United We Stand-Literally

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.’

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.

UTNE
UTNE
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