Sidewalk Stories: Sites of Encounter and Coexistence

AuthorShauna Van Praagh
Chapter 7
Sidewalk Stories: Sites of Encounter and
Shauna Van Praagh
A. Introduction: The Sidewalk Moment
Imagine a sidewalk in a major cosmopolitan Canadian city. As
you walk along, with your list of errands in hand, you see some-
one heading towards you. You do not know the person, you know
nothing of where she comes from or where she is going, and she
does not know you. You step to the right, as does she, and you
pass each other — having avoided eye contact and collision. You
have shared the sidewalk, you have acknowledged each other,
you have followed well-known norms of conduct, and nothing
about your purpose, direction, or trajectory has been affected by
the moment of encounter. This is coexistence in the absence of
conlict, controversy, or even conversation.
We have all had sidewalk moments like this. And yet, of
course, some sidewalk moments do not share these simple
characteristics. Sometimes we do indeed notice each other in
more detail, perhaps assisted by a particularly curious and out-
spoken child. Sometimes we both move in the same direction at
the same time, and are forced into an awkward readjustment in
order to avoid bumping into each other. Perhaps it is an encoun-
ter of two runners in a city park who share a “good morning” as
they move past each other. Perhaps it is a sidewalk moment in
a city or neighbourhood you do not know, turned into a lesson
on local customary behaviour. Perhaps the other person signals,
Shauna Van Praagh
implicitly or explicitly, a preference that you walk in the road
   
dress, or her iPod-created obliviousness, or her inability to control
her dog on a leash. In all of these examples, there is more than
silent coexistence. The risks of collision and competition for the
space are present; so are the potential promises of conversation
and concern.
Confronted by the range of possible sidewalk encounters and
their particular dynamics — shaped by the identities of the side-
walk users, the nature and norms of the neighbourhood, and the
character of the sidewalk itself — we might imagine various ways
to govern the coexistence of sidewalk users. We might focus on
    
ways to communicate or teach norms of conduct such that con-
troversy is avoided. We might also observe the encounters and
collect stories in order to construct a narrative or conversation
surrounding sidewalk moments.
These possible responses, and the models of governance they
       
declare a winner — or at least to provide a process such that the
declaration in any particular case is accepted. Charters or codes
are obvious structures for grounding the principles relevant to
cesses and policies emphasize the need for effective forums and
tools for anticipating and resolving competition.
These are all sites that typically provide the kind of “frame-
work” referred to in the name of the 2010 policy dialogue or-
ganized by the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the York
Centre for Public Policy and Law. In the search for a template
       
rights claims, we might hope to adopt a particular set of interpre-

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