This counts as immense change in a country where politicians point to rising stock market tallies as the mark of our shared greatness.
But it also raises a fundamental question about the ways we are able to express this newfound feeling of common purpose. Where do Americans come together to engage with one another, celebrate our connections, and go forward? The Internet and the entertainment industry and all the colorful strands that make up American culture will certainly be important forums for debating and defining a new direction for our country. But if we are now more united as a people, where do we stand—literally?
Peter Katz, who lectures widely on the subject of community life, points out that democracy arises from public spaces. 'During the American Revolution, Lexington Green, a well-known public space near Boston, was the gathering point for the Minutemen. Many recent popular movements have been played out in the town square—Czechoslovakia’s Wenceslas Square and Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, to name just a few.'
Throughout the 20th century, however, Americans came to believe we had outgrown the town square. Cars, TV, spacious suburban homes with broad lawns, freeways, rising crime rates, fear of homeless people, and the emergence of online culture all seemed to minimize our need and desire to gather in some local spot—Main Street, or a park, or a tavern.
And continuing threats of terrorist attack could heighten this trend. It’s a dangerous world out there, we are warned, be careful, stay out of public places. Yet, even with fear in the air, Americans responded to our recent tragedies in the same way humans have for centuries—by coming together to express grief and share the moment. Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces, located in Greenwich Village not far from the World Trade Center, notes, 'There was an intense need for people to gather. Union Square and Washington Square parks were spontaneously filled. People needed to be with everyone else. The most dangerous thing in the world at a time like this is to be isolated.'
Public life, people coming together to share responsibilities and work things out, is not a deep American tradition. Our nation stands as both a shining and a glaring example of the power of individualism unleashed. But does that mean we turn our backs on the public realm, especially now that any gathering could conceivably provide terrorists with a choice target? Will the satisfaction and sense of grounding that comes from an afternoon at the park or a stroll down a favorite street continue to fade from the American scene? No one knows right now. But it is clear that prior to September 11, America was in the midst of a public renaissance. 'For 50 years, we had forgotten how to create lively public places,' says Fred Kent. 'But people began to pay attention again, to get savvy and smart about it. We were understanding that you can raise people’s sense of themselves by paying attention to the quality of the public spaces in their lives.'
Interestingly, this renaissance came about not out of some rosy nostalgia for America’s simpler past but rather out of our very postmodern urge to incorporate what’s best from around the world. Gianni Longo, a New York architect and author of A Guide to Great American Public Places, senses that Americans have finally shook off their Puritan misgivings about public displays of leisure. He has seen a dramatic increase in the popularity of places like sidewalk cafés and pedestrian promenades over the past 10 years. 'Americans have become aware of nations where people are exuberant in their use of public spaces,' he says. 'People have traveled to Europe and South America and want some of what they saw there back here.'
The booming 1990s were characterized by a joyous rediscovery of public spots, as new waterfront plazas and bike trails and community gardens flowered from coast to coast. Even more dramatic was the restoration and revitalization of long-neglected civic landmarks, parks, historic districts, commercial streets, and other public venues.
Signs of this remarkable transformation can be seen right out my window. Loring Park, once a shabby patch of grass and pond at the edge of downtown Minneapolis, now buzzes with activity. Hardworking neighbors cooperating with government and private agencies brought a host of improvements: an artistically inspired pedestrian bridge linked to a new sculpture garden, a restoration of a rundown refreshment stand, fabulous new gardens, an ambitious water quality project for the pond, bike trails, a new playground, and general sprucing-up that doesn’t erase the park’s essential urban character. It’s still home to competitive blacktop basketball, clubgoers headed to bars across the street, homeless people, elderly couples speaking Russian as they feed the pigeons, and the annual Gay Pride Festival. You can see jogging business executives, rendezvousing lovers, ice-skating families, and hooky-playing teenagers as well as ducks, egrets, and herons. And despite all the bustle you can still find a quiet spot beneath a spreading oak tree to ponder the universe.
What happens to our public places now—with an uncertain economy, an expensive war, and the chilling likelihood of further terrorism—is anyone’s guess. But to write off public life, and the public spaces that make it possible, as a frill seems shortsighted. As Peter Katz says, 'If the terrorists disperse us, and keep us at home, then they’ve won.'
Gianni Longo notes that people in his native Italy grappled with terrorist fears in the 1970s but refused to surrender to the bombers. 'We are social animals,' he says. 'Public places are about coming together as a community. I cannot imagine that we would renounce such a fundamental part of ourselves and retreat behind our doors.'
If we are truly standing united, feeling a connection with fellow Americans that spans race and region and class and religion, then we must have real places in our communities to make that stand.