. People of color bike groups have organized memorial rides and other direct actions to recognize the effects on communities. And yet one of the pillars of Vision Zero is increasing opportunities for police to apply their biases to street users, aka increased enforcement of traffic laws. White people may look to police as allies in making streets safer; people of color may not. When a man in the audience brought up this issue, Shahum said Vision Zero strategists would need community help in addressing it. Asking affected communities to take on the burden of figuring out how to make Vision Zero work in a landscape of police violence is dismissive at best and insulting at worst. It really doesn't seem like Vision Zero was designed to admit the problems that are an unfortunate reality for many in this country, a reality that other groups are working very hard to bring to light. It'd be great to see the development of a street safety strategy that starts with a dialogue on what “safety” means and whose safety we have in mind, taking it for granted that we don't all face the same safety problems. The panel's moderator brought up this point as well. Vision Zero should put support for police violence reform front and center, pointing out that we need police officers to be sources of community help rather than harm. Traffic violence is a huge problem, but not everyone is ready to see policing as a solution. Why hasn't this element of Vision Zero been drastically changed by now?

3. Combative issue framing.
Bike advocates tend to see themselves as an embattled minority, to the point of leaving little room for diversity of experience and opinions within their own ranks. It's led to a lot of acrimonious infighting in the bike movement, such as the longstanding debate about vehicular cycling. I heard this defensiveness in the Vision Zero presentation as Shahum called VZ “the only ethical choice.” I'm guessing that this suggestion that disagreement with Vision Zero makes one unethical was designed to shame politicians, but I'd urge Vision Zero strategists to consider what silencing effects a combative tone might have on participation by oppressed groups. I've seen a worrying tendency among bike advocates to dismiss those who disagree with them as NIMBYs, flattening opposition regardless of whether it comes from community members who lived through the ravages of urban renewal or privileged homeowners concerned abut an influx of colored bodies into their suburban sanctum. Vision Zero strategists should show their respect for meaningful inclusion through welcoming intersectional perspectives.

4. Emphasis on top-down strategy for culture change.
Since at least the early 1990s, the bike movement has shifted toward building political will for funding bike projects as a strategy for building public support for bicycling. Professional advocates now work to become political insiders more than they take the direct action approach of street demonstrations and organizing. Vision Zero reproduces this tendency toward “if you build it, they will come,” putting the agency for changing individual behavior in the hands of policymakers and planners. There's value in this approach, but it also creates well-known barriers to participation in agenda setting by the very users the projects being lobbied are intended to serve. It's strange to me that a movement so focused on rejecting car-dominated engineering would think that the solution is more large-scale, top-down planning. Again and again I heard the panelists reference the need for culture change, so I hope that means Vision Zero will fund culture change projects such as community events and bike co-ops where people can develop economic and personal relationships with bicycling. Or will Vision Zero dollars go to sending more politicians to Northern Europe?

Street safety is a subject that should be shaped by many people's realities. I hope it's clear that with this analysis I'm not saying that Vision Zero can't lead to good things; in fact, I hope it's great. Since it looks like that train has left the station and street safety in Los Angeles will have Vision Zero branding for the next few years, I'd love to see a strategy develop that is rooted in addressing inequality. It's more clear to me than ever, coming back to LA and seeing how many people are sleeping rough right now, that inequality is a huge problem in this region. Maybe if people weren't trapped in a cycle of competing for dwindling opportunities they wouldn't treat roads like a scarce resource they must compete for by being the fastest and strongest. It's hard for me to see how we'll fix our street culture without deciding as a society that we should care about each other at all.

There were a lot of enthusiastic people listening in council chambers on Thursday, some of them from Orange County and Long Beach. Most of us were professionals or longtime participants in this kind of advocacy. I hope the active transportation advocacy community can support intersectional perspectives being a part of setting the agenda earlier and earlier in the process. It's not good enough to use the people who aren't in the room as evidence for why a particular policy should move forward; we can all do a better job of including more realities from day one. This is what full and fair participation should mean, and as long as we're being asked to help accommodate serious flaws in a strategy that emerged from exclusive networks, we're not there yet. One day, instead of cramming our collective foot into a boot ordered for somebody else, it'd be great if a bigger group could lead the design process and end up with something we can really wiggle our toes in. Maybe it's early enough in Vision Zero's lifespan that it can be a vehicle for this change. I still want to believe it's possible for the bike movement to let people like me inside, with our hearts and minds.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Methods of a Saint

Since 2004, I've been studying how different cultural groups define appropriate uses of space in Southern California. A prominent figure in the colonial period there, and a prominent figure in the landscape of San Juan Capistrano where I grew up, was the priest Junípero Serra. Today Pope Francis plans to canonize this man in Washington, D.C. Here is an excerpt from my undergraduate thesis where I report what I learned about Serra and his time.

