On Public Space

This ran in the Highlands Conservancy Voice January 2001

Public Space  

This spring I went across the border into Mexico with a fund raising group from the American Friends Service Committee. For me, the most striking images of the trip derive from our crossing back into the United States.

On the way to the border, we passed the zocolo of Piedras Negras. The zocolo is the town square; every Mexican town has one, or so we were told. The one in Piedras Negras had beautiful metal benches with gold disks on the middle of the backs, and metal lampposts with dragons crawling down the arms toward the electric lights inside white globes. If we’d been there at the right time, we’d have seen a brass band. Now, passing by in the afternoon, we saw a public space full of the public — old people sitting on the benches chatting, families strolling and visiting, kids running and playing.

Then we crossed into Eagle Pass, Texas and drove to a mall to buy clothes for the member of our group whose suitcase had been lost. What a contrast! A few miles away, we’d seen the crowded, tree-shaded zocolo, and here was this enormous expanse of paving with not a human being in sight. When I commented on it, a companion replied wryly, “Yeah – the neutron bomb effect.”

Of course, I know that if I had gone inside I’d have seen plenty of people. In effect, the air-conditioned mall has replaced the tree-shaded square as the public space in our country. What does this change mean, besides an exchange of the free and environmentally superior use of trees as a cooling mechanism with the more expensive but more effective air-conditioning machinery?

The most important difference is in the focus of the people using each kind of public space. Those in the zocolo were talking, visiting, or playing. Their focus was primarily social. In the mall, people are shopping, buying, or choosing not to buy. The focus is primarily commercial. True, people visit the mall as a pastime, but only teenagers use it as a social venue, and they are often viewed with hostility and suspicion by store owners as a result. What does it mean for our culture that our public spaces are now oriented around spending money and consuming?

When I was collecting signatures for Ralph Nader, I was asked to leave the Elkview mall parking lot. What does it mean when our public spaces are privately owned, and attempts to use them for public speech are subject to the approval of corporate owners? Especially when many of these same corporations exercise de facto ownership of the theoretically public airwaves, and this exercise allows them virtually complete control of the broadcast information on which the great majority of Americans depend for their information! They are using these airwaves to pound home a message of consumerism– a message that has us all scurrying off to the mall, to Buy More Stuff!

In Spencer, the benches in front of the courthouse were recently removed. Why? Are we ashamed of the old men who like to sit and pass the day there? Have we decided that only working and consuming are acceptable activities, that retirement should be tolerated only if done in private?

Spencer exhibits an appropriate pair of recent events that shows the result of accepting the definition of Americans as consumers first and foremost. A Super-Walmart has just opened, and the Kellwood sweater factory is closing. These are not unrelated events. The Kellwood plant will be moving to someplace like Piedras Negras, where the workers’ wages are measured in cents, not dollars an hour. Then we will be able to buy the sweaters at Walmart slightly cheaper than we get them now. Most of the savings, though, will go into huge bonuses for the CEO’s and unearned income for shareholders. When every portable job has been moved to Mexico – or onward to places where people can be made to work for even less – who will be buying the cheap results from Walmart?

We need to decide that we value our roles as workers as well as consumers, and therefore need to make purchasing decisions with a wider set of criteria than just the lowest possible price. Beyond that, we need to embrace the much wider world we so recently gave up — one which valued our roles not only as consumers and producers, but also as parents, citizens, neighbors, sentient beings and members of an ecosystem, even as creatures capable of enjoyment of the arts. We need not look askance at those who choose to spend much time swimming, fishing, playing chess, or listening to music and enjoying the company of friends. Economics is not everything, it’s a mere narrow section of life, and we must resist the current call to sanctify it and cast all other pursuits as illegitimate.

Updated: November 1, 2018 — 3:47 pm

The Author

Mary Wildfire

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