It is sadly telling of the state of advanced neoliberal capitalism that on my winter walk to work I always favour the private side of the street to the public.
But I should explain.
I live in Markham, Ontario, an unashamedly suburban town. One of those places notoriously designed for cars and not people. It is a place of sprawl, and not of the type of cyberpunk conurbation visioned by Gibson—his Sprawl being stark but, most notably, a place of people, of foot traffic, of endless city but
also somehow vibrant, alive, peopled—but rather that other kind; yes, stark, but also desolate, stretched out, etiolated, drained somehow of the vital essence of what makes a city a City.
As a person without a car and lodged within the realities of precarious labour, neoliberal academia, and personal reasons for sticking close to the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), my commute to work is a long affair involving a 20 minute hike to the main transit route, followed by about 3 hours of various busses through a fair few cities until I get to my place of employment. A long commute, certainly, but that’s not the frustrating part.
The frustrating part is the 20 minute walk.
In winter, the paucity of public snow removal, of gritting and salting the ice that so often forms, means that those 20 minutes (and sometimes 30) are a constantly frustrating and harrowing experience. Since the modern, North American suburb is designed for cars and not people there are few sidewalks, and those that are there are not prioritized.
But I make due. Like de Certeau, I make use of pathways and folkways. I cut through church parking lots and, more often than not, use the (paved) road rather than the (unpaved) sidewalk. But one thing in particular has been bugging me, and is the reason for this post.
In my making do I noticed a pattern. It’s a particularity of the main road that makes up the majority of my route that it is oddly divided: the east side of the street is almost all privately owned (a row of town houses, a business complex, a small park, and a condo) and the other side is all public (a highschool, a theatre, and Markham’s city hall). The reason for my griping is that over the two winters I have regularly trudged this route it is almost idiomatic that the private-adjacent sidewalk is always ploughed, salted and gritted (and early on), while the public-adjacent sidewalk is rarely, if ever, fully managed. The fact that the most ill-kept area is the walk beside the city hall fills me with rage. This should be the heart of the civil—it should be accessible, not sheathed in ice!
It frustrates me to no end that to get grip under my feet I need to choose the private option. That to have sure footing I cleave to the condos whose private managers bring out an army of shovelers in the wee hours of the morning and an embarrassment of equipment and materia to humanize the ways for their owner-citizens and to prevent damages from litigation. Like frustrated parents in an underserved school distract, the lure if the private option rings so strong due to the continual erosion of the public. And it continues to erode under neoliberalism because of this faulty assumption that the private will step in and take up the slack. Which, to some extent it does, but only insomuch as is it serves a capitalist interest. Which is why on the private side of the street the way is clear around the condo and business complex, but the park in between them becomes a wasteland of neglected drifts. And why the private bus service I take drastically cuts service in the summer, and on weekends, because there is less profit to be had. And why the same private provider is building infrastructure in the form of a useful Bus Rapid Transit corridor along the highway, but bars the regional public busses from using it. Neoliberalism creeps, and living in this sprawl zone makes me feel like I’m living in Stephenson’s Snowcrash, where a crosshatching of corporate-states intercut the nation- and network-states we already inhabit and are increasingly privatizing citizenship and making it impossible to live life in the urban without an array of membership cards that grant you access to the services that should be part and parcel of public provision.