A friend of mine was arrested March 15th. She was walking on the side of a road in downtown Akron, right before a St. Patrick's Day parade holding a puppet (with the help of two friends). A policeman angrily told her to get out of the road, even though there weren't any cars. No cars that could run into or be hit by the puppet (being run by her and two others). He threatened to arrest her, indifferent that the road was closed down for the specific purpose of having people walk on it with funny costumes, floats, and, yes, puppets. Then he did arrest her (and would have likely arrested the other puppeteers and myself if more police had been around).
Later that evening, I went for a quiet walk alone. I walked on a road that doesn't have any houses, businesses, or anything else of note. Since there's very little car traffic at night, I casually crossed the road at my leisure, even walking on it for a good distance (since one of the stretches of sidewalk is really crappy). It was a stark contrast to the day's earlier events when tons of police were breathing down everyone's neck. They tried to micromanage and control everyone's movements, making sure that only certain people were on the road at certain times for certain purposes with certain types of permission.
These two experiences (which I seem to have frequently nowadays) illustrate the very real, yet invisible lines all around us. One space of earth is fine to stand on (public property), but often for only specific purposes. Other spots on the earth's surface are not so free-- you can't goto a shopping mall (private property) and do or say whatever you want. In a city, you have to cross the road at certain places, which is actually the only right a pedestrian has in relation to a road. You sure as hell can't stand in a road, or walk in a road, and heaven forbid you attempt to reclaim a road as public space.
Who hasn't stood on an abandoned road in the dead of night? Or been in a parade, or been to a block party, or been in a protest with (or without) a marching permit? Doesn't the road look weird when you're standing on it, instead of driving on it? Suddenly, a road can begin to take on different meanings-- it becomes a place that has other potentials beyond being a mere conduit to get people from Point A to Point B as fast as mechanically possible.
At what point in American history did roads become cars only? I'm not sure, but I figure it was something that happened slowly, as the automobile crept slowly into our lives, taking over the meanings and values we apply to our surroundings. We need to work overtime at our jobs to earn money for our car payments, and we own our cars in order to drive to our jobs. (What a reckless cycle!) But, there used to be horses, buggies, bicycles, tricycles, and pedestrians on the roads. There used to be streetcars, trollies, and good mass transit, too. We've let the automobile define who we are, what we do, where we can go, where we have to work, and how we interact with our surroundings.
This phenomenon is important since our public space is dominated by vehicles that are very private. How can people publicly engage each other when they are sealed in cars? Whether during traffic jams or normal flow, drivers are still all alone, all by themselves. There is nothing public about being in a car. Car culture has taken hostage our sense of community and funneled the American Dream through the grotesque filter of suburban separatism, oil gluttony, and urban sprawl.
Of course, I don't think that there should be no rules and that chaos should dominate the roads, but why should we force nearly every bit of public space to be a road? What's wrong with closing down dozens of roads in cities that are superfluous, and turn them into public space (or at least car-free roads)? Why not build parks, benches, town squares, plazas, fountains, plant trees and flowers, put-up artwork, etc. We need more public space, because cars have taken over our public space.
Philosopher Hakim Bey coined the phrase Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZs), which are places able to escape the restrictions of the State, patriarchy, capitalism, and other oppressive institutions and ideologies, and become (even if only momentarily) pockets of freedom, autonomous from authority. He says they exist all over the world (in both physical and mental space), that they occupy land or thoughts in a guerrilla fashion, and can last seconds or years.
TAZs could be a stepping-stone to envisioning a better future. Although they likely don't last forever, they have two benefits-- to serve present needs and to inspire future possibilities. Things like block parties, Reclaim The Streets parties, protests, Critical Mass bike rides, street theater, parades (of the most festive and flamboyant nature), blockades, anti-authoritarian urban soccer matches, etc. all give us a taste of what a world might look like with more public spaces. How would society differ if there were massive common areas, where people could see each other, exchange ideas openly, act out or be reclusive, wander around or stand still, and not have to be told to move along by a policeman? Places that we can be free of fear of being hit by cars driving at 40 mph, places where we can ride bikes, skateboard, rollerblade, play hacky-sack or frisbee, lounge around, take naps, meet random people, eat our lunches, hold rallies and teach-ins, have easy access to our homes and workplaces, meet for drinks, and feel free to use a patch of land for whatever sustainable function our hearts personally and collectively desire.
For many people, art looks best when it is neat and orderly, when the colors don't bleed together, and things are very well defined and separated. But, in truth, humans can only bear so much of this compartmentalization: we need to be able to blur boundaries. Ambiguity is what makes life interesting, creative, and pleasurable. To redraw lines, redefine what those lines mean, and even to erase the lines that suit no purpose except to diminish our creativity and spirit... this is the task that we should strive to accomplish! Sometimes these lines are barriers that need to be stepped over; they thrive in our hearts, our minds, and in our feet. My friend knew that not all lines are bad. But what about the rest of us? How can we know what those lines are really for until we cross them?