The Mission(s) of Father Serra

This picture in the wilds of Baja California, one hundred years ago, is a pleasant, peaceful one to contemplate. We can see the little group of dusky natives squatting contentedly around their friar-friend, while floating skyward, through the stillness of the starlight rises a ‘tender song of the love of God'.
A.H. Fitch

When Junípero Serra, a Spanish monk of the powerful Franciscan order, traveled north from Mexico City to Baja California in 1768, he had the protection of Mexico’s colonial government in the form of soldiers under the military command of Don Gaspar de Portolá. This group established a series of Catholic missions guarded by soldiers along the California coast, beginning at San Diego and ending at the San Francisco bay in Alta California. These missions intended to convert the native "gentiles", as the padres called the Californians, into good Christian souls while also protecting Spanish territory from Russian encroachment (Fitch 1914: 57).
The area had been explored by Spaniards, but at the time that Serra and Portolá embarked on their journey there were no European settlements in Alta California. However, a number of indigenous tribes inhabited the region. Because of the primacy of missionaries in establishing contact with these groups, we have very little information about the pre-contact population and their practices that has not been filtered through a Franciscan friar. In giving an account of the natives in the area of the San Juan Capistrano mission, A.L. Kroeber, an early twentieth-century scholar of native Californians, relies on the work of one Father Geronimo Boscana, whose 1826 essay "Chinigchinich" is the earliest resource on pre-mission native life. Kroeber writes that, because of the sympathetic style and comprehensiveness, Boscana’s “account of the religion and social customs of the Juaneño is by far the most valuable document on the California Indians preserved from the pen of any of the Franciscan missionaries” (Kroeber 1976[1925]: 945).
Unfortunately, understanding accounts of the California natives form the exception, not the rule, of Franciscan writing on the subject (Fitch 1914: 34, 102). Of the natives of the region, Serra biographer A.H. Fitch says that, “this then was the object of their existence, to eat, to drink, to dance, to have wives in abundance. Such briefly were the savages, for whose sake Fray Junipero Serra had painfully journeyed long stretches of desert country” (1914: 127). Fitch characterizes the Californians as hedonistic folk worthy of contempt. This heightens the missionary “sacrifice” of Serra, and also reflects a belief in the basic inferiority of those natives that persisted into the twentieth century.
The Californians saw a new form of life descend upon them forcibly when missionization began. To start a mission one needed few things:
The business of founding a mission was usually a sufficiently simple one. It was enough that a padre should consecrate some sort of a shelter for a church, that he should be furnished with two or three sacred vessels and a small stock of provisions for himself and the soldiers who remained with him. Spiritual work was then at once begun. (Fitch 1914: 185)

The church was of course the most important part of the settlement. Relying on curiosity and the neophytes who had already joined the group to attract natives to their traveling party, the padres began saving souls right away. Fitch includes one interesting account of such a conversion from Serra’s own journal. After traveling for several days without blessing any “wild” Indians, the mission party spotted some gentiles.
“Two Gentiles were again visible on the same height, and our Indians—shrewder than yesterday, went to catch them with caution that they should not escape them. And although one fled from between their hands they caught the other. They tied him, and it was all necessary, for even bound he defended himself that they should not bring him and flung himself upon the ground with such violence that he scraped and bruised his thighs and knees. But at last they brought him. They set him before me” …After making the sign of the cross over him, Junípero untied him, still ‘most frightened and disturbed’ (Fitch 1914: 90).

By force the Californians were subject to the shock of Catholicization, though many came into mission life of their own accord. In order to retain the converts the padres immediately gave them food. It was expected that the natives would work in exchange for such support.

Fitch, A.H. Junipero Serra: The Man and His Work. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1914.
Kroeber, A.L. Handbook of the Indians of California. New York: Dover Publications, 1976.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Time Travel in South Los Angeles

A few weekends ago in Los Angeles, I rode the 210 bus down Crenshaw from Hancock Park to Leimert Park. I was on my way to facilitate a conversation on bike education in communities of color. This would be my first visit to Leimert Park in probably five years.

