By David Bollier
Benjamin Barber, the long-time critic of market culture and champion of democratic renewal, has a thoughtful meditation on “the art of public space” in the most recent issue of The Nation.
It is a much-needed reminder of why we need such spaces, but also how each space is peculiar unto itself. He cites, for example, a variety of beloved public thoroughfares in cities around the world that enliven people, community and markets in countless ways: Las Ramblas in Barcelona, the Hackesche Höfe in Berlin, Millennium Park in Chicago, Gunpowder Park outside of London, and so on.
Barber’s piece has a specific goal, however: to prod readers to consider the fate of Times Square, which, as an experiment, has prohibited cars for the past several months. What might we do with this very special space?
Camping in Times Square. Photo by Zach Klein, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
Barber reminds us that some commons are inherited and some are invented. In this case, he writes:
“[P]ublic space is not merely the passive residue of a decision to ban cars or a tacit invitation to the public to step into the street. It must be actively created and self-consciously sustained against the grain of an architecture built as much for machines as people, more for commercial than common use. In a word, public spaces are built, not natural; they are the result of constructive intervention rather than laissez-faire disinterest. This is an ‘art of public space,’ which requires more than no-car signs, traffic cones, concrete barriers, tables and chairs.”
In trying to re-imagine Times Square, Manhattanites have a distinct advantage: a city full of artists. Barber muses that the city might create an open-mini-bandstand or stage for performers; or a life-size chess set; or benches for people to watch each other and the promenaders; or art exhibits by schoolchildren. Barber asks:
“What will fill the empty streets and turn the famous piazza into a true commons, a place whose ‘public’ brand reflects the reality of artistic imagination and the public’s ongoing participation in the civic republic? Getting rid of the traffic was the easy part. Now comes the real work: to secure adequate funding, to enlist artists, to fill the newly created residual void.”
This piece originally appeared in On The Commons.
_Times Square Red, Times Square Blue_ by Samuel R Delany (New York University Press, 1999) is a great book on urban development issues. Delany is a great science fiction writer who has become an astute and engaging critic and memoirist. He has a kind of Victorian erudition coupled with all the tools of post-modern deconstruction and political discourse.
He relates his experiences over nearly thirty years in Times Square talking with the homeless and the hustlers, the small businessmen and their customers, the denizens of the porno theaters he frequented and makes a strong case that the "redevelopment" that has pushed most of these folks out of the area is based upon a fear of contact (as opposed to networking) and especially any contact across class lines. By remaking Times Square into something like a mall that is always tourist-friendly, Delany believes that all of us will become tourists even in our own communities. As a black homosexual, he has an unique perspective based upon his survival observations of a mostly white, heterosexual culture.
Life sized chess set? Art exhibits by school children?! Man, that sounds like more of a snooze than the Disney store. Interesting how Barber's "public" alternatives to commercial domination are still sanitary and fully middle-brow. Doubt he'd like to see the hustlers, porn shops, and generally unregulated (and therefore interesting) aspects of old Times Square return.
Life size chess sets and grade school art don't interest me that much either but that doesn't mean that anything appealing to a broad spectrum of people is by definition "a snooze".
I also have some trouble with the idea that in order to be "interesting" we should encourage hustlers and criminals to seek their fortunes in oublic places.
There must be something that occupies the middle ground between coroporate franchises and peep shows.