United We Stand-Literally

View from Loring Park


| January/February 2002


Amidst fear and shock, the terrorist attacks hitting America have reminded us what truly matters. As we seek security for our loved ones and struggle to hold on to hope for the future, it’s clear how much we depend upon the people around us—even those with names we don’t know or can’t pronounce. Long-lingering anxiety about race and social class and sexual preference suddenly makes no sense in light of what we face together as a nation. People everywhere from all walks of life and diverging viewpoints are proclaiming, in full sincerity, 'United we stand.'

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.'