I took a seat in the third row back from the accessible seats facing each other up front. For the first little bit it was an uneventful ride. A small Latina woman got on with three little kids in tow, two boys and a girl. Two of the children bounced around happily before they chose the first two forward-facing seats, and their mother settled into the seat in front of me with the third kiddo. Other seats in the front of the bus had women of color sitting in them. A Black teenage boy took the seat across the aisle from me, his headphones on as he sprawled comfortably.

Then two Black men got on the bus at the same time, around Olympic I think. They weren't traveling together. The first man fumbled to pay his fare, looking anxious and holding a bulky object under one arm. He took a seat in the area up front. The second man announced himself loudly by starting a steady stream of vitriol that would not stop until he got off about thirty minutes later. He sat on the other side of the accessible area up front.

The best I could figure from his somewhat incoherent rage was that this man had worked for a fast food chain, and some complaint from a Latino co-worker had cost him his job. Maybe this happened very recently, or maybe this was an old grievance. He felt that it was a racially motivated attack, and he was letting us "Mexicans" on the bus know that he was not afraid of us, he was not going to take it from us. He knew where to find a gun, he let us know. "I love em, but I don't like em," he said over and over to sum up his feelings about Mexicans. Maybe this was a compromise between a Christian belief in loving all people and the anger he felt about losing his job. "I'm from Atlanta, Georgia, and no Mexican is going to scare me."

It's possible I was the only Mexican on that bus. The women and children around me could have been from El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines. There were no Latino men that I could see. It's also likely that the co-worker who had wronged this man had been a Central American immigrant. It's common for non-Latinos to assume that we're all "Mexican" or, as I hear where I currently live in DC, "Spanish."

As the man continued, he punctuated his frustrated ranting rhythmically with the repeated refrain of "now you know, now you know." The man across the aisle with the bulky package, who had been sitting quietly, suddenly started boxing the air. He mixed left and right hooks, bringing his fists close to his face between jabs. It seemed like the anger of the ranting man was upsetting an already troubled soul. I started to wonder if the boxer was going to punch through the window as his fists flashed close to it.

The mother in front of me gathered all three children with her into her seat, probably feeling safer having them behind the metal barrier of the seat in front of them. I don't know what these babies could understand in words, but no doubt they felt their mother's fear, the anger in this man's voice, and the energy in the fists displacing the air a few feet from their faces. I saw one little boy's eyes fixed on the ranter, wide and open. Maybe I was witnessing the birth of a traumatic memory.

My friend James Rojas facilitates tactile workshops that connect childhood experiences, both joyful and painful, with our adult preferences for public space. James wants to create a more inclusive urban planning process, one centered not in convenient assumptions but in complex lived realities. At one of James' workshops last September, I listened to men from both Central America and Burma describe hiding in the jungle from death squads. They smiled nervously as they explained what came out of their hands when they were asked to build a childhood memory using the countless objects James carries around the country in plastic tubs.

How would that wide-eyed little boy remember this day on the bus? Was I a coward for sitting still and witnessing rather than intervening?

The first intervention came from a Black woman behind us on the bus. She defended us "Mexicans" up front, saying we were hardworking people and there was nothing wrong with us. "You need to be angry with the white man," she proclaimed. "But you won't say that to him, because he'd kill you." There weren't any white people on the bus that I could see, though there could have been other half-breeds like me.

The ranter was not okay with this bold woman's intervention, and left the Mexicans aside for a while to belittle her.

As the yelling intensified, so did the air boxing.

Eventually the bold woman came down the aisle, while the bus was stopped at a red light, and it looked like it would come to blows. The bus driver asked the ranter to consider that his words were offensive to some people, but he did not kick him off the bus. Understandable, as bus drivers know they can be targets of violence.

At some point during this altercation the boxer jumped up and fled the bus. The bold woman also jumped off the bus exasperatedly, but as the ranter crowed what he considered his triumph, she changed her mind, re-boarding through the back door, advancing toward him and shouting. As their arguing grew more vicious, she did leave the bus for a final time. A new crowd of Black passengers streamed on, and the ranter thrilled at his larger audience. That was the most sickening moment for me.

I could see the Latina mother's relief when we made it to King Boulevard, and she grabbed the kids and hopped out the back door. I wonder what she said to them after they fled the bus. Did she explain in some dismissive way the man's upset? Did his behavior reinforce a stereotype she'd already held about Black people in this city?

The loss of a few "Mexicans" did not stop the flow of hate speech. A Black man who had boarded after the bold woman gave up attempted to pacify the ranter, using a calmer approach and asking him to respect himself enough to drop the angry words. It didn't work, and the pacifier retreated.

