I recently made a big mistake. That’s not a surprising admission, since I make big mistakes all the time. Just last weekend I was driving the wrong way on a one-way street, for one thing. Those kinds of mistakes I can handle, since I am only human. The mistake that I need to confess is one of language, a rather unforgivable mistake.
It happened on a mailing list where we discuss politics in my home of Saint Paul. There are great plans in the works to transform our city into something it once was and could be again – a city alive with outdoor activity and people who get around on foot and public transportation. The details as to how we will achieve this are very much up in the air, and I’ve written about one very expensive plan to install a rail system.
During the course of this discussion, I re-iterated my central point that a rail system is part of a pedestrian “realm” that is distinct from the world of whizzing automobiles. The basic call is for a tramway that travels along the sidewalk rather than on a fast-track down the middle of the street. I’ve seen the trams run this way in Vienna, among other places, and it’s the only way to create a pedestrian friendly street.
What I didn’t realize until I had made my arguments is exactly how negative the word “street” has become. Consider for a moment “street smarts” or “street cred”, both generally abbreviated “street”. Why do you need it? Because streets are dangerous places, of course. You have to be tough. The streets are places for people who know how to look out for danger.
When walking down a street, you are a “pedestrian”. That has another meaning which you are more likely to run into, meaning “common”. To call for a more “pedestrian friendly” city is to call for a more common or low-brow city, one where people are left without cars and have to fend for themselves among the hurly-burly.
I made the mistake of using “pedestrian” causally in my call to bring more people onto the streets in an honest way. But in doing so, I made the classic middle-class mistake of not knowing how my language would be perceived by the reader. To go back to my theory of writing, the relationship between my readers and me was disjointed because we did not have a common frame of reference. I was talking past them. My argument was not effective as a result.
That’s a pretty serious mistake for someone who gets into this writing stuff far too much. It shows that either I’m a terrible hypocrite when it comes to these issues or that we can all make that kind of mistake. I’m going with the latter for now, but call me on it if you think otherwise.
What matters most to me is getting my point across. I don’t really care if people think I’m an arrogant jerk as long as my ideas somehow make it into their head. My writing exists to serve the ideas that I think are worthy of discussion, no matter how unusual they seem at first. In this case, the language has to follow an understanding of how far removed from daily life my ideas are. Streets have, in many ways, become bad places.
How did we get to the point where the nuances of our language make it difficult for me to argue that our traditional arrangement needs to be restored? Sadly, it happens all the time. In this case, I’ve spent a lot of time digesting complicated public policy statements and kewl architecture pretty pictures of how things could be that I started using their language without realizing it. I joined one world, and left the other. To make those plans real, however, we have to bridge that divide, and the first step in crafting that bridge is understanding the width and depth of the divide we have to cross.
It’s a mistake I won’t make again, but I’m sure I’ll make another. For the time being, I am fascinated by the idea that “street” has become associated with something even less than the scuttle-butt heard on the street – it’s associated with something common at best and dangerous at worst. Those of us who want to have an active street life need to understand this. Simply using the language we have isn’t always enough, at least when the meanings have devolved into something very different as the culture changed from feet to cars.