In the early morning of mid-May 2013, four young Black women waited for a bus after attending a party in Manhattan. A pair of men jumped out of a car propositioning them; the girls declined, saying they were lesbians. Fifteen-year-old Sakia Gunn, fatally stabbed in the chest, never caught the bus home.
During my keynote at the UN Women’s Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Global Leaders’ Forum, I explored the collective risks all women face in urban settings. By using an intersectionality framework, I was further able to identify how the confluence of social attitudes and urban design increased or complicated risks for women from racialized and other historically marginalized communities. The supportive head nods assured me that the brilliant, primarily women, delegates in the room, were also embracing the complexity of this issue.
A year after Gunn’s vicious murder, sociology scholar Patricia Hill Collins wrote Black Sexual Politics, unpacking the tragedy. Among many important points, Collin notes that residual harm of systemic racism and patriarchy have casted Black women as approachable and promiscuous. This social script, which plays out daily in the places where Black women live, love, and labor proved deadly on the evening of Gunn’s death.
Long before I could articulate the risks of navigating the city at the intersection of race and gender, I sensed it.
To give the UN Women’s delegates a sense of the early experiences that now inform my place-making practice—focused on public space design, policy, and engagement—I used a visual map to chart the concerns attached to locations within the inner-city neighborhood where I grew up.
I retraced my steps back to the detour I took to avoid the guys who ran a drug and under-age sex trade, scurried past doorways obscured by metal awnings, and paused at the entrance of a below street-level basketball court. I shared the hyper-vigilance I experienced as a girl and my recent realization that I’ve been auditing the public realm—assessing both design and social risks—my entire life.
Sadly, this is true for many women, especially those who look like me.
A recent report found that of all women, Black women were the most likely to be murdered in America. Also, a national street harassment report found that along with Latinx women, Black women experienced higher levels of street-based harassment overall and were at the most risk of that harassment escalating into physical aggression. Black women, often sole providers within the home, are over-represented in the homeless population, which is directly spurred by changes in cities.
Despite these and other findings, the safety issues faced by Black women in the public realm are minimized by narratives focused on Black men. And to worsen matters, Black women are often erased from larger gender-based safety city-building conversations.
This is unsurprising because Black, and other racialized communities, have been historically disadvantaged by city-building initiatives like the well-known discriminatory practice of redlining — a refusal to extend loans to racialized people resulting in the denigration of numerous Black neighborhoods— and hipster development schemes that displace Black residents or co-opt their local culture. In addition to race-based discrimination underpinning many city-building initiatives, feminist theorists reveal the ways urban design itself is gendered.
Domestic space associated with nurturing and family-rearing was conceived as a women’s space. On the other hand, the city, considered a space of exploration and economic opportunity was conceived as a man’s space. This spatial assignment in cities is neither accidental nor superficial. A paper titled Children’s Use of Public Space shows how gender structures the activities and micro-geographies on playgrounds. There is an intentional effort to put and keep women from all backgrounds in our place from the moment we venture into the public realm.
And while intersectional gendered violence and racial justice conversations rarely intersect with city-building conversations, there are powerful and under-explored overlaps between all three. I’d go as far as saying that the Civil Rights Movement was in large part a city-building movement.
Let’s consider that Rosa Parks’ refusal to relinquish her seat to a white passenger was not simply about segregated seating on buses. If we take a wider view of African American history, we’ll find that restricting the physical and social mobility of Black people has been integral to anti-Black racism, dating back to Jim Crow laws mandating racial segregation in all public facilities. For this reason, protests such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott should be understood within a larger vision of right to the city.
Sadly, our struggle to enjoy this right persists. The murders of Black men like Eric Garner and the cases of neighbors like Permit Patty harassing a little Black girl selling bottled water in front of her house confirms that there is still much work to be done.
And while new movements are being increasingly led by women, safety issues in the public realm remain focused on Black men. It is understandable that Black communities continue to mobilize around the deaths resulting from gun violence and police brutality incidents. However, these issues do not strictly impact men and they are not reflective of the full range of risks faced by our community.
The gender-based violence that Black women—including trans women and those presenting as feminine—face in our cities must also be seriously considered. A body bag count of Black boys and men cannot become the singular metric for measuring our safety and prosperity within cities. Not killing people isn’t good enough; it’s time to demand urban spaces that are inclusive, contribute to mental and physical health, and are reflective of local communities. We need spaces that foster mobility both in terms of moving around and inspiring possibility.
To create these kinds of spaces, it’s important to acknowledge how navigating both race and gender creates additional vulnerabilities for Black women and girls. It’s time to talk about how invisible homelessness, self-imposed curfews in low-income neighborhoods, and normalized aggressive street harassment negatively impact the lives of girls and women.
Back when Jill Scott released A Long Walk, I was struck by the lyrics, “let’s take a long walk around the park after dark”. Although she was referencing a male interest , I imagined a group of Black women beneath a star-lit sky — not gathered to mourn the murder of their sons or protest an injustice—coming together to rejoice in the safety and beauty of an inclusive city.
Jay Pitter is an author and placemaker focused on spatial design and social justice.