Finally the ranter got off the bus, and Black women who had boarded and seated themselves around me started clucking to each other about his bad behavior. "He needed some assistance," I contributed, "seemed like he was off his medication." I wanted them to confirm to me that this man was sick, not just speaking the truth others were too cowed to tell. The elderly Black woman in front of me said "I'd have grabbed onto this pole and kicked some sense into him," and that comforted me. The fog around me started to dissipate as we shared distaste for the unpleasant storm we'd weathered.

But when I got off the bus at Vernon in Leimert Park, I still felt dazed. I was an outsider in a Black neighborhood, having just been confronted with how hollow it sometimes is to talk about "communities of color" as a unified front in a world where people on the bottom have to claw each other for scraps. I got a compliment on my sharrow tattoo from a Black man riding a cruiser on the sidewalk, which made me feel a little less like an intruder. My tattoo is often an entry point for conversations with strangers in public. I had time for some lunch, so I made my way across the park, where an African dance class had gathered women in colorful garments, and found a food truck.

While I stood in a parking space and waited for my fish, two men approached me, one Black, one Latino. The Black man took my hand, kissed it, and called me an angel. "That is a LOT of affection," I said. "That's how I always am," he said as he sauntered off. The other man asked me about my tattoo, and asked whether it was okay for a police officer to have stopped him for riding on the sidewalk in Alhambra in East L.A. But he didn't really want to talk about bikes, he wanted to describe his loneliness. In a Chicano accent, he told me he was on methadone, having kicked heroin in jail. He had a medical marijuana card for harm reduction, whether his parole officer liked it or not. He had recognized a pattern where his sadness drove him to escape with the needle, he said, and he didn't want to fall in again. Around us in Leimert Park he saw people with families, people who weren't alone like him. He felt outside of it.

He had a rolling suitcase and beads of sweat on his face. A teardrop tattoo by his right eye. He understood, he said, why his family cut him off, with all of his relapses and criminal behavior. He didn't have nobody, and it was terrible, but he understood. He told me about an ex-girlfriend in Colorado, and I think I must have reminded him of her, because she was half Mexican and half white like me. He told me about how he didn't think he'd be welcome in Mexico, a pocho barely hispanohablante. I sipped my can of soda and listened to his feverish rambling, willing to be a smiling female face for a few minutes.

My food arrived on the truck's high shelf, and I parted ways with this man, Joseph, and went to look for a place to sit and eat. Once I was seated in the park, listening to the drums and watching the dancers, it occurred to me that I could have offered to buy him some food. Maybe that was a question on his mind when he first asked about my tattoo, and then he got too shy to let me know he was hungry. I don't know what methadone does to appetite. I looked around to see if he might want to share my fish.

I spotted Joseph across the street, which was closed to car traffic but too hot for anyone to occupy. He was avoiding the sun under the marquee of a theater, he'd set his things on a table there. It looked like a security guard was asking him to leave, and when I looked up again he was gone.

Maybe the little boy on the bus had grown into Joseph, burdened with invisible baggage much more unwieldy than the rolling suitcase which carried all his belongings during the day until he could return to the shelter at night. And one of his memories might be this day structured by the reality that the best job a Black man could get was working in fast food, and that if in-group racial belonging is all you have, you don't have room to care that you're frightening the children of another race as you vent your rage.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Loving The Coast And Destroying It: A California Conundrum

The little brick cottage my great-grandmother's second husband built in Corona Del Mar in the 1940s stood for decades up the street from CDM Main Beach in Orange County, California. The two queens of our family, Grandma and Great Grandma, reigned there through the early years of my childhood, offering a safe haven to their descendants, who all needed it from time to time. The family added a new wing to the back of the house in the early 1990s to expand its living space, but the matriarchs passed away soon after, Grandma in 1994 and Great Grandma in 1996. The house was then sold, this course of action having been laid out in their wills.

Tiny Adonia at Great Grandma's house.
It hurt when we lost the family seat. The financial compensation wasn't a replacement. But over the years, we reclaimed our sense of place on that block and on the beach at the end of the street. All of us spend time there, though we don't live in the town adjacent anymore. In late 2013, Great Grandma's house became an empty patch of dirt, and now a modernist box takes up most of the lot. This has been the fate of many homes in the area. The process goes: raze the modest bones of a cottage, manufacture some stucco palace or other, and flip it all to make a tidy profit.

