The Sidewalk Ballet
A glimpse of Jane Jacobs beatific vision of the streets
I recently watched the documentary Citizen Jane thanks to my local library. The citizen in question was Jane Jacobs, a pioneer of the New Urbanism movement, a community activist, and a writer. She died in 2006 in Toronto, but not before making her mark in New York City, Toronto, and other old-growth cities.
Jane Jacobs is probably an obscure figure for most. I had heard mentions of her name in the Kneeling Bus newsletter and Eric O. Jacobsen’s Three Pieces of Glass, but I was’t familiar with her work. Before having any intention of reading her more closely, I experienced what she calls “the ballet of the good city sidewalk.”
It was sublime.
I went to get some take-out from a nearby restaurant, which was part of a new pandemic routine to try and buoy neighbourhood businesses. This was shortly before Montreal’s second COVID-19 lockdown, around the end of September 2020. On my way, I passed an unusual number of people. No one was gathered for anything in particular, instead, there seemed to be a lot individual activity happening in concert.
A group of three chatted on a street corner. A man with a small dog stopped in his car yelled to someone entering a small apartment. A couple walked with a stroller and toddler across the street from where I walked, thinking mostly about the Vietnamese food I’d be eating soon.
I arrived at the restaurant just as the order was getting packed. “Matt?” The masked owner asked, and I replied “Yes, sir!” Previously I’ve been called Max and Marc because I’m often misunderstood when I speak French on the phone, but this little thing — getting my name right, having learned it — felt special. Not in a big way. It was a small but special thing. I paid, told him the food smelled great, and reentered the activity of the sunset street.
At this point, I sensed something was up. The task before me—bringing take-out home—was so ordinary, so easy to categorize as an inconvenience (despite being a convenience option vis-a-vis cooking). Yet, since then, I’ve longed to have a similar experience. It was as if I was sharing in something. I was participating in the action of something like a festival, activities that were conspicuously absent from Montreal in 2020. Alert now, I continued home along a slightly different route than I had come. I was eager to see what else my little “coin du quartier” had in store for me.
Heading south from Rachel Ave., I encountered another movement in the dusky dance of local life. At a quiet four-corner intersection I passed several kids playing in the street. They kicked a ball around and one, referred-like even in the absence of rules, circled the smaller kids on a glowing hover-board. Across from them, someone entered a dépanneur, ringing its door-mounted bell. Above the dep, a woman hung out the second-storey window. She spoke loudly to a man with his dog on the sidewalk below—I cannot say what the nature of their relationship was. I passed through, a participant by my mere presence. To someone observing, perhaps the woman in the window, I must’ve added something to the scene. Carrying take-out on foot places me in the neighbourhood. It may be I called to mind someone’s favourite restaurant. Perhaps I reminded watching eyes behind a curtain that sidewalks aren’t just a place to dump trash and park cars beside.
Whatever anyone else thought, I knew I was part of something special, just for a moment. Unremarkable, maybe, because of how novel distractions have displaced common pleasures in our FOMO culture, but the walk my attention nonetheless.
Here’s how Jane Jacobs describes what I participated in that warm September evening.
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.
She goes on to describe the movements of the ballet throughout the day, which you can read here.
What Jacobs describes is, of course, not happening during pandemic lockdowns. But what I saw, what I briefly danced through, was a vision of functioning city sidewalks—living neighbourhoods. What made me most sad is that this ballet was something I rarely experienced pre-pandemic. My habits are deeply formed by the ease of unwinding in front of streaming video. I’m deeply biased towards seeing my neighbours and neighbourhood as obstacles at worse and inconsequential at best because why wouldn’t I? The services of a good neighbourhood can be delivered to my door, after all, and I’m spoilt for digital choice.
But that’s not really what we want, it seems. It’s the lifestyle we’re sold by those who have to gain from it, the lifestyle of powerful people whose neighbourhood is nowhere, whose playground is the wide world itself.
A smaller, more limited vision of common life is not only possible, it’s preferable. A friend in Winnipeg described for me another scene, adapted for COVID-19 but normally a regular occurrence. His next-door neighbours organized a socially-distanced block party where one neighbour’s band played, and everyone on the street was invited to enjoy the show from their lawns. “It was great,” he said, and I imagine he was telling the truth. Another friend in Montreal had similar things to say about the presence of neighbours tobogganing at a local hill. Are Instagram concerts more valuable? They’re easier, certainly. The local action above required existing relationships to have already been woven; it required prior investment. Digital community scales nicely because its rootless, which is also why it so often fails to satisfy.
You can read more about the promise of neighbourhoods life (and the perils threatening it) in the Good Words series A New Day for The Neighbourhood.
Want to help? You can spread good words by sharing this post with a friend or support the work by subscribing (there's a free option). It's also possible to buy me a beer ?