My sister is an athlete. She is also a Black teenager living in a townhouse complex. Not the kind where well-to-do young people pay condo fees, but the kind where the kitchen counters are laminate and the property manager doesn’t answer his phone. It is April 2020; parks, gyms, and indoor sports facilities are closed. We do not have a backyard. My sister has to make do running on the sidewalk, the only public space left. It, too, is policed.
Her teammate, a white boy, trains at closed outdoor track facilities at Resurrection High School, despite having a backyard. The police drive by and wave at him. No warning, no fine. He’s just a kid, they think.
I envy the ease with which whiteness moves through the world.
As the roads get wider and the neighbourhoods turn inwards towards the edge of town, there is more space for people who already have space. I notice it more now that everything is closed. From my bedroom, I can peer into the window of my neighbours a couple of meters away. Their kids are stacked on top of one another doing homework in their bunk beds. Outside, there are a few school-yards, and the community trail running along the graffiti-lined Henry Sturm Waterway. For those living in the suburbs where everyone has a picket fenced yard, there are arenas, and soccer fields, tennis courts and hockey rinks. If it is not within walking distance, it is within driving distance.
Just pop the trunk and let the hockey gear spill out.
Some have always known, and others are just waking up to the contested reality of the places which are supposed to belong to all of us. As a Black woman, I am always aware of how other people perceive me, in my body, in public. Not everyone gets equal access to public space. The boundaries between private and public are unclear. For some people more than others, but for everyone during this pandemic, it takes courage to exist in public.
I first became aware of these differences in how we move through space in middle school. At Queensmount Public School, many kids from Activa and Williamsburg are bused in, but kids from my neighbourhood walk. At this school, we no longer had to sell chocolate bars to fundraise for gym equipment. The bus kids asked me, “What neighbourhood are you from?” and I didn’t even know the name. We don’t have it engraved in stone as you cruise into our streets.
For many of us in Victoria Hills, the closing of the few public spaces that we have is so difficult because we cannot pay to replace the services which they provide us. So many are single parents who rely on schools and neighbours and community centers for childcare. So many are refugees and immigrants living with multiple generations in a house with one toilet. So many of us study in school cafeterias and at the public library.
Many workers in my neighbourhood have had their underpaid jobs in retail rebranded as frontline work. They deserve the newfound appreciation and respect, but they also deserve a wage that reflects the cost of living in this city in a pandemic. Those running small businesses along Highland Road deserve appreciation for providing affordable household products and groceries when things are sold out at the big-box stores – a service central to the health of working-class areas. When we applaud independence and community in Kitchener, we focus on the health food stores and startups downtown while overlooking Dollar Mart or Oma Fresh Foods. In these stores, no sideways looks at your locs or head covering, just getting your things in peace.
At a time where life is hard for everyone, it is not okay for white people to snitch on us. Snitching is a word that I learned early on when I moved to this neighbourhood. It means to cooperate with authorities over something that could be handled within the community. It comes from Black culture, where it originally referenced cooperation with the police. In encouraging neighbours to tell on one another, the safety of racialized, working class people gets compromised. If the kids of the single mother working at the grocery store play outside while she’s at work? If a son comes to help his elderly parents with their car and they stand catching up as the now-fixed car idles? If someone with a mental illness has a panic attack because they cannot see our masked faces? We should mind our damn business. Calling snitch lines endangers fragile social ties and vulnerable members of our communities. Some things might play out in public, but they are private.
Those who call these lines overlook the nuances of such a difficult situation. Here in Victoria Hills, race and class collide in ways which are interesting and dark and funny – but never simple. People here move often, as they finally save up enough for that house in the ’burbs, or one morning their things are by the trash as life didn’t go quite right, so we don’t all know one another. My faith in my neighbours is not more than my general faith in humanity. But I choose to believe that most people are doing their best.
Living so close to my neighbours, I get to hear their music, their children crying, I smell their food and their laundry, and I experience the seasons of their lives in a secondary way. Normally around this time of year, when I wake up in the middle of the night, there is music and laughter and the smell of spices drifting out the windows of my Muslim neighbours who celebrate Ramadan. Now there is silence, as people choose not to gather in person. Instead, over the next few months, even when Ramadan is over, I see people at the halal grocery store making extra donations to the Food Bank. In the silence of it all, there is still solidarity.
I may not know my neighbours very well, but they are close in my heart.
Parks, sidewalks, roads, sports and community centers, plazas: how can we rethink them so that they serve all of us and make our communities more whole? We now have patios for every restaurant, people experiencing homelessness are being housed, and new bike lanes have been temporarily installed on some of the busiest roads in town. Why did this have to take so long? Taking back public space has also manifested itself in our city’s parks, where now the O:se Kenhionhata:tie Land Back Camp is reminding us that this land, “public” or not, does not belong to us. The stewards of this land are its Indigenous peoples, and thus, if we intend to celebrate public space, we must also deliver justice to its guardians.
As someone who identifies as an immigrant, I am still struggling to understand my place in connection to this land and its Indigenous peoples. I have been protected and granted citizenship by the settler-colonial government, and I am grateful to share in the abundance of this land. But the forces that oppress the Indigenous peoples of this land are the same forces which are responsible for my arrival here in the first place.
I am trying to chart a course where I build a relationship of gratitude with this land and all its peoples while working to dismantle the systems which brought me here and which continue to plague my now-home. As the pandemic continues to deepen and reveal systemic inequity, I hope we push back, taking back more space, both literal and metaphorical, for this work.
For many members of racialized communities, the home is not the most important setting in our lives. Unlike those who have the privilege of spacious private realms, our lives play out in public, on the basketball court at the park, or in the church rec room or the high school cafeteria. All the world’s a stage, and we will cast ourselves in leading roles. This is my friends from high school staying after the bell rings, heads bent over textbooks on the worn tables of our windowless school library. It is chatting for hours on a park bench after work and then taking the bus home when the sun gets too low. It sounds like protest in the streets with strangers who will shout your rights when your voice gets hoarse. Our homes cannot contain the depth of our ambitions and the breadth of our extended families. Here is to public space; I will see you there when we can gather safely.