When one of my cousins happened upon the patch of dirt and let the family know what he'd found, it hurt again, for some more than others. My sister put together a collage of family photos taken in front of the house with its distinctive brickwork, subtitled "the life of a well-loved house." I felt a sense of powerlessness, but when I went to the beach the next time after that and lay on the sand and closed my eyes, I heard the same buzz of planes overhead that I used to hear from Great Grandma's living room. The sidewalk on their street pushed the same roughness against my bare feet that it always had. The comfort we draw from places we made is sometimes separate from the emotional breaking and bonding that we subject ourselves to in our system where homes are commodities. One of those sources of comfort, in my life, has always been the beach.

In Southern California, we love the beach. That's something that I think gets missed oftentimes when we decry the greed that drives destructive industries in the region. We recklessly endanger coastal habitats and beauty by allowing offshore drilling, overdevelopment of fragile coastline, and today, short-sighted desalination plants that will have longterm effects. Because you don't have to be a progressive environmentalist to worship the beach. Members of mega-churches stage family portraits standing in the sand with their jeans rolled up and the family dog splashing in the waves. Central American evangelicals baptize each other en masse, robed in flowing garments and singing. Kids from Santa Ana whose parents can't afford to buy them bathing suits frolic in t-shirts and shorts. Surfers commune with the water early in the morning. We stand along the shoreline and gaze out as a pastime. It's a ritual in my family to pick up food from A's Burgers in Dana Point and drive out to the manmade island in the marina there, watching kayakers and dog walkers while we eat our dinner.

For a long time I've grappled with the car dependence that underpins the Good Life in the place I can't stop thinking of as home. I've always taken it for granted that people embrace their lifestyle's oil dependence, but with the fresh spill damaging life off the coast of Santa Barbara, I started to wonder. I doubt most people think much about oil, even when they're idling their engines in line at Costco to refill their gas tanks. I don't think people spend a lot of time worshipping the oil that powers their status machines, that fuels their arms race to get the biggest SUV so they can be voted "most likely to survive the games of swerve-n-speed on I-5." People don't have reproductions of paintings of oil rigs and oil slicks and oil spills hanging on their living room walls. What they have is pictures of the beach.

The fact that loving the beach is a normal fact of life there doesn't mean the coastline is safe. Sometimes it feels like the social contract in Southern California is
1) Live here because it's beautiful;
2) Ignore our role in degrading its beauty.
This is such an ingrained fact of life in the region that people will react on an emotional level when you ask them to use less or use differently. These are often good-hearted people who consider it correct to close their minds to the damaging effects our everyday use of resources can have on the places we love. That's why I cried as I read about the oil spill this week. The beach is not mine, really, anymore than Great Grandma's house was. Maybe one day I'll walk over and it will be another empty patch of dirt.

When I was home last year, I took some time to bike down PCH, enjoying the buffered space that had been created since the last time I'd explored the area. I stopped at a beach between Capistrano Beach and San Clemente, and I was horrified to find a huge number of spray paint cans and colorful plastic spheres from a ball pit washing back and forth, back and forth, tangled in seaweed at the water's edge. I grabbed a trash bag from a nearby can and filled it with as much of the toxic garbage as I could find. Then I rode away, slowly, hoping to find a cleaner stretch of sand.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

For the People Protesting in Baltimore's Streets

Below are my notes from a talk I gave through LiveMove and the Center for Latina/o and Latin American Studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene on Thursday, April 16. The paper I read is a work in progress, but I'm posting it unfinished in solidarity with the protests in Baltimore for Freddie Gray, who died because of police violence.

I'm going to speak today about what I've seen as a bicycle anthropologist, that there are many unofficial ways of inhabiting our shared streets, even as these streets are shaped by institutions of power and expert knowledge. To start, I want to define “urbanism” really broadly. I see it as diverse and plural, many sets of norms for how people should and shouldn't act when sharing and moving through public space. When seen this way, we can differentiate between “urbanism” as ways of being in shared public spaces and specific expert systems that prescribe how those spaces should be, such as “bicycle urbanism” or “urban planning.”

I got this distinction from planning scholar Bent Flyvbjerg. He distinguishes between individual experts and expert systems, arguing that, “the experts do not use rules but operate on the basis of detailed case-experience. This is real expertise. The rules for expert systems are formulated only because the systems require it; rules are characteristic of expert systems, but not of real human experts" (Flyvbjerg 2001: 85). The knowledge individuals gain from repeated experiences as they work informs their expertise, which is also shaped by the systems in which they structure the presentation and use of that expertise in codified ways. The point is that experts aren't objective; they form ideas, rather, from individual experiences that they feed back into shared expert systems.

This matters, because transforming individual experience into expertise is a powerful act. We all have urban experiences; are we all urban experts? No. People access resources based on their ability to demonstrate knowledge of policy and processes, through shared language and social networks.

