Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Eyes on the Street

Dateline: 9:59 am March 17, 2008 Filed under:

Perhaps the most frequently referenced term from “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by the late Jane Jacobs is the notion of “eyes on the street.” To refresh your memory, she evokes the idea in her chapter on sidewalks and safety. She says there must be a clear demarcation between public and private space, there must be eyes on the street, and sidewalks must have fairly continuous foot traffic.

A couple weeks ago, while renting a fabulous victorian flat in San Francisco, I was reminded of Jacobs’s writings firsthand, particularly when some shady characters were loitering on the sidewalk just outside our front door. May I add that while eyes on the street are important, those eyes must be willing to act to reduce crime and make cities more livable.

We arrrived at our flat and immediately noticed the two guys sitting low in a parked car across the street. We didn’t think much of it and ventured out on a walk around the city. We were staying in a beautiful home in the classic San Francisco “painted lady” style, three blocks south of Alamo Square and steps off Haight Street. The area was a really nice mix of homes and businesses. It felt neither too gentrified nor unsafe.

Upon returning to our flat, just after dark, these two guys had been joined by a couple others, including a car that was parked in front of our garage spot depite the “no parking” sign. So yes, they were breaking the law by parking there. We walked past them without any trouble, but were a little concerned since they were right outside the door at the bottom of the stoop. We called the owner of the property, who happened to live upstairs. She said occasionally people hang out there and it shouldn’t be a problem. But she also called the police to have them drive by and tell the guys to leave. Eventually they did, but that wasn’t the end of it.

The next day they were back, again parked in our driveway, illegally. On our way to walk to a nearby restaurant for dinner, my brother-in-law asked them to move their car. Just as he did an irate neighbor from across the street came over and accused them of bringing down her property value (a lovely $3 million painted lady) and making her people look bad (she was black – so were they). Obviously the neighbor, as well as our landlord, were familiar with these guys. They made up some sort of excuse about the owner of the car being unavailable, which made us think he was in jail. We walked down the street and one of the guys followed us and tried to explain further the situation to my brother-in-law. I didn’t pay much attention and walked ahead, taking note of an unmarked squad car driving by. By the time we got to the next street to wait for the light to change, the guy that followed us was already ahead of us on the sidewalk across the street. Just then the same squad car pulled up and arrested him. Aha! For what, I don’t know, but it sure wasn’t for being illegally parked!

What now? Well, I like my cities a little gritty but will admit a certain squeamishness to unsavory characters, particularly when I am greeted by them in a new neighborhood. I may nave never noticed, except they were hanging out right outside our door, and certainly weren’t door-to-door salesmen, though it seems they very well were selling something….The point is, we all have to deal with this if we care about our cities and our property, and the owners of these beautiful San Francisco homes certainly deserve to keep their neighborhood livable.

I contacted the owner after we returned home to Minneapolis and she informed me that she has contacted several of her nearby neighbors to keep closer watch on things in the area. The good thing is there certainly are eyes on the street, as, like Jane Jacobs would like, there is almost continual foot traffic in this wonderful, dense urban neighborhood. I wish her well.

The key is the same for this neighborhood, my neighborhood or any neighborhood. Neighbors must get to know each other, watch out for each other, cultivate a friendly relationship with their local police precinct, and keep those eyes on the street.

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.