About seven and a half years ago, I moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts to St. Petersburg, Florida. Years earlier, I had moved from Manhattan to Boston and felt like I had been exiled to a distant suburb; Florida life felt more like a distant planet – a land evolution forgot. Throughout my first year here, I did my best to discover aspects of Florida that I could find enjoyable. After about nine months, I came to conclude that St. Petersburg sits atop a god forsaken sandbar, Orlando is ruled by a psychopathic mouse intent on conquering the world, Miami (South Beach excluded) is a dangerous crime ridden sewer and the rest is a malarial swamp. Over the seven years since then, I have discovered many delights in Florida and, today, I’m happy to call it home.
A recent item picked up by the blind news email list (a terrific resource that scans the globe each day for news relating to blind people, issues that effect our lives and the various things we do) reminded me of just how much I prefer Florida during winter to any of the great northeastern cities where I had resided previously. The article, titled, “Snow-filled street corners handicap pedestrians” originally ran in the February 17 edition of the Salem News, based in the Massachusetts town of the same name, which last saw an interesting event during its notorious 17th century witch trials and, today, hosts the wildest LSD ridden Halloween parties in the world. A newspaper that, although I lived only a few commuter rail stops from Salem, I hadn’t heard of until the Blind News post.
The story, though, reminded me of one of the greatest accessibility problems that blind pedestrians encounter in the ordinarily very accessible northeast and that cause far greater difficulties for our friends in wheelchairs and with other mobility impairments. The article talks about a woman named Sarah Smith, a Salem resident who chose to live in the affluent Boston suburb because of its terrific accessibility for non-drivers. Smith, according to the article, in 1990, walked with her guide dog from Boston to New York accompanied by a sightie “only to read the maps.”
“I think of Salem as the perfect pedestrian city – until it snows,” she is quoted as saying, as Smith, Garran her 7-year-old black Lab and reporter, Steve Landwehr, “searched for a safe path to guide her across Chestnut Street a few blocks from her home.”
The articles with quotes from Ms Smith describe one of the nastiest secrets about the typically very accessible northeastern cities. Specifically, the sidewalks are cleared of snow but the street corners have tall piles of snow plowed their that block all but the most athletic from getting past them. This problem, according to the Salem Times article, forces Smith to walk in the streets rather than on the sidewalks. This described my experience in Cambridge after any significant snowfall with a slight difference; Cambridge has much busier streets with much faster moving vehicles.
The question of responsibility for clearing snow from street corners forms the fundamental problem. In most, if not all, Massachusetts cities the home owners bear the burden of shoveling the snow, people with corner lots shovel the sidewalk but do not have the responsibility of carving pathways into the huge snow banks made by the city owned plows. Smith continues, “This is a safety issue. We’re talking about a city that doesn’t clear its corners.”
The article continues with a lame claim by Salem’s mayor that the city is “pretty aggressive” with enforcing snow removal ordinances but he admits that they may not be as vigilant as they should. Smith counters by telling us that she has seen these snow piles last for two weeks, well beyond the 48 hours mandated by the law. My experience in Cambridge, one of the nation’s most liberal minded cities, directly corresponds with Smith’s. I use a cane for pedestrian travel and Smith agrees that navigating through snow is simpler with a dog but still very troublesome.
One time, after a particularly difficult walk from the AI Lab on the MIT campus to our Harvard Square condo, I felt so banged, bruised and beaten from a two hour excursion which would ordinarily take me 20 minutes, I picked up the telephone and called then very left-wing mayor, Alice Wolfe at her home in West Cambridge. I explained that this presented not just a safety issue but a discrimination issue as well. I pay the same enormous property taxes as people who drive, the city sees it necessary to clear the streets of snow, why then don’t they clean paths for those of us with disabilities??”
After pouring out my anger at Mayor Alice, a woman I knew personally and liked very much, she calmed me down and explained that Cambridge had an ordinance that required the home owners to clear these paths within 48 hours of a snow storm. I explained that my boss might not find “my neighbors didn’t shovel the snow” as an excuse for missing two days of work and continued by reminding her that more than two days had passed since the frosty stuff had arrived. I asked, “Would you think it acceptable if there existed some boundary to women, African Americans, gays, Eskimos or any other minority from traveling freely through the city?” She grew silent. Finally, I asked why the city of Cambridge spent over $200,000 per year to maintain the “Office of the Peace Commissioner” when it seemed highly unlikely that Belmont, Charlestown, Somerville or Newton would invade anytime soon. Alice sighed and said, “Chris, I fell down too and I don’t have a disability.” I realized that I lost this fight for my civil rights and continued my battle by ringing the doorbells of home owners who didn’t comply with the ordinance and calling city hall to report these bigoted citizens.
Sometimes, though, my adventures in the snow created a little humor and, often, let me meet very nice people whom I otherwise wouldn’t have any reason to talk to. I can clearly remember April 1, 1997, the day of the April’s Fools Blizzard that covered the Boston are with a little more than 36 inches of snow. I had to attend a meeting in the heart of Harvard Square that morning which, for no rational reason I could discern, hadn’t been postponed. On a day with no snow, my walk from our front door to building where this meeting was being held took about 15 minutes; on this day, bundled from head to toe, I resembled Ralphie’s little brother from “A Christmas Story” as I left two hours early.
Within a few yards of my front door, I discovered that I had already grown disoriented and had little idea which way I faced. Not to be deterred, the abominable blind man forced his way forward, whether it would bring me to my destination or not. A little while later, I heard the voice of a cop friend of mine ask, “Chris, do you know where you are?”
I asked, “Where am I?”
The police officer said, “On Broadway.”
I said, “No, I don’t know where I am going.”
He asked, “Do you want to be on Harvard Street?” He knew my regular path from home to the university.
I said, “Yes.”
My cop buddy said, “Grab on,” I took his elbow and, together, we walked to Harvard Street where he pointed me in the direction of The Square. I continued my excursion and, while I lay nearly upside down on one of these snow plow created mountains, a group of students approached me. “Do you need help?” Asked a young woman. I thought about my condition for a while, “Ok, I’m a blind man, I’m laying face down, nearly upside down on a bank of snow and a sweet sounding young student has offered me help. Should I accept?” Within a nanosecond, I said, “Yes!”
This young student, Valerie was her name, along with her multi-national group of friends walked me the rest of the way to my destination. I enjoyed a terrific conversation with these strangers and felt a lot of gratitude for their help. On a few occasions after that, one or another of that group would see me walking somewhere and stop to say hello and, perhaps, join me in a conversational stroll.
I’m not using the occasional good experience I’ve enjoyed that resulted from snow as an excuse for the city’s lack of responsibility for clearing it up. It remains a problem that they should solve.
Back here in St. Petersburg, snow banks seem the only restriction to independent travel that I don’t have. The county runs a bus system but none of the busses seem to go anywhere I want to be. Sidewalks come and go in a nearly random pattern. Motorists often seem drunk and red lights are treated like suggestions. Nearly every neighborhood, including mine, is bound by a few major streets that are impossible to cross in the time it takes a light to change and everything in this town is scattered far and wide so going from one point to another always takes about 20 minutes in a car and, if it’s a taxi, the cost is never less than $20.
So, I miss my independence as well as my Cambridge intellectual coffee shop community but I don’t miss the snow an even the tiniest of bits. This year, as has become our tradition, I spent New Year’s Day celebrating in our canoe, catching about a hundred ladyfish (a species with little food value but tremendously feisty fighters), an occasional sea trout or jack and enjoying the warm sun on my face. Florida ain’t accessible but it sure has great weather and a beautiful outdoors in which to enjoy it.