As an example, let's look at opera. I've been learning about opera recently because my little sister is training to be an opera singer. In January, Vera visited me on the east coast and we went to New York City. We bought standing room tickets to see "Aida" at the Metropolitan Opera House. As we entered the splendid hall, we saw many people dressed up in their finest. Clearly a night at the opera is still a formal affair.

The curtain rose and the performance began. In front of each of us we had a little scrolling screen with translations of the words being sung. I didn't really know what to make of it. I could tell that the performers onstage had some mad skills, but I didn't know how to evaluate them. At the intermission, Vera excitedly explained a few of the distinctions that would be easy for me to grasp. I had a greater appreciation for the singing after that first break.

Think of urbanism as a plethora of musical genres, from classic rock to throat singing to opera. And then you have expert systems that train individuals to hear distinctions in some of those genres. When experts spend years learning to make sense to each other, adopting shared ideas of what's good and bad, a potential byproduct is transforming untrained voices into something that doesn't sound quite right.

As an alternative to expertise as objective knowledge, I use as an anthropological concept called “situated knowledge.” Donna Haraway defined situated knowledge as “embodied objectivity” (Haraway 1988: 581). It's a way to understand how our individual experiences come to seem objective; because they're what we know, we project them onto the world around us, and for some of us the world reflects back that we are correct. This is one aspect of privilege; when your experience matches the world you inhabit and others around you do the work of accommodating your normal.

As authoritative figures, experts have the power to place boundaries around what's relevant to a given problem and what's not. It is important to notice what an expert system takes for granted, and what has been cut off.

I've spent years studying and participating in the expert system of bicycle urbanism, and I'm interested in the way that advocacy-oriented bicycle enthusiasts identify themselves as an oppressed group who will benefit from street change but do not necessarily encompass other forms of oppression in their scope. I've found that the boundaries placed in bicycle urbanism sometimes make it difficult to show the relevance of other social realities to street activity. The agreed-upon causal relationship between built environment design and how people get around tends to overlook those individuals who do not or cannot comply with the city’s normative demands. These other bicycle users exist even in hostile streets designed without them in mind.

To me, this has shown that where we connect street activity to other areas, such as environmentalism or poverty, is culturally conditioned. Do we see streets as a Metropolitan Opera House, where only certain movements are deemed worthy of performance? The expectation that we'd only pay attention to certain kinds of street abuse when people who use streets are often oppressed in so many other ways shows that in bicycle urbanism certain situated knowledges give shape to the expert system.

What are the other styles for using public spaces that currently don't fit into an expert system? Think about protest as an illustration of how street action relates to other areas, as outrage spills into streets, the place I've heard some bicycle urbanists claim does not relate to racism, classism, and other forms of oppression.

There have been a lot of street protests since last summer, when Black Americans wouldn't take the silencing of their experience of police violence anymore. I don't know if any of you have been out in the street in one of these protests, but they are often much quieter than they're portrayed on TV. What gets portrayed in media is calculated to stoke fears of what a protest could become: a riot. I want to explore what a riot is a little bit, how this antithesis of "livability" has something to say about urban life.

So we're going to visit what was on the radio when I was in high school in Southern California in the late 1990s, Sublime's “April 29, 1992.” It's a song that lists the ways in which a riot offers the promise of fulfilling needs people have been denied the right to have.

April 26, 1992
There was a riot on the streets, tell me where were you?
You were sitting home watching your TV
While I was participating in some anarchy

First spot we hit, it was my liquor store
I finally got all that alcohol I can't afford
Red lights flashing, time to retire
And then we turned that liquor store into a structure fire

Next stop we hit, it was the music shop
It only took one brick to make that window drop
Finally we got our own PA
Where do you think I got this guitar that you're hearing today?

When we returned to the pad to unload everything
It dawned on me that I need new home furnishings
So once again we filled the van until it was full
Since that day my living room's been much more comfortable

Cause everybody in the hood has had it up to here
It's getting harder and harder and harder each and every year
Some kids went in a store with their mother
I saw her when she came out, she was getting some Pampers

They said it was for the Black man
They said it was for the Mexican
And not for the white man
But if you look at the streets
It wasn't about Rodney King
It's this fucked up situation and these fucked up police

It's about coming up
And staying on top
And screaming 1-8-7 on a motherfucking cop
It's not in the paper, it's on the wall
National Guard
Smoke from all around

A guitar to express yourself; liquor to lighten the mood; diapers to keep a baby clean; furniture for a gathering space. In the song, all of these reasonable material goods are the fruits of the riot, which symbolizes fear, disorder, and chaos. The play of the song is to suggest that riots are productive for some people. I'm not endorsing riots; what I'm pointing out is the song's message that there are hurts in this world that make riots seem better than the current order. The riot is pressure exploding outward, people screaming because they can't fit their lives into the system in which they've been told they must survive. You can hear this when you go to a protest, when people shout together in the street. Can you imagine people shouting in the Met?

