Heard it on – or in? – the street

A street is more than a way to get from place A to B.

Is a "street" necessarily a way of traveling, or can it be a place in its own right – a destination, in other words?

That is a question implicit in Scott Baldauf's "Letter From Sudan," in the Monitor on June 21. He tells of going with some officials of the United Nations Population Fund to visit a midwife living out in the desert: "One Arab villager ... gave us directions: 'Drive until you see a green mosque and then take the next street to the right.'

"We looked in the direction of where he was pointing. What green mosque? What street? We hadn't seen pavement for an hour or more. The only roads were tracks in the shifting sand."

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From this it was obvious that "street," whatever it meant to the villager, didn't mean the same thing to the travelers. The word reappeared later in the story when the travelers rearranged their schedule to avoid insulting a hostess who, unbeknown to them, had been preparing lunch all morning for them.

"If you leave now, I will never forgive you," she told them. "If I see you on the street, I will walk right past you."

Baldauf suggested that there are two different understandings of time at work here. We might call them clock time versus time as lived experience – a distinction sometimes expressed in terms of chronos and kairos.

I would suggest there are two different understandings of space here as well. I can't speak to the issue of where the "street" near the green mosque is. But I suspect the street in which the almost-aggrieved hostess would have walked "right past" her reluctant luncheon guests is a place, a two-dimensional area. This is different from a street as a line, often a straight line, a means of getting from A to B.

Many architects and city planners feel that lively, interesting communities need streets that are destinations in themselves. Otherwise, travelers will just pass through without stopping, or may avoid the whole place by taking something called "the bypass."

These different attitudes toward movement and place show up in idiomatic references to "the street."

One of the basic points is whether one is "in" or "on" a street. In North America, streets tend to be wide and buildings lower and more spread out. A building is on a street; I live on Waverly Street.

In British usage, a house or a shop or whatever is generally referred to as being "in" a street. In other languages with which I have nodding acquaintance, a similar pattern holds. I can't help thinking that reflects a sense that a street isn't just a ribbon of asphalt but a space, a kind of outdoor room with the facades of buildings on either side as the walls.

By contrast, in American usage, "in the street" tends to mean quite literally out in the middle of the roadway – children playing in the streets, for instance.

"The Arab street" is an expression used, though less frequently nowadays, to refer to public opinion in the Arab world. English is full of expressions in which "the street" stands for the challenging public realm, contrasted with the safety and security of home or some other privileged environment.

Thus we have "street smarts" contrasted with ivory-tower expertise; journalists admire "street-level" reporting. Illegal drugs have a "street price"; that term also refers to the actual selling price of computers and such, as distinct from the wishful thinking of the manufacturer's suggested retail price.

And then there's The Wall Street Journal, which has long had a column called "Heard on the Street."

Note, though, that it's "on," not "in," even though the street in question is presumably Wall Street. And if there is a street in the world that is truly a destination rather than a place just to pass through, it's likely to be Wall Street.

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