In Transit: "My Right to the City"

Harper Ladd

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How does urban design contribute to the preying on of bodies? How could one feel safe in the male-owned night and city? Ladd grapples with these questions with respect to Montreal's Plateau neighborhood in "My Right to the City", at once bringing to light the structures of oppression and reclaiming a voice too-often set aside and silenced.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.” - David Harvey

 

Oh, St. Laurent. It’s a bleating cold Sunday morning, and families are all about. They are walking to breakfast on the very same path that hordes of intoxicated university students stumbled down the night before. I veer a little bit to the left to avoid a pile of frozen vomit.
            Without bothering to find a crosswalk, I cross the street to the other side where a certain black door with a singular step is perfect for sitting, congregating, preying.
            On a balmy September night about a year and a half ago, I was fresh to the city and walking home from a bar with two other female friends. Far up St. Laurent, it was quiet and lonely. We walked past that very door where a pack of four men sat. One, obviously emboldened by drink, jumped out in front of us, spreading his arms wide. He swayed and giggled as he blocked us from going any further. 
            “Ok, ok. I’m gonna guess where each of you are from, and then you can go.”
            Like an idiot, I looked to his friends, expecting them to intervene. They only laughed and shoved each other. What a fun game. 
            One by one, he guessed (incorrectly), and let each girl pass like he was some sort of toll booth operator. I was last and shaking slightly. He was wrong, whatever. I stepped to pass him, but his arms stayed extended. 
            “You have to give me a kiss.”
            Jeers arose from the men sitting behind him. I declined, but he insisted again. I knew that there was no way in hell I would kiss this guy, so I blew past him. It was only an arm after all.


            But I was punished for this act of physical defiance. Before I could get away, he slapped my ass, hard. It was as much an act of violence as it was a sexual gesture. As we ran down the street I flipped him off and yelled “Fuck you!” 
            In immediate retrospect, I was shocked at my own boldness and stupidity. No matter how justified I was, I knew it had been unwise to yell at him. He could’ve gotten angrier and chased after me, who knows? I left the interaction feeling overarchingly lucky that it did not escalate further rather than upset at the violation that had occurred. 
            Life in the city means thinking this way. The rules are not fair, but that doesn’t matter because the consequences are serious. But why? What made that man feel like he had a right to my body greater than my own? What made that man feel like he had a right to that sidewalk, this city, greater than my own?

 

“Nighttime is still always a man’s world. Men own the night, and that’s not gonna change.”
            I interviewed Sarah Moser, an Urban Studies Professor at McGill University about sexism in urban design. The Burnside building is a foreboding structure of concrete, yet Moser’s office is a welcoming space bathed in natural light. It has the same brutalist bones as the rest of the building, but I can tell that she’s put time into making this office her own from the extra furniture and personal pictures on her desk. Even though we’re discussing something so unpleasant and personal, I’m remarkably comfortable.
            Moser even shares the experience of being stalked.
            “At night, suddenly the creeps come out and it's a very gendered experience. I don’t know how you improve that. It’s these violent men that think they’re entitled to women’s bodies.”
            Throughout our discussion, I was amazed at how well her statements aligned with the questions I had asked myself. Being female-presenting in an urban space is a universal experience.
            This is life in the city. What if it didn’t have to be?
            When I asked her what a non-sexist city would look like, Moser emphasised the importance of foot traffic. 
            “Having more eyes on the street really helps women feel safer.” 
            “Eyes on the street” is a reference to the Jane Jacobs theory that has come to have a significant influence within urban studies. Jacobs argued that having people out on the street interacting with one another created a safer social environment. Her theory makes intuitive sense: knowing you are being watched enforces a social contract permitting a certain set of behaviours. 

