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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Eyes on the Street Seek Voice

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scratchiti glow
photo by mbeachy

It was once self-evident that “eyes on the street” in dense urban neighbourhoods would lower crime and vandalism because they belonged to concerned citizens who were prepared to intervene when things got unruly.  Yet, while downtown Montreal is not short of eyes, and while some people will brave a call to 911 if they witness a full-out brawl or break-in, many of us are unwilling to speak up in other, less urgent instances when a simple word could be enough to curb bad behaviour.

Is it because tolerance has been lauded as the greatest virtue in our society that people hesitate to intervene?

I have watched a child deliberately pound the glass out of a car window with a rock, and tolerated this behaviour. I have seen a woman place her laptop on the seat of a 105 bus during rush-hour, while fifty people stood crammed aboard and the driver left passengers behind at the bus stop, and every single one of us tolerated it.

Why, I wonder, in times like these, do I feel the compulsion to mind my own business?

If I had a living grandmother, I would ask her the appropriate way to discipline a stranger’s child on the street, but I do not, and I have been hardpressed to find role models in this matter. Still, I’ve tried to forge ahead in baby steps.

This summer, I biked by a drunk woman in the Concordia ghetto who was yelling at a group of students, “go back to your country,” and I mumbled,  “hey, cut that out,” though I doubt anyone heard.

Then, last week, I saw a young man scrawl a tag in black marker in the back of a bus. Without thinking, I tapped him on the knee to get his attention and told him not to.  I’m not sure which one of us was shocked more by this reflex.

“I don’t talk to strangers!” he said defensively, clearly unsettled by this unbidden contact.

“Well then why are you writing on other people’s stuff?” I asked,  forced at last to find my voice.

“The bus belongs to the City. The City sucks,” he retorted.

I don’t know whether it was just your typical teenager’s distrust of authority, or whether he came to this conclusion from reading newspaper headlines, or through a more personal experience (working in high schools in the Sud-Ouest, I’ve heard enough stories of black teenagers being harrassed and ticketed for innocent infractions like loitering at the metro station or hanging in parks after hours).

None-the-less, I argued back: “the City sucks because they don’t have the money to do any better. It won’t help if they have to pay to clean up stuff like this.”

But as we pulled into the metro station, he and his friend defiantly threw up two more tags, and what could I possibly say to that?

Do you have any words of wisdom that have worked in instances like these? Can you, perhaps, ask your grandparents on my behalf?



  1. Thanks for this post.

    You are really brave. The fact that the teenagers didn’t stop is not your fault. Maybe next time you could give them your phone number and set up a date to show them the aspects of the city that do not suck and how they can unsuck the rest :) (I was going to suggest that you take pictures of them, but then I realized that wouldn’t help at all, and I came up with the awesome “date” idea)

    I haven’t seen anyone tagging, stealing or being very racist, but I have told litterbugs to pick up their stuff. This is usually followed by the stranger freezing in shock (as if this was the weirdest thing that had ever happened to them), and myself picking up the litter, giving it back to them or throwing it in the can (I then run to a bathroom and wash my hands, but that’s not as important). I have a particular hate towards litterbugs in flat floored places (like the metro) since the time I saw a pregnant woman almost falling down because of a receipt on the floor in a Vancouver mall. Earlier this year the COBP advertised their anti-police brutality march by placing pamphlets all around the floor of Place Des Arts Metro station. I picked them all up.

    The thing to remember is that for every person who’s willing to destroy stuff in our city, there are dozens of us who would do the opposite with enough motivation. That motivation may easily come from watching someone else do the right thing.

    Of course, building is much harder than destroying, but that’s exactly what makes it more interesting :)

  2. Howdy!

    I do it lots. Sometimes just staring blatantly at someone will also work. But you’d be amazed at how many people feel extremely threatened by it. Unfortunately, my biggest problem comes from being a guy and sometimes not being able to dial down the aggressiveness, or perception of aggressiveness.

  3. As I’m saying today on my blog, I think the reason many people withdraw from confronting such people is simple embarrassment, not so much of what the lout will think as of what any third parties witnessing the scene will think. After all, it can look slightly loony to suddenly address a stranger and tell them to knock it off with the antisocial activity, even if you’re fully in the right.

