Eating sandwiches and selling sex in the street: Offending whose sensibilities?

Activities deemed improper for public space: I’ve published on them several times in Spanish because the trend to formally prohibit particular behaviours is strong across Spain, where selling and buying sex are usually on the list. This is interesting to those who follow ideological debates about prostitution law – which law best ‘controls prostitution’, as the expression usually goes. Such general laws are largely ineffective anyway (ask me for an academic article on that).

Prohibited activities from the other day’s list – see wonderful pictures are expanded today to include some Italian cities’ prohibitions. Planning policies that favour more regulation of public urban behaviours are frequently described as gentrification, by which middle-class ways of behaving are favoured. Thus drinking seated at an outdoor cafe is seen as all right, but drinking out of a can or cup while standing in the street nearby is not. Indoor activities are clearly favoured, especially when you have to pay to be inside. The behaviours to be prohibited are also often identified as coming from ‘outsiders’, not authentic local natives who know how to live properly. Activities mentioned in news stories like those below mix ways of living with commercial activities.

  • eating sandwiches while walking in the streets
  • eating sandwiches in public
  • eating a hamburger in a piazza
  • wielding sponges on street corners
  • gypsy camps
  • rowdy nightlife
  • arrogant behaviour towards motorists
  • public drug-taking and drinking
  • getting drunk
  • sleeping outdoors
  • going shirtless
  • washing animals in public fountains
  • smoking in playgrounds
  • begging
  • having sex in cars
  • selling pirated cds
  • gathering to mix and imbibe drinks
  • helping drivers find parking spaces
  • bathing in public fountains
  • sleeping on public benches
  • general thuggery
  • selling sex
  • stopping cars near prostitutes
  • littering
  • Some similar occupations are tolerated: rose peddlers to couples in bars, street musicians who aren’t very good, folkoric performers for bored queue-waiters, vendors of umbrellas when it starts to rain. The tolerance suggests that prohibitions are whimsical.  Notice also that some behaviours similar to the ones that get proscribed are idenfied as okay. Residents of Clinton Hill in Brooklyn described changes when mostly black and family residents were replaced by whites to Lance Freeman. The older residents liked to barbecue in the park, whereas the new residents like to sit and get tans or walk their dogs. Newer residents object to cigarette smoke in the street, children riding bikes and scooters and young men congregating for no particular purpose. Freeman said ‘You have on the one hand the more romantic view of public space as a place where people can come together unfettered unrestrained, compared with the view of public space as a place of ordered, controlled recreation. Gentrification is typically associated with the latter, as a place where space is controlled and privatized, with less opportunity for random interaction.’

    Don’t miss the photographs from the other day of prohibited activities.

    Here are excerpts from two Italian stories:

    Roadside window-washers threatened with jail

    Stephen Brown, 29 August 2007, Reuters

    Rome: Illegal immigrants in Italy earning a few coins by washing windscreens at traffic lights could face up to three months in jail after Florence launched a crackdown and other cities said they might follow suit. Many cities are already taking action against what is seen as “imported” behavior such as tourists taking off their shirts or eating hamburgers in the piazza in Venice, or getting drunk in public in Rome — something image-conscious Italians avoid. Foreigners are also blamed for much of the street crime in a relatively safe country. Most people wielding sponges on street corners are Romanian gypsies, often young women and children. . .

    . . . Rome’s Mayor Walter Veltroni, who has taken action against illegal gypsy camps and now vows to clean up rowdy nightlife and public drug-taking and drinking in popular neighborhoods like Trastevere, said window-washers are so pushy “that people are virtually ravaged at every traffic light and street corner.” “People must realize that behind the window-washers there is exploitation of minors, which is a crime. Like prostitution this is a racket that must be smashed,” Veltroni told reporters.

    In Verona, Mayor Flavio Tosi, who has previously taken action against people eating sandwiches in public, said he would monitor the experiment in Florence: “If the new regulation manages to deter the window-washers, we will adopt it too.” Some civic groups in Florence applauded the rules which city officials said acted on complaints of window-washers “becoming more aggressive, especially to women alone in their cars.” The city’s public safety officer Graziano Cioni stressed that the aim was “not to punish beggars or poor people” but to combat “arrogant and violent” behavior against motorists. However, leftist groups in the city called the new measure excessive and regional Communist party chief Niccolo Pecorini termed it “unworthy of Florence’s hospitable traditions.”

    Verona mayor set on discouraging prostitution

    1 August 2008, Stranitalia

    Mayor Flavio Tosi is the first Italian mayor to take advantage of a public security law voted into law last week by the new Berlusconi government and which gives city administrators greater powers regarding urban safety, including the right to increase pecuniary sanctions for clients of prostitutes even to as high as 500 euros, the equivalent of $780 dollars.

    Mayor Tosi, a member of the separatist Northern League party, has been waging a war against prostitution, by women or transsexuals, for some time now. His first move was to ticket the drivers of cars stopping near prostitutes to negotiate prices by accusing them of interfering with traffic. But that fine amounted to only 36 euros and proved effective only with Veronesi men who wanted to avoid having to identify themselves to police on their home turf. People from other neighboring cities such as Brescia, Padua and Mantova, said the mayor, were not deterred.

    In Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet, the critical zone is the neighborhood around the train station, a residential area which every night sees hundreds of scantily clad prostitutes looking for business. So far 42 of the newly high fines have been issued an the mayor says he is eager to see that kind of effect it has. . .

    . . . Mayor Tosi is in the forefront of this battle. But this week, Tosi signed two other controversial ordinances, one against begging in public as has already been done in Venice and Florence and the other to increase fines for the consumption of alcoholic beverages on the street. That ordinance also prohibits littering, sleeping outdoors, going shirtless, bathing or washing animals in public fountains, smoking in playgrounds and – once again as in Rome, the senseless law against eating sandwiches while walking down the street.

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