Sunday, May 31, 2009

How shopping for a bathing suit is really studying for my exams

Lyn H. Lofland, sociologist and scholar, defines the public realm as the place in the city where we interact with strangers. Her definition of the city is intentionally broad and inclusive - "a permanently populous place or settlement" - and her definition of stranger is two prong. There are both "cultural strangers . . . those who occupy symbolic worlds different from our own" and "biographical strangers . . . those we have never met before". In other words, the latter are simply people we don't know, the former are those who somehow see or live in the world differently than we do. Richard Sennett - sociologist, scholar, and Guardian-appointed "public intellectual - discusses in his book The Fall of Public Man the key occupier of this public domain, the cosmopolite. A cosmopolite, as derived from the French usage in the 1730s, "is a man who moves comfortably in diversity" (the gender specificity is an entirely different dissertation).

The public realm was once a realm of necessity, when the world's population was largely illiterate and news traveled via the town crier and passed by word of mouth. The public realm was where all entertainment, if there was time for any, happened and all commerce was conducted. Everyday movements between sustenance collection and waste disposal happened in the streets - the city's most regularly and necessarily occupied public realm.

For the ancient Greeks, the public realm was the realm of freedom. The private realm was weighted with the minutiae of daily living, including the hard work of being in charge. But the public realm was a zone of equals, a place to express opinions freely, of intellectualism, debate, and the development of individuality (again, gender, slavery, and land ownership are their own dissertations). Aristotle as interpreted through Hannah Arendt, philosopher and cultural scholar, differentiates the pre-political from the political public realm in that the former was a place where decisions were made through violence and the latter where decisions were made through speech. The public realm was a place where we learned to negotiate, where we developed what Lofland calls "political maturity" and what Sennett elaborates as a place where "men can act together without the compulsion to be the same."

Much of the literature on the contemporary city discusses the death of public space (here - particularly as architects, urbanists and planners - we are assuming that the public sphere or public realm is geographically grounded in an actual place, public space). Books like Sennett's The Fall of Public Man and Michael Sorkin's edited volume, Variations on a Theme Park: the New American City and the End of Public Space talk about the postmodern city and the militarized, thematized, and commodified versions of pseudo-public space we most commonly find today. Disney theme parks are referred to in nearly every book on the subject, as they are the example in 3/4 scale of the sanitized city where everything - from experience to speed - is branded, polished, duplicated, and sold. Lofland, Sorkin, Ed Soja, Margaret Crawford are all asking some version of the following question - what is public space today? And, is this the public space we are destined to have? Is The Grove (substitute your local mall/waterfront development/downtown revitalization project here) the best we can do?

I was at The Grove/Farmer's Market last night, and it was certainly packed with 'public'. More than a mall with limited entrances, tight boundaries, and an inward focus, it does have places to wander, to sit and talk, to meet strangers even perhaps. Because The Grove is connected to the more economically congenial Farmers Market, it is sort of economically diverse. Sort of. At the Farmer's Market there are movable chairs and benches where groups of various sizes can gather, eat, chat. And though commerce happens there, bartering certainly doesn't. And though conversation happens there, debate certainly doesn't. And though there are strangers, they are most likely to be the biographical rather than the cultural kind. And, even if they are the cultural kind, they tend to be a mere skim off the top of the cultural depths that we know live in LA. And, neither The Grove nor the Farmer's Market is either a grove or a farmer's market. So, among the many, many things that keep The Grove and the Farmer's Market from being real public space - including that it's more theme than market and more mall than not - is that it's not held in common, there are no public rights, and it's not where we learn to be good citizens.

Hannah Arendt likens public space to a great collective table - held in ownership by no individual, shared by all who are seated at it, yet also lasting far beyond any meal, any set of meals, any lifetime of meals. The table connects us, yet separates us at the same time. Without the table, there would be no common ground. yet without the separation, there would be no diversity. And, too, the table outlasts us all. Says Arendt, "If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men.. . . Without this transcendence into a potential earthly immortality, no politics, strictly speaking, no common world and no public realm, is possible."

Secondly, public space supports public rights. At a minimum, public rights allow access and occupation. Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris - urban planner and expert on public realms such as the sidewalk and bus stop - documents in her co-authored book Urban Design Downtown: Poetics and Politics of Form, the way privatized spaces (particularly shopping malls) were initially court ordered to fulfill the public role they seemed to be hijacking from the plazas and streets of the city. Now, the privatized city is more the norm than not and we can't imagine any mall cop in America that would allow a protest, the distribution of leaflets, picketing, or political solicitations on mall property. As a matter of fact, we've reached a point where plazas and streets have developed strict regulations intended to maintain order and keep out the 'messiness'.