The riot is not so different from street life; it's just an extreme of street chaos. Our streets are already chaotic, because the world is not just. In bicycle urbanism there's a pervasive idea that the biggest insecurity we face is in interacting with hostile motorists. This denies the struggles that some people who use bicycles today face in many other areas. Housing insecurity. Food insecurity. Water insecurity. Job insecurity. These are global problems. And the streets are the place where the pressure escapes, a melting pot where hierarchies can be overturned. An unemployed Black man can drive a fancy car and assert his humanity; a woman driver can cut pedestrians off, attentive only to her own needs at least in this space. Streets are riotous everyday.

What if we started defining what to include in an expert system through paying attention to all the ways people disrupt and reproduce hierarchy in the street?

The singer for Sublime, Bradley Nowell, was a white man who grew up in a wealthy community on the edge of Los Angeles County. There are important questions we could ask about Nowell's fitness to speak for people participating in the L.A. Riots, or the Civil Unrest as it is called in L.A. activist circles. The song doesn't even get the date right, and there are plenty of other poetic interpretations of the unrest from artists who are people of color. I don't know Nowell's intentions with the song. He had died of a heroin overdose before the song was released in July 1996. I'm not really interested in whether he rioted or not; what I'm interested in here is his role as an outsider, an observer, and a mouthpiece for the anger and pain (and yes, fun too) spewing out through violence during that week. What I'm interested in his decision to document marginal realities he saw in Southern California. More than anything, I see Nowell as a flâneur.

Flânerie is a French word for urban wandering and observation. It is a mode of keen openness to the vibrating life of the city. To learn more, Simon Sadler's book The Situationist City is a great starting point. You can also look at the work of Walter Benjamin.

In my work, flânerie is a central method. I've based my findings about bicycling on ethnographic wandering on a bicycle. I see myself producing situated knowledge about streets through recognizing the situated knowledge of all street users as they move around and express what they see as street rights and street wrongs. There are many different perspectives, habits, and values co-present in shared public spaces. They're not all respectable.

The urban observer is not confined to noticing what's respectable. She sees through her own eyes and can be deeply affected by what is going on around her, even when it's unclear where the lines should fall between right and wrong; there's a lot of sympathy in Nowell's words.

Sometimes what urban observers find are ugly truths that the current status quo would rather ignore. This is what the line “it's not in the paper, it's on the wall” says to me. Realities that exist without recognition overflow into daylight at some point. I have tried to harness the visceral feeling of vulnerability on a bicycle as a way to observe negative experiences as well as more pleasurable ones. It's made me unsure that we already know how to fix our street problems, because there aren't necessarily readymade solutions for improving situations we haven't invested in understanding.

A good starting point is opening our eyes to more forms of life in the street. This isn't a rejection of infrastructure or design; it is a call for further study of the diversity of street habits before making authoritative claims about how people should behave. Why must they change? According to whose standards? What is lost and what is gained, and by whom? Who defines the problems and who defines the solutions? Prescribing urban change can be done in more and less respectful ways, in tandem with struggling communities or in assuming things about them, cause we don't all define urban problems the same way.

Anthropologists Rachel Breunlin and Helen Regis found an example of this in studying a once-segregated housing project in New Orleans. They documented how residents of the neighborhood saw the place as having positive aspects, which were overlooked by outsiders and city officials interested in razing it. What would it look like for those residents to decide how their neighborhood should be viewed? Interviewing a man named Troy Materre, they found that,
Although his trips were within the confines of the social and physical segregation of New Orleans, his telling of them recenters the black experience—young people in Desire did not necessarily believe their lives were marginal. And contrary to dominant assumptions, even young people without cars had considerable mobility in the city. Troy’s comment—“maybe they was cut off”—challenges liberal notions that black people are somehow deficient if they are not among white people. In this statement, Troy proposes a revisionist view of segregation: Through their own social practices and restricted spatial mobility, white people denied themselves access to Desire. (Breunlin and Regis 2006:751)
The destitute also have an urbanism, though they may not have the resources and expert languages to create positive representations of their norms. As an expert observer, I see the city from my own mobile position, and I also recognize as fellow travelers the people who inhabit other urbanisms, other livabilities. In cultural anthropology we take it for granted that people follow differing logics, and I have found that to support sustainable culture change we must take the time to respect and understand them. Instead of speaking for or on behalf of the voiceless, we can use our expert status to let them start the tune, and then we harmonize, we find through a shared chorus a new song none of us knew before. We can be in respectful solidarity with realities we may not live ourselves, but it takes letting go of the idea that the way we see things is the right way forward. That can be easier said than done.

