Recently, I started working on an outline for a radio spot that will air on WMNF, 88.5, Tampa about “Sidewalks as a Civil Rights Issue.” The radio spot will discuss the pedestrian life in St. Petersburg, Florida and how it effects people with disabilities. I will interview a friend in a wheelchair and talk about issues related to blindness as I personally experience them. The story will not include my friends who have lost their right to drive due to some legal infraction as I cover disability issues, not drunkenness and stupidity.
I have lived in and spent a lot of time in US cities where the pedestrian life makes those of us who do not drive feel like first class citizens. New York, especially Manhattan, affords the pedestrian the greatest access in this country and probably in the world. With all of its right angles, well kept concrete sidewalks and slow traffic patterns, Manhattan welcomes pedestrians, people in wheelchairs and blinks with guide dogs with open arms. Add the excellent New York subway and bus systems and car free in Manhattan has benefits that outweigh the difficulties and expense of owning an automobile in the Big Apple.
After Manhattan, Metropolitan Boston (including Cambridge, Somerville and Brookline) and San Francisco probably tie for second best. Both of these major city areas have a common problem: they have a strong fixation with the visual appearance of some of their neighborhoods and, to keep property values high, they have torn up perfectly good concrete slab sidewalks and replaced them with brick. On the concrete pathways, one needs to look out for one edge or another heaving up to create a potential obstacle, something a well trained guide dog will notice and nothing too high for most wheelchairs to hop over. Brick sidewalks, while decorative, over time form highly irregular patterns and at virtually any point on one’s path, one might find a recess filled with water or ice, a few bricks heaving up or any number of other defects on a pedestrian can trip or a wheelchair can have trouble.
With the bricks aside, though, both Metro Boston and San Francisco provide a tremendous level of pedestrian friendliness. When I lived in Harvard Square, I could walk to a huge number of places and by subway or bus; I could get almost every place in the metropolitan area. Blind Friends who live in San Francisco describe a similar level of access but, one in particular, takes taxies out of laziness as he chooses to avoid walking up the steep hills. I don’t know how Frisco serves people in wheelchairs but I guess the hills must cause problems.
Most every other American city has neighborhoods which provide good pedestrian access and large portions that do not. Many of these cities divide themselves into pedestrian friendly cantons that one cannot get to from any of the others as major highways and high speed streets make leaving one’s territory very difficult. In these places, I think of the old New England phrase, “You can’t get there from here.”
St. Petersburg has a pedestrian friendly downtown but gets less friendly as one gets further from the downtown business district. Some people claim that St. Petersburg is designed on a grid system. In a way, there is a grid with avenues running east to west and streets from north to south. A real grid, like Manhattan, though, has very few missing pieces. In St. Petersburg, one might walk south on eighth street (where I live) and find themselves at the corner of 30th Ave. If they want to continue south on eighth street, they must walk approximately one half block east and then cross 30th and find the connecting portion of eighth street. If you continue east on 30th Ave, you will find a 7th Ave and a 5th and 4th – where is 6th? No one seems able to remember what happened to it. Disappearing streets, avenues and portions thereof happen all over this city so “grid” really means, “maze with mostly right angles.”
Sidewalks in this city start and stop randomly. On my street, the sidewalk starts in front of my house and runs to the front of the house due north of us. Oddly, neither of these houses sits on a corner. We have a sidewalk segment in the middle of the block that serves no useful purpose as a pedestrian or person in a wheelchair needs to go into the street to get anywhere other than my house and that of my neighbor. Other whole blocks will have no sidewalk, others will have a sidewalk that starts at the corner, goes a half block and then stops. The St. Petersburg City Counsel doesn’t see this as a problem.
As few home owners in St. Petersburg also use the sidewalks, pedestrians are a rare breed in this town, they will often allow hedges and tree limbs hang over the sidewalk for decorative purposes. My guide dog is pretty good at alerting me to head high obstacles but, in some cases, the growth crosses the entire sidewalk and I need to duck down quite a bit to fit underneath. This morning, as X-celerator and I took our exercise walk, I had a bag of poop in my hand. As I passed one of these overgrown spots, I contemplated tying the bag of poop to the overhanging limb. I figured that if I had to risk having my face scratched, they should have to discard my dog’s poop. This would be using poop as a political statement and, if I remember correctly; such uses of doodoo are protected by the first amendment.
The poop issue raises another problem with the mostly suburban cities of modern America. While some neighborhoods have sidewalks, they rarely have public trash receptacles. Thus, those of us who have guide dogs who may need to relieve themselves from time to time who considerately pick up poop in a plastic bag have no where to drop the baggies. Finding a garbage can in a stranger’s yard is nearly impossible but the auto mechanics down the street from me always offer to take the bag if they see me walking with a bag of crap. This morning, I had to walk for about ten blocks with a bag of poop in my right hand and my dog’s harness in the other. When I crossed a street and waved to a motorist who paused for X-celerator and I to cross, I waved with a bag of shit in my hand. What sort of message does this send? How does one appropriately accessorize for a bag of dog poop to be a becoming fashion statement?
Needless to say, St. Petersburg is neither pedestrian nor wheelchair friendly. The radio piece will point to specific problems and, hopefully, we can interject a little humor.