 

On the street, a girl around my age walks by me, by the black door. She looks kind. We make brief eye contact and I offer a shy half-smile; she gives one back. I’d like to think that if she were in trouble I’d help her. I’d like to think that if someone else had been there that September night they would’ve helped me. Or, more likely, if someone had been there that September night, especially a man, we would’ve been left alone.
            I have spent many a night strutting down the lower, busier part of St. Laurent, and I’ve noted to my friends how I always feel incredibly watched. They feel the same way. One warm April night I was wearing an especially revealing top. As I walked past building after building of blaring music and long lines, I could feel the eyes on me. I could feel the wet, slobbering eyes of men. I understood that I was entertainment as they smoked and waited to be let into whatever club they were outside of. I also understood that we were all being watched by bouncers, the muscular, black-shirt-clad enforcers of social contracts. I understood that I was surrounded by such a volume of strangers that hopefully one might intervene if anything went too far. So, I felt safe. Ogled, but physically safe.
            The core of St. Laurent revolves around its intersection with Sherbrooke, which is now far behind me. Bars and clubs scatter out from this centre, becoming sparser as St. Laurent spears its way into the Plateau. The Plateau is a quiet residential area; people are going home here.
            I’m now standing about three minutes further up on Duluth and St. Laurent. It feels almost like an entryway to the Plateau. The street is not lined with bars that are open late but with artsy shops. A hair salon filled with plants and glimmering trinkets, a coffee shop that looks like it would charge $8 for a small latte.
            Fewer bars in any given area means that fewer people are standing outside seeing you, seeing anyone who might want to harm you when it is late at night. Most predators don’t want a fight. They want silence and complicity and the lowest number of eyes on their breaches of social contract. The layout of St. Laurent provides this cover. It fails to put up a fight. It drags Montreal's drunkest to a concentrated strip and then fails to put eyes on their actions past a certain point. 
            After I had been assaulted by that man, the one thing I was focused on was getting home, getting somewhere where I could be safe and alone. Luckily, I lived on Sherbrooke at the time, a bright and noisy street. A walk home through the increasingly silent, blind, dark neighbourhood of the Plateau would’ve been much more unsettling, but I would’ve had to do it. The nearest metro station is about a 12-minute walk away. Even though the Montreal metro seems spaced in an organised and logical way, it is inadequate. 
            Although it has never been discussed in terms of safety, there is governmental acknowledgement of this inadequacy. The current Mayor of Montreal, Valerie Plante, proposed a new metro line in October 2017. The line is somewhat gendered due to its name, the “Pink line.” Perhaps Plante chose this colour because of her status as a female mayor, but gender has never explicitly been mentioned in rhetoric surrounding the hypothetical Pink line. It was proposed to run from the heart of Montreal to the North and include many stations that are closer to various parts of St. Laurent and the Plateau than currently exist. These new stations could provide a quicker, safer way home both for people in the Plateau and for people that live far away from St. Laurent. It would likely also increase foot traffic around these areas. 
            The Pink line has faced a great deal of opposition. The Autorité Régional de Transport Métropolitain (ARTM), an organisation responsible for planning public transit in Montreal, failed to provide funding for Plante’s proposal despite plans for public transit investments of $28-36 billion. Opposition leader Lionel Perez even called the Pink line project “dead” in 2021, and he might be right. The first projections claimed that construction of the Pink Line would begin in 2021 and end in 2028, yet no construction has begun. As of August 2023, Plante hasn’t provided updates on the status of the Pink line since late 2021.

 

Dr. Moser and I are very different people. She is a well-travelled, published Doctor of Geography. I am sitting across from her, an undergraduate fumbling through a degree and who hadn’t left the country until attending McGill. Yet, the urban processes Dr. Moser is describing affect both of us the same.
            “You know, you hold your keys like cat claws. Everyone does this. It’s so weird how guys don’t know that we all do this. We all do this.”
            I know exactly what she’s talking about, I’ve done it before. We both have similar stories and similar knowledge, all on the basis of our presented gender. Cities are inherently gendered.
            This is because, Dr. Moser tells me, “Public space in North America used to be so much more male-dominated. It was a more gender-segregated society. Women were staying home more with kids, there wasn’t access to birth control, more traditional gender roles were the norm. When women entered public space, it was male space by definition.”
            Although the problems women now experience in cities mean that society is less gender-segregated, these problems also indicate that public urban environments were built by men for men. 

