The street is not often thought of as an institution. It is something we walk and drive along, or that chickens cross. Yet a famous sociological text is called, with only mild irony, Street Corner Society, and we speak of ‘street-wise’ kids. It is at least a definite social milieu, with particular social relations.
A good deal of work goes on in the street. Jobs that concern children, like pushing them around in strollers, are almost all done by women. So is most shopping and most prostitution. Selling of newspapers, food and other small objects is mixed. Driving cars, trucks and buses, petty crime and policing, repairing vehicles and the street itself are mainly done by men. Though women have been working as bus drivers more often, heavy trucks are still a masculine speciality.
The street is the setting for much intimidation of women, from low-level harassment like wolf-whistling to physical manhandling and rape. Since it is not always predictable when the escalation will stop, in many parts of the city women rarely walk, especially after dark. The street then is a zone of occupation by men. Concentrations of young adult men are the most intimidating and dangerous.
Such concentrations are commonest in areas where there is high unemployment and ethnic exclusion to go with it, like Brixton in London, Redfern in Sydney, the South Side in Chicago. Contests of daring, talk about sport and cars, drugs (mainly alcohol) and sexism provide entertainment in a bleak environment. Women generally avoid this; but since there are no women’s streets and few welcoming public buildings, the effective alternative is the home: ‘A woman’s place..In outer suburbs this effect is not as strong, but threat still occurs.
The young men who offer this threat are also subject to it. The street is a scene of intermittent but routine conflict between different groups, which the media call ‘gangs’, and between them and the police. It is in fact young men who are the main victims of street violence, not elderly people, though the elderly are kept in a chronic state of fear about it. The police are the Great Power in street life, though in a few cases like the Watts insurrection of August 1965 in Los Angeles they may vanish as an authority. The reserve power of the state is still great enough to ‘restore order’ by military means if the political leadership is willing to pay the price, as in Belfast.
In some ways the street is a battleground; in others it is a theatre. In an urban shopping centre the street is full of advertising displays: shop windows, billboards, posters. Their content is heavily sex-typed and has become more heavily eroticized over recent decades. Some particularly crude appeals to masculine violence, like the London poster in 1984 showing a car fired from a pistol and captioned ‘The trigger is under your right foot’, have been forced off the street. But the cigarette and beer ads continue in the same merry way.
The pavement is equally full of displays, though more varied. People convey messages about themselves by dress, jewellery, posture, movement, speech. The street is one of the great theatres of sexuality and styles of masculinity and femininity. A bus queue or shopping crowd will show a wide range of styles and manners, some extroverted and attention-seeking, some dowdy or uncaring. During the cycle of a day or week the dominant styles turn over as the population changes: shift-workers, commuting business men, shopping mothers, after-school teenagers, late-night lads hanging out.
The street as a milieu thus shows the same structures of gender relations as the family and state. It has a division of labour, a structure of power and a structure of cathexis. Similarly the local patterning of these relationships is linked to the structure of gender relations outside. As Emma Goldman observed, women working the street as prostitutes are not in it for the fun; they are there because women’s wages are low. ‘Opportunist submission’ (the phrase is Jan Morris’s) to patriarchy may be obligatory, given the different resources that people bring to it. Gay relationships are rarely displayed on the street outside tightly defined areas; it could be very dangerous to do so.
At the same time there is something specific to a loosely structured milieu like a street that distinguishes it from deeply sedimented institutions like family and state. It gives room not only to diversity but also to quick turnover of styles. The theatre of the street may be experimental theatre. A recent example is young women appropriating and making-over an aggressive style of sexuality, in punk fashions with a good deal of black and leather about them. Something of a negotiation goes on about new forms in gender. There are even attempts to turn this into a conscious political practice, through feminist street theatre or events like the gay Mardi Gras in Sydney. I suspect the dominance of the car now prevents any full-blown new development of the street as festival. But it is still an extremely interesting register of sexual politics.