  4. I would not stand by and watch a young kid break a car window with a rock. I would show how aghast I am and say loudly: “Stop that!” I have been known to start screaming as someone was about to saw down a tree. I assume there are agreed-upon rules in society and a prevailing sense of civility, and some (young) people do not yet know about them or want to transgress them for some reason. So I act as a member of society and say “We don’t like that!” or my favourite, “That is not right!” That way I am not acting entirely on my own behalf. Any other suggestions?

  5. Great article!

    I can remember at least 20 occasions in past 10 years when I reacted to similar or different situations by calling the police – if I’m correct that is what they recommend to avoid the conflict. But, what bugs me most is, in other 20 occasions, my neighbors, people around me, did nothing when I decided NOT to call the police in the same or similar situations. That is a case especially when public property or business were vandalized or repeated disturbance by our other neighbors was present.

    Today, everyone has some kind of camera and video evidence does miracles :-). Not sure if police has it but they should have some web site available where evidence can be uploaded – videos or photos.

    I have to admit, I feel uncomfortable to call the police, I wait in some situations for hours to do so, giving a chance, but I do it. Not sure if they have me in their black book for to many calls :-) but they do respond as soon as they have available patrol car. If they need cooperation they ask and give you option not to – and most important, they respect your anonymity and are very professional.

    For me, on one occasion, when I told someone directly, I was send “back on the boat” and since then I prefer if people whose grandfathers came off the boat handle the situations – police :-)

  6. I share my commute with a number of high school students. For the most part they are all well behaved. Unfortunately I regularly tell them to take their feet off the seat; they all comply sometimes with a dirty look. No one usually backs me up, until today.

    My first request was met with some resistance. As the bus emptied his feet were back on the seat, Second request, ignored again a request and when he asked why, another passenger told him it was part of being a good citizen. His feet came off the seat.

    I also stop kids and asked them to tie their shoes.

    Whatever people think, it still takes a village to raise a child.

  7. It’s one thing to throw a comment at someone younger. But often enough, someone older then yourself need to be reminded that it is not because he/she doesn’t care if her dog ruins the parks’ flower that the whole city think the same. We talk of teenagers, but many babyboomers seem to think that their behavior IS the definition of what is ok or not. That can include littering, letting their dog pooh everywhere and not picking up, even saying offensive things or better, peeing against a wall in the back street! (offenders of the latest are always way above 18, by the way) I think those guys should also be reminded of civility. Maybe some teenagers could do that. But at the bottom of it all, i think we all need the courage to stand up for what is right and take the responsabilities that comes with taking position. “Qui ne dit rien consent” I think it is possible to speak up without being condescending. Yet, maybe sometime not. Are we too concerned to hurt the offender’s feeling? I sometime am.

  8. This is good: It takes a village to raise a child. I agree that “Qui ne dit rien consent”. Well said: we all need the courage to stand up for what is right and take the responsability for taking a position. And to speak up without being condescending.

  9. Obviously context is everything. A frequent situation where I rarely intervene (but often consider it) is when I see people drinking from bottles or bringing dogs into a neighbouring school yard. I went to yell at them – “Hey – would you like it if I shit/drank in your yard? There are kids who play here – show some respect!”

    On the other hand, I frequently do tell drivers (particularly tourists) that it is illegal to turn right on red in Montreal. This can often lead to aggressive responses, but I always stand my ground. One time some guy threatened to run me over (with my kids!) as he did a rolling right on red. Then he had the gall to say that I was putting my kids life in danger by crossing the street! I put my kids on the corner and went back to block his way. I refused to move until he listened to what I had to say. He thought I wanted to attack him or claim that he had hit me (which he almost did). He said that he was going to call the police, and just then a police car passed by. I called the policed over to explain to this yahoo prick that he can’t roll through intersections in Montreal. When I crossed the street, someone who had witnessed the entire scene thanked me profusely for standing up for pedestrian rights.

  10. I think this is a hugely important question – eyes on the street will only help in a society where we are not afriad to speak up to protect the common good, enforce good social behaviour.

    I find I’m usually far to timid to speak up – though people’s behaviour warrents someone speaking up. I’m very annoyed by my own timidity, but I worry about confrontation turning bad, to be honest. Example: I watched a friend politely suggest to a man on the bus that he move back so people coulc get on and it turned out the dude was high on something and he freaked and started yelling/screaming at my friend. No one said anything & we just go off to avoid the situation. I sometimes see men relieving themselves against office buildings when I’m waking home on a Saturday night and that one makes me furious (there are public washrooms nearby), but I’m scared to say anything because I don’t want to start something with large, drunk men. I wish I had more guts – my fears are probably largely unfounded.

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