In Flatbush, Brooklyn, after riot-gear-clad NYPD officers intervened in fireworks celebrations, the activist group Equality for Flatbush accused white gentrifiers in the neighborhood of having invited the dangerous police attention with Facebook threads about fireworks noise. “It is a culturally accepted norm of Brooklyn to expect amplified music and fireworks starting on Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend,” the group wrote in a press release. Look around social media, and you’ll find a diverse range of people annoyed at the noise. But as Gothamist points out, “In many cases, the growth of nuisance calls is a better barometer of gentrification than any specific change in behavior.”
The fireworks encapsulate the cramped, complex reality of urban leisure amid both a pandemic and a reckoning over policing. The pandemic has canceled summer travel plans en masse; many beaches and parks have capped capacity and closed facilities; air-conditioned spots outside the home—malls, movie theaters, restaurants—remain largely off-limits. For many, especially the immunocompromised, outdoor fun may seem like an unthinkably risky indulgence. But the fear of infection and the lack of options for things to do aren’t keeping everyone inside. To a greater extent than ever, city summer entertainment involves local public and semipublic spaces: sidewalks, stoops, parks, and, in the case of fireworks, the shared sky. The summer of social distancing will also be one of social closeness between neighbors, illuminating divides of class, ethnicity, and place—as leisure has always done.
Take, for example, the new prevalence of people walking around with wine. The shutdown in New York City has led to the temporary legalization of to-go liquor from restaurants and bars, a measure meant to help such businesses stay alive. It has not led to the legalization of open containers of alcohol on the streets—but wander around the city’s boroughs on any pleasant-weather weekend, and you’ll see gaggles of people clinking drinks in parks, plazas, and other public venues. For now, the pleasures of the nascent to-go-cocktail culture rely on the loose enforcement of laws that would squelch them. And as was clear even before the recent protests—when citations for violations of social distancing in cities such as New York and Chicago were largely issued to black and brown people—law-enforcement laxness tends to be extended more to the white and wealthy.
The history of urban policing, leisure, and class is instructive. Cities implemented open-container laws only in the late 20th century, after courts struck down vagrancy laws, whose expansive definitions had been used to effectively criminalize homelessness and harass people of color. In a 2013 history of open-container bans, the journalist Joe Satran reported that “patterns of police enforcement of public drinking laws do suggest their origin as a replacement for unacceptably vague and discriminatory status offenses. Though national data on public drinking infractions are hard to come by (or nonexistent), the few studies of police enforcement indicate that poor, black people are arrested at rates many times higher than affluent white people.” A similar story—of hazily defined ordinances being used to discriminatorily regulate who can hang out where—applies to the loitering laws tested today whenever friends in masks congregate on sidewalks or street corners.