I know from my experience as a bike user where the urgency in bicycle urbanism comes from. I know it starts with the surge of adrenaline and fear we get when motorists rev engines at us or honk. I know it is fed by the horrible pain of losing loved ones to street violence, and fears about climate disasters. But we need to learn how to situate ourselves and see the security we have in other areas that allows street security to be the biggest thing on our minds. Without that awareness, we uphold an expert system that is calibrated to serve certain groups' needs, when the population of bicycle users is really quite diverse.

We are in an exciting moment right now where people across the country, from all racialized backgrounds, are organizing together to shed light on more realities of racial profiling in policing. I'm not involved in criminal justice work, but what I see playing out in street rallies and protests is the surfacing of more truths, truths that had been pushed down because they are unpleasant and come from a marginalized group.

So for those of us interested in urbanisms and urban planning, let's take note: when are the expert systems that explain and manage urbanisms about transforming the city into a Metropolitan Opera House where only certain trained voices perform? And when are these expert systems modes for observing all the styles out there that people are performing, singing their pain and their joys out in the street? Let's challenge the idea that people need to learn our rules in order for us to pay attention to what they have to say.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Street Pain

In the summer of 2013, I was living in SE Portland on the corner of 32nd and Stark, a popular street for biking. One night a friend and I were inside watching a movie when a sickening crunch outside grabbed our attention. I felt a surge of panic and looked fearfully out of the window. It turned out we had heard a car colliding with a person on a bicycle. The bicyclist lay on the ground in the street a few feet from my building, his blood splattered over the broken windshield of the truck. Other people had already gathered, so there was nothing I could do to help. After an ambulance arrived and carried him away his blood left a stain on the street that remained for as long as I lived there.

Last night around sunset, I had just returned to my home in Northeast D.C. after biking to the grocery store. As I pulled into my alley, I saw some kids playing around, one of them lying on the ground. I thought to myself, that's not a good place to lie down, but I didn't say anything. I feel like enough of an outsider in this neighborhood without running around and telling kids how I think they should behave.

It was warm out, with just a touch of humidity to foreshadow summer. I opened the windows in my second floor apartment, and the kids I'd seen in the alley were hooting as they played. I could hear the sound of cars passing a little too quickly down our quiet street, as they often do. This is a town where people drive as fast as possible, I guess it makes them feel powerful. This is a town where feeling powerful is important.

And then the sounds outside changed. A screech and a thud punctuated the cries of fun and turned them into cries of fear. I didn't want to believe that it was happening again. The surge of panic returned, and I started saying "oh God no" over and over as I made my way to the bathroom window. I looked out and saw people gathered around someone lying in the gutter. It was one of the kids who'd been playing in the alley. A white sedan was parked in the middle of the road with the driver's door open. "Don't touch him, don't touch him!" an adult barked at the kids surrounding their friend. I saw the prone figure move his arms, apparently conscious, thank God.

I couldn't do anything to help, but I felt like I had to go wait outside until the ambulance arrived. People came from surrounding blocks to join the quietly waiting circle around the boy. I stood in my backyard, apart from them, remaining an outsider to this neighborhood where I represent the cure D.C. has chosen for poverty: rising rents.

I want to be part of a street safety conversation where this little boy matters as a whole person. What are the stresses his parents face as they try to survive in this city? Is he going to be scolded for darting into the street, while the lady who hit him with her car maintains her sense that driving is the best way to get around? What do these street traumas mean for marginalized communities that know all too well the powerlessness of pain?

I don't want to witness any more hurt in the road, but far too much of the "safety" work I see happening would cut off lives beyond the street. The insecurity that a Black family in D.C. faces goes far beyond the danger of a soccer ball rolling in front of a car. It's time to start bearing witness to the other ways in which communities are drowning. We are not going to break the back on driving by villainizing drivers, when driving matters so much to economic and social status.

Who cares about that little boy more: me, the bike anthropologist looking out from the second story window, or the woman who hit him who waited by his side?