Order and messiness are exactly what Don Mitchell in The Right to the City discusses as the very vitality of urbanity. To Mitchell and Anthony Vidler, who writes the introduction to the text, a sanitized city is not a city worth living in. Mitchell asks very important questions about public space - who can be there, when, and what can they do? In other words, who is the 'public' and what rights do we all share? Mitchell focuses on those who are homeless and argues the very salient point that if you have no private space to return to, you are forced to live out the entirety of your life in public. If, then, you are restricted from public space - either formally (laws, regulations, gates, patrol) or informally (harassment, psychological barriers like intimidation, lighting, the removal of benches or aggressive sprinklering) then your very existence is criminalized. In his words you simply have no place at all to BE. Henri Lefebvre, the originator of the right to the city argument, takes that one step further when he claims that we all have the right to the oeuvre -- the right to be a part of the production of the city itself, the right to active participation, to identity, ownership, investment, even play. Iris Marion Young adds to those the right to self-determination and the right to self-development.

Finally, public space must maintain some form of cosmopolitanism. To be cosmopolitan, to live among difference and to recognize its value, produces tolerance. Says Lofland, a "great city is, in and of itself, a settlement form that generates cosmopolitanism among its citizenry; it is a settlement form that produces - by its very nature - a populace that is far more open to and accepting of human variability, far more inclined to civility and less to fanaticism and smug parochialism than are the residents of more homogeneous and intimate settlement forms like tribe, village or small town." In other words, urbanity makes us a more open civilization, more willing to accept -- even invite -- strangers to sit at our common table.

The loss of all these attributes is blamed on everything from the industrial revolution which first separated living space from work space to the car and the computer. The most interesting theories, though, don't wax nostalgic for a pre-technology era but recognize the value of advancement and call for new ways to be public which, in turn, create new geographies of public space. Urry and Sheller who call for a "civil society of automobility" pose one of my favorites.

Which brings me to the point.

A friend of mine posted a link to a 2006 video that I had never seen (though 43 million other people have). It's a completely hokey, tear-jerker of a story, turned movie, turned movement. The free hugs movement. (Click here to see the movie and read the story) But it's also about free speech rights, breaking gender stereotypes, embracing difference (literally), and the risk of urban messiness. What I love about the movie and the movement and the DOING of it all is that it's about making public space. As Lofland also said, the public realm is ageographical until it HAPPENS somewhere. This is one reason big empty corporate plazas are not all that public - there is no one there doing anything and those who are, according to Loukatai-Sideris's case studies, are mostly white middle class males in business suits. Or they were.

Public space is changing for many reasons, but most importantly, because we want it to. Because those same people who don't want to work in a cubicle and hold out for retirement benefits are also a growing collection of mixed race, emergent entrepreneurs who volunteer in Africa and do reverse graffiti.

Because we're looking in new places, too. Street vendors are hip in LA. Tight money means alternative capitalism and it means being more wise with limited resources - space included. And higher gas prices, even though they've gone down since last summer, mean more walking, more public transit, more bus stop use, more biking - more ways to be in the public realm, to mix with strangers. But to become cosmopolitan, you have to choose to recognize and appreciate difference and the responsibility of the commons. You don't have to hug a stranger - though there is something really joyous about that Juan guy - but you can recognize the value in difference, the importance of conversation with strangers - in every sense - and the significance we gain by being actively intermixed with the messiness of the city.


Arendt, Hannah. (1958) “The Public and the Private Realm,” in The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Lofland, Lyn. (1998) The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Territory. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter.

Loukaitou-Sideris, Anastasia and Tridib Banerjee. (1998) Urban Design Downtown: Poetics and Politics of Form. Berkley: University of California Press.

Mitchell, Don. (2003) The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: The Guillford Press.

Sennett, Richard. (1992) The Fall of Public Man. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

Sheller, Mimi and John Urry. (2000) “The City and the Car,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 24(4). 737-757.

image credit: Damon Winter, The New York Times

1 comment:

Deirdre said...

I happened upon one of the least "public" spaces in SoCal this weekend...San Marino, has anyone been? It's adjacent to Pasadena, but you know you're no longer in Pasadena by the mansions on 1+ acre lots (probably a result of zoning meant to exclude all but multi-gazillionaires from moving in). The saddest part of the town was their park, which was bordered by a wrought iron fence and freely accessible only to San Marino residents (non-residents were stopped at the entrance and asked to pay a fee or leave). Anyway, the walk through San Marino really hit home how bad SoCal's fragmented governance system is not only for our public culture, but also for ameliorating existing economic/racial/you name it inequalities.