The frigid air slices my lungs. I’ve turned back and am walking towards the steps again. I think about how the people that created this street, its alleys, and surrounding neighbourhoods could not fathom that I would be here in the way that I am: in jeans, in university, with an IUD, unchaperoned, looking, hungry, for the world.
            Like many cities in North America, the urban planning of Montreal emerged as a response to overcrowding from the Industrial Revolution. Concerns for poor housing conditions were often tied up with moral judgements. Slums were often portrayed as breeding grounds for sexual immorality. I imagine that if you tried to explain the concept of Café Campus to de Casson, the original creator of Blvd. St. Laurent, he’d probably have a conniption and die on the spot. I imagine that if you took Edward and William Maxwell, the brothers who designed the first urban plans for Montreal, on a walk down St. Laurent at 12 am on a Saturday, they’d faint upon seeing an Aritzia crop-top and how much skin it exposes. 
            The people who designed our cities were fundamentally, irrevocably, out of touch with what we now need from the streets, the buildings, the unfathomable metro stations. Although this isn’t their fault, it is a reality that needs to be reckoned with. None of Montreal’s planners set out to make an urban environment that was hostile for female-presenting people, but things do not have to be intentional to be harmful. They only have to be permissive. Sexism in urban design, just like many other forms of bigotry, survives not on assertions, but on assumptions made by those in power. Assumptions that clubs can’t be arranged in a harmful way. Assumptions that a 10-minute walk is fine, that a new metro line is unnecessary and frivolous. Blind spots are deadly. 
            I don’t think that urban design is the only cause of, or cure for, sexism. I do, however, think that it can disrupt the confidence and comfort of perpetrators of gender-based violence, and through its continual failure to do so it emboldens them instead. Urban design therefore has the ability and responsibility to stop this. 
            I’m back at the black door, right where he was, protected only by time. I stand there and stretch big and wide. Adults know not to pay me any attention, but children are staring at me. I don’t care, though. In this moment, that curb is mine, St. Laurent is mine. It feels good.  
            It’s time to build a city that reminds men they cannot have me. It’s time to build a city that reflects my right to it. 

Works Cited

Anctil, Pierre. Boulevard Saint-Laurent : Lieu Des Possibles - Érudit.

Harvey, David. “‘The Right to the City.’” The City Reader, 2020, pp. 281–289.

Hayden, Dolores. “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 5, no. S3, 1980.

Jeanne M. Wolfe and Peter Jacobs, “The Architecture of Edward & W.S. Maxwell: City Planning and Urban Beautification”, https://cac.mcgill.ca/maxwells/essay/06.htm.

Scott, Marian. “Plante Hails Transit Studies; Opposition Says Pink Line Project Is Dead.” The Montreal Gazette, https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/pink-line-dead-in-water-opposition-says-as-plante-unveils-studies.

Montpetit, Johnathan. “Projet Montréal's Pink Line: Pipe Dream or Election Game-Changer?” CBC, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/projet-montr%C3%A9al-s-pink-line-pipe-dream-or-election-game-changer-1.4351876.

“Sexism and the City: How Urban Planning Has Failed Women.” The Conversation, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324580240_Sexism_and_the_city_how_urban_planning_has_failed_women.

Vanden Berg, Marguerite. “The Discursive Uses of Jane Jacobs for the Genderfying City: Understanding the Productions of Space for Post-Fordist Gender Notions.” Urban Studies, vol. 55, no. 4, 2016, pp.751–766.

Harper Ladd (any pronouns) is a student and cultural/ecological journalist based in Tiohtià:ke. In their free time, they enjoy wandering the city and seeing where they happen to end up.

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Additional reading

Sicilian Blue

Age of the Machine

Beyond Control