Public Squares

Michael Kimmelman writes about the importance (he calls it a craving) of public squares in the New York Review of Books (4/20/16). He says, with increasing frequency people are moving downtown “for the pleasures and benefits of cultural exchange, walking streets, parks, and public squares.”

Kimmelman, the architecture critic for the Times, points out that “The art of architecture requires not just making attractive buildings but providing citizens with generous, creative, open, inviting public spaces.”

I was born in Los Angeles and lived in a neighborhood, not far from a few shops but there was no public square nearby. When I moved to Portland, Oregon to begin teaching, once again I began living in neighborhoods that didn’t have a community gathering place.

It was only recently that I moved to an area in town where there are two public squares: one with a rock-water fountain that becomes a crowded wading pool in the summer; the other a natural garden with native plants. Both are occupied only during late spring and summer months and neither is the kind of public gathering place like the agora of ancient Greece or the piazzas in every town in Italy.

I have friends who live in the suburbs, about two miles from the nearest town in a cluster of homes set back about a mile from an eight lane freeway. Each time I visit, I am struck by the vast differences between their neighborhood and mine. The homogeneity of theirs is conspicuous, with every building a home and every home a garage, garden and shake roof.

There are no buses, apartment houses, or coffee-houses nearby. Most of the homes scattered about the hillside in their suburban setting face away from the street. There are no sidewalks and it is rare to see anything like the sort of social life there that is everywhere along the sidewalks of my urban neighborhood.

Each time I visit Italy, I am struck by the lively public socializing on the streets in the neighborhood in Florence that has almost become my second home. The people there greet each other with great warmth. The owners stand outside their shops in order to better converse with those who own the shops across the way.

I doubt that the rarity of such encounters in America is because Italians are more outgoing than we are. Rather I think it has more to do with almost haphazard way their cities have evolved over the centuries and the resulting relationship of the buildings to the street. The frequent socializing of the Italians occurs because their cities naturally invite fortuitous meetings between individuals as they stroll along the sidewalks or meet their friends in their neighborhood piazza. Richard Goodwin writes:

Now in Florence, when the air is red with the summer sunset and the campaniles begin to sound vespers and the day's work is done, everyone collects in the piazzas. The steps of Santa Maria del Fiore swarm with men of every rank and every class; artisans, merchants, teachers, arts, doctors, technicians, poets, scholars. A thousand minds, a thousand arguments; a lively intermingling of questions, problems, news of the latest happening, jokes; an inexhaustible play of language and thought, a vibrant curiosity; the changeable temper of a thousand spirits by whom every object of discussion is broken into an infinity of sense and significantions--all these spring into being, and then are spent. And this is the pleasure of the Florentine public.

In his book, Intimate Anonymity, Hillel Schocken defines a city as: "a fixed place where people can form relations with others at various levels of intimacy, while remaining entirely anonymous." Schocken argues that a city should make it possible for individuals to have contact with a variety of people from whom they can choose their intimates. He concludes his essay by noting: "The future of urbanism lies in the understanding that the city is a human event, not a sculpture."

I am sure this is the secret to the design of all good cities and the neighborhoods within them. It is surely the secret of my neighborhood in Portland and why, through the relationships that I form here, some of which are personal, others entirely anonymous, I have become rather attached to it.

Oh, that the winter in the far north of this land was a little shorter and the days were a little sunnier, warmer and not so rainy.


Stefanie said...

I've heard things have a been a bit warm lately up in your neck of the woods. You must be loving it. One of the things I like most about the Twin Cities, especially Minneapolis, is that when the weather is nice, everyone is outdoors. Our gathering places are cafes and the city lakes and parks. When my sister visited from Los Angeles for the first time many years ago she was astonished at all the people out on the streets and asked if it was always like that or if there was some event going on somewhere. We may hibernate in the winter but as soon as the thaw hits we take advantage because we know in six months we will be getting ready to hibernate again.

Richard Katzev said...

Stefanie: You "betcha" I am loving it. 80 degrees in April, unheard of, record breaking. Nevertheless, rain is on the way. I'm sure it is equally pleasant in "your neck of the woods"--what a strange expression--once you no longer have to hibernate. Is there a public square, one where rallies and protests are held, where major events occur, that sort of thing? Richard

Linda said...

I wish I lived in a walking neighborhood. Although I am a solitary person, I still frequently wish it were easier to get out and mingle with people, just be among people, without having to make some kind of social commitment (which I always resist for some reason) and get in my car. Your description of Florence makes it sound so spontaneous, natural, and effortless - ideal, the way I would prefer.

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: Yes, Florence has always been an ideal city in my mind, at least the area known as the Centro where the streets are narrow, cars are prohibited with piazzas and coffee shops everywhere. Once you have spent time in such a city, you realize how pleasant it would be to live in such a place. Areas of Paris and Rome and most all of the cities in Europe are like that. We have made a mess of most of cities in this country, with a few exceptions of course. It is such a pleasure to linger in a coffee shop on a popular street in Europe and stare at the passing parade. Head to one this summer; you can do it. Richard

Linda said...

My oldest daughter is begging me to go on a trip with her this summer. I doubt that we will travel internationally, but we are talking about Quebec.

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: Well, Canada is a foreign country and French is the official language there. Better to make a case for Paris, to Provence, all the warmer. Richard