It is after midnight. I am walking alone. A car full of men drive past and shout something incoherent at me. But I understand. The content is in the rhythm of their voices: booming, violent. I look up. The car is waiting for me at the corner. I’m torn between a desire to refuse to be intimidated and the instinct to turn around and find another way home. I notice a man on the other side of the street. He is dressed in black, the glare from his phone lighting up his face in the dark. For a moment I feel safer knowing he is there, but the feeling disintegrates. I continue walking. The car follows me around the corner; one of the men leans out of the window, says slowly and with a grin, “Can I get out and come and talk to you?”
In his essay, “Seen From the Window,” Henri Lefebvre writes that one must attune oneself to the rhythms of the city. He states that the male walker “needs equally attentive eyes and ears, a head, a memory, a heart” to capture them. The male walker’s corporeal and psychological sensitivity to urban rhythm is something that must be activated. For women, this intersection is instinctual. She is alone in a world that is not hers. Its rhythms are designed to push her out and she feels this echoed in the rhythms of her body: the heavy pounding of her heart as she walks; the speeding percussion of feet when faced with danger. She understands rhythms that are invisible to the man on the pavement. On this night, the rhythms of fear cannot be felt by the man walking on the other side of the street.
In “Spatial Practices,” De Certeau states that the walker, as he is walking, writes the city. He discusses the city as text, the walker as author.
I am not the author De Certeau is describing: as a woman, I am forced to be a reader.
I read the text of this city and exist in a space that will never be my own. I cannot re-write, overwrite or erase. I can only obey its syntax, the structure of the streets designed to induce fear in me, the formulation of patriarchal language of spatial domination, occupation, violence; a linguistics I will never build or share. The rhythm of this street after midnight is slow. It is deadly silent, broken by vibrating engines and the sudden shouts of men from their cars. It is punctuated by men walking down the road, toward me, in large groups, refusing to let me pass. It is a curation of implicit violence.
Elizabeth Wilson states that flânerie, the act of leisurely urban wandering, is a masculine freedom and she is right: walking the city after midnight, as these men show me, is no woman’s realm. If I am frightened I should not be outside at this time; if I am hurt I should not have been wearing this dress; I should not have been walking this way alone; I should not have left my friend’s house. The responsibility is on me. I work around men’s rhythms and rules; I must learn them to keep myself safe. I am reader, not writer.
Lefebvre states that the city is a palimpsest of memory, that “the remembrance of other moments and of all the hours is essential” in understanding city rhythms. He assumes a male walker, for whom this remembrance of moments on the streets is a deliberate and conscious effort. It does not come naturally. Lefebvre must remind him. As he walks, he writes himself onwards. He is De Certeau’s author.
For woman, this remembrance is inevitable and effortless. Rebecca Solnit writes that access to urban public space is “limited for women by their fear of violence and harassment … the possibility of such violence is implicit in the more insulting and aggressive propositions, comments, leers and intimidations that are part of ordinary life for women in public spaces.” A woman reads an unavoidable history of the streets as a psychogeographical archive of implicit or explicit violence. It is impossible to remove this night from other nights, to isolate this harassment from other attacks. This corner on this street is the site of fear. This is where a female friend was assaulted. This street is unsafe to walk down alone at night. This is where a friend was harassed. You begin to notice the patterns of speech, the demands disguised as questions, the intent disguised as joke.
Lefebvre writes that Paris “carries the imprint of what it hides.” This imprint exists in all cities and remains invisible to the male flâneur, my opposite, across the road. For women, there is an invisible geography of urban space. She sees a blueprint of the city in a way that men cannot: an invisible cartography of fear and violence. The city is constructed in shortcuts I can’t take. I am chased; he is the chaser. I am afraid; he is safe. Walking is a political act for women, an assertion of the right to occupy space.
Lefebvre suggests that the city dweller need make use of all his senses while walking around urban space in order to pay attention fully to its rhythms and that the average walker is only aware of his body when necessary, like the potential danger when crossing the street. For the female walker, this danger transgresses the street’s physical function to the potentiality of harassment or violence. Attuning oneself to these hidden rhythms is something women have done, instinctively, for decades. She is the real academic in Lefebvre’s rhythmanalysis. She feels the rhythms of the city with unquantifiable instinct. She watches for that particular look in a man’s eye, the group of men outside a pub, following their gaze to her legs; she listens for the approaching footsteps, the following car engine. We obey the patriarchal times of the city: nightfall, when the atmosphere alters and fear comes, when we are driven out.
I’m watching the man on the opposite side of the street carry on walking as I stand, frozen, by the car.
The man asking if he could get out of the car to speak to me wasn’t asking a question—he was exercising power. He understands that the rhythms of the after-midnight city are his. The street is silent as I stand by the car, and broken by my voice. It is harsh and fierce; I am shouting at them to fucking leave me alone.
Is there safety in anger? Is it unanticipated, frightening, off-putting? I don’t know, but I’m walking furiously down the street to my flat. I wait for the car to follow me, but it drives on. Why is every woman getting home safely a relief and a victory?
In Sarah Schulman’s People In Trouble, a novel of women navigating city space, her protagonist Molly describes how her bicycle tires are slashed every day, but she keeps replacing them. She says, “I could not accept that my home was a place where a person could not park their bicycle.” A few days later, on the same street, I saw the same car full of men. I kept walking.