Every day when I walk out of my front door to attend classes at the University of Baltimore I make a choice about what street to walk down: Greenmount Avenue or Guilford Avenue.
The choice I make depends on how I want my body to be treated that day. Either way I go, I will be hollered at, but it might manifest differently on each block.
The northern stretch of Guilford Avenue is informally known as a block of gentrification. It is the start of the Charles Village neighborhood where houses are painted with prime colors, streets are mildly clean, and white couples walk up and choose dinner from over two blocks of the mostly corporate restaurants and cafes on St. Paul. Guilford is often quiet with only the calm sounds of swooshing winds and chirping birds, except for the occasional late-night partying.
Greenmount Avenue is different. It's lively even when the sun isn't out. Brown faces light up front porches, and there are numerous liquor stores and snowball stands with flimsy off-white tables. Greenmount has the consistent buzz of cars, the chilling sound of steel from auto shops, the loud hum of razors at barbershops and raspy Baltimore slang being thrown across street blocks.
On Guilford, my body will usually feel like silence. It is less likely that people will holler at me because there is less foot traffic. The block is filled with residential townhomes, cars, schools, and churches. The bus stops and porches are less crowded. College students hastily walk with their heads down and white families barely look my way. There are fewer people outside and thus fewer people looking at my body. Some days, I walk down Guilford Avenue because I like it when my body feels less visible.
On Greenmount, my body will be a block party. A full-on heated dice game. Everyone is outside because Greenmount is packed with businesses—legal and illegal—that maintain a steady flow of pedestrians. Everyone always seems to be waiting for something: the bus, their slow-ass friend, or their check to come in the mail. While they are waiting, they holler, whisper to their friends, or ask my name. I tell them my name, but they don't really care about what I call my body. They only care about what it can do.
Some days, I walk down Greenmount Avenue because I don't mind my body being more visible. The probability or frequency that harassment will occur changes depending on the nature of the street. For my body, everyday is a numbers game.
Two years ago, I moved to Edmondson Village from Owings Mills. On Edmondson Avenue, blue lights circled above, police and young black men stood firm on opposite street corners. Each group unmoved and territorial. When an attractive woman walks past, all eyes and conversations are hers. Over the phone, Baltimore singer Ama Chandra said, "When I was a young woman, I was very unaware of my body, very unaware of what it did to other people by just being a body."
Me too. I didn't know my body until I moved to the city. I didn't know my body could stop traffic without standing in front of it.
A year later, I moved from Edmondson Village to Harwood. Life was close by. In the county, I could hide my body. People only saw me when I got out to pump gas or was in line at the store. I walked to the grocery store, to the train, to the bar, and to school. I was no longer cemented to a car, but I was a pedestrian. (I'm thankful for corner stores, though. In Owings Mills, late-night chips and juice are two miles away). The nature of being a pedestrian in Baltimore City means that you are always visible. Being a woman in Baltimore City means that not only are you always seen, but you are always seen as available.
"Harassment is also a human rights issue because it limits harassed persons' ability to be in public, especially women's," says Brittany Oliver, co-director of Hollaback! Baltimore via email. According to a Hollaback! study, catcalling occurs more frequently in areas with high walkability scores. By the way: if you take this conversation about bodies to the basketball court on Greenmount, say "hollering" not "catcalling." Otherwise, no one will share their stories with you or pass you the ball because cat-callers don't know what "cat-calling" means. They holler.
And hollering is not only about where that body is in the city. Despite the strange rain, the rowdy Baltimore summers are on their way with crab-centered cookouts, sugary snowballs, and overfilled public pools. Summer is the time of bodies—and the time of commenting on them. As Kalima Young, a Baltimore educator, told me, "summer is an opportunity for men to weigh on how well a woman is doing woman." But what if we are serving up all this woman on Lafayette? Can a woman's body be free to walk around the city and not be commodified for pleasure, but rightfully complimented? A woman's walking body does not mean that she is headed to a man's bedroom.
"Last summer specifically, there wasn't a day that I didn't get catcalled," says Hannah Sawyerr, Baltimore's Youth Poet Laureate. How can we change this Baltimore summer? The summer heat will bring bodies back to their natural state of nakedness. It's too damn hot out here to be playing with cotton and polyester. But my bare flesh is not an invitation. My skin is only here to be darkened by the sun.
I remember the day I felt my relationship to my body change. I was walking home down Barclay and saw about five or so men chillin' on the front stoop. I started thinking: "Should I cross the street? I don't feel like being hollered at today. I'll be as invisible as I can. Head, low. Eyes, straight. Hips? I can't do much about those." The closer I got to them, the more anxious I became. I was afraid. I was afraid of what they could do to my body before I even looked them in the eye.
When I walked past, I lifted my head. I said, "hello." All I remember hearing is "how are you doing?" followed by a stream of smiles amid their joyous laughter and storytelling. Their vibrant greetings loosened me and made me smile. Immediately, I was ashamed. When I was a block away, I changed my body because of them. I became silent and reserved. I judged their nature and changed my own. I gave these men power over my body, my smile, my safety, and my "hello." That day, I realized that protecting my body also includes welcoming positive exchanges of energy. Fear will have us giving up our power and calling it protection.
Whether I'm walking over east or over west, I'm still learning my body in the city. Its changing curves, odor, and scars. What colors I like to wear. How certain streets make my body feel. But I cannot be afraid. Fear never liberates anybody. To be a body in the city is to be alive, to be aware, and sometimes to want to follow that radical urge to jaywalk. It is to recognize the power and beauty in one's body, in the winter or summer, in jeans or short skirts, on Greenmount or Guilford.
When I walk out of my front door, Greenmount Avenue is to my right and Guilford Avenue is to my left.
Which way do I go?
Either way — my body and all its power is beautifully mine.