The Public Square - wednesday 2009-12-16 2221 last modified 2009-12-27 0937
Categories: Daily Grind
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There are myriad ethical reasons to avoid Starbucks. While patronizing the nearest store during the "cold" months in southern California, I've come to the conclusion there are myriad reasons to avoid Starbucks regardless of ethical stances. It's air conditioned even in fifty degree weather, and their overly loud music is tasteless - this from someone who normally pays little attention to ambient music. Prolonged exposure to seasonal holiday music is a recipe for madness. An aside, there's one definite downside to multinational corporate chains: now that I've tried one Starbucks and found it wanting, I've given up on them all.

Such environmental configurations have their own ethically questionable purposes - to drive out consumers, especially the homeless looking for warmth and the telecommuters like me who rent a full day's space for the price of a cup of sugary garbage parked at the same table. But I'm longing for something more than just better behavior in a coffee stand. It's really about the distinct lack of urban public space. We do want to connect and interact with one another in cities, and not just in disconnected and random happenstance, but with some purpose.

We live here because the gaping chasms of suburban property lines are too insurmountable, and the precisely attenuated bazaars where something is always being sold that we know as malls do not serve for interacting with one another. They are, after all, concentrated shopping experiences to place as much product in front of as many eyeballs as possible - who cares if they notice one another as anything other than irritants in queues.

A public square, though, is space civic, an open place for all to come and sit and find others who might come and sit, and that's all. Vendors welcome but not required, a place to meet and stay, perhaps with something to see and do the first time around, unnecessary again. A place that attracts people to attract one another. It isn't Starbucks, it isn't the local coffee shop, it isn't any shop at all. We've got a spacious city. Let's found some places to meet one another.


Public Squares

What is it about cities that makes them more alive and more soulful than suburbs? If it's 'community', what exactly *is* 'community'? I'm not sure it's strangers meeting in public squares. My experience with Boston and San Francisco doesn't include much meeting of strangers. I think city-dwellers quickly learn how to exist in close proximity with each other without interacting. Walking down the street, people avoid eye contact. Standing in elevators, busses, or trains, people mind their own business and ignore the strangers around them. I can think of two common exceptions to this: sports events, both at the event itself and on public transit going to and from the event, and drunk people. I had a strange experience this Christmas Eve on my way to the airport, when some tipsy partiers boarded the BART car I was riding and smiling and laughing, wished everyone Merry Christmas. They made eye contact and expected responses, but it still took me a minute to decide if they were actually talking to me or not. I wanted to enjoy the cheerful interaction with strangers, but it was very hard to break through the strong social more of keeping to yourself on the train.

Actually, my strongest experiences of meeting strangers in public places have occurred in a small town bar in blue-collar Clinton, MA. I'm not sure what about the bar makes it so friendly. Perhaps it's just my own expectations, or perhaps the small-town mores are different from a big city's. But bartenders and patrons alike are more friendly and talkative and open with strangers there than in any city bar I know.

I don't think it's meeting and interacting with strangers in public spaces that makes a city feel alive. But the feeling of a city as a living organism, of people as the life-blood flowing through the veins of the city streets, is a big part of why I love the city. Somehow, walking through the streets, I feel connected to the people around me, even though I almost never interact with them. I do think public squares are important to that community feeling, too, even though I doubt I'll ever make a friend by striking up a conversation in one.

I would love to hear theories on what makes a city feel alive.

Jesse Byler on January 07, 2010 03:07 AM

The small town b...

The small town bar is certainly more predisposed to generating friendly interaction in contrast to city life. There are so many millions of urban people crammed up against one another that some measure of polite distance is requisite. We don't have the capacity to spend our social energies every day on total strangers, unlike the local watering hole where regulars can afford (if they so choose) to spend their collective friendliness on the occasional new face or two.

But that's part of the value of a public square. Culturally it may not mesh well with our more-capitalist-than-socialist, North American social dictates, but in Mexico, a public square is requisite for any semblance of a civic community, be it a backwater hardscrabble subsistence farming pueblo or Tijuana or Mexico City. And the comparatively vast age of Europe grandfathers in its centralized, square-based cities to our modern day as well - visible even in colonial Boston planning, what with its Kenmore, Copley, and innumerable other localized squares.

Still, if it's the place you want to go (and it certainly is a social filter of sorts), then it's the place in the city you can go, free of commercial pressure. In cities of millions, a public square helps reduce the weight of such numerous anonymity by providing a neutral space for people to meet. Whether that's for existing friends or making strangers into new friends or something else entirely is up to the neighboring population it serves. It is, to me, an outlet for one of the things that does make a city so vibrant: in a place that's bursting with possibilities, there's a well-known rendezvous for making those possible connections reality.

What makes a community is, at its base, the connections of communication. I am, of course, being totally idealistic. What do you think?

Ryan Lee on January 10, 2010 08:24 PM

I agree: I do th...

I agree: I do think the public square is important for creating community, and I think you're probably right that it's at least partly about communication in some subtle way, even if there isn't much verbal communication between strangers.

Strangely, or maybe predictably, I have had a disproportionate number of verbal interactions with strangers in public places in the last few weeks. Whether that's due to chance or some subconscious change connected to thinking about community, I'm not sure...

Jesse Byler on January 14, 2010 01:54 AM

Another Perspective

A few days ago I had a discussion about this topic with a friend of a friend. She lives in neighborhood I don't know very well, and we were in the bar she considers her local watering hole. She agreed that in the city, it's rare to meet and become friends with total strangers, but nevertheless she had several friends of that type. We discussed what effect the neighborhood might have had, and she said that it's small enough but also self-contained enough that some weekends she never leaves the neighborhood, and as a result has a lot of opportunities to run into the same people over and over again. So people she had met in line at the coffee shop, or doing laundry, or hanging out at the bar, she'd strike up a conversation with once or twice and eventually become friends with.

Jesse Byler on January 19, 2010 09:58 PM

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