When it comes to the numerous principles of New Urbanism I wander variously between McCauley Culkin’s “Yeesssss!!!!!” and Jerry Seinfeld’s “Yeah, yeah, yada yada yada.” But after a few days of exploring Italian villages I’ve developed a firmer conviction that a community is not truly a community unless it has a public place where people can gather as a community, for a community purpose, and the private rooms of country clubs and pool halls do not count.
To a great extent, the ancient Greek agora, the 11th century Italian village piazza, and the 18th century American town square are functional equivalents, fixed places around which towns can organize commerce, a place where information is shared, a place for public rituals from hangings to holidays, and a fully democratized location for social gatherings.
I happened to have landed in the Tuscan town of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana the night before its weekly “market” where more than a hundred peddlers sold everything from locally grown produce to Chinese-made cutlery.
But if you looked just beyond the tables of wares, the heart of the market was in the many impromptu gatherings and animated conversations among locals who, instead of rushing to an office, ambled into town.
Most obvious were the groups of men in their 70’s and 80’s, men who perhaps remember “the War,” even if they were too young to have carried a rifle, and who, in their own ways, are bridging divergent historical eras that can only touch in the musings and memories of men and women who gather elbow-to-elbow and chair-to-chair to share in the collective moment of a space that belongs to no one and yet belongs to everyone.
What has happened to the American town square, that piece of the urban jigsaw puzzle that at one time held all of our districts and neighborhoods together — the centripetal force that made all of us part of a locale with a common identity, common problems and a common future that we planned at common forums?
Both as traveler and as attorney whose clients reach into every expected and unexpected corner of the state, I think I have visited every North Carolina community whose population exceeds 5,000 people and many that are much smaller. I can only think of fewer than a handful of towns with a prominent and functional and central public space.
Yes, our Harris-Teeters and our Biscuitvilles and our Main Streets (to the extent that they have any vibrancy not sucked out by the malls and strips on the bypass) serve as places to bump into someone, but it’s not the same. Compared to the older villages of an older country, we have become more atomized and less connected to those with whom we share geographic commonality.
In the 21st century, it’s easier to connect electronically with a friend in Seattle than to speak with someone in the same public space, and you only have to visit Starbucks once to observe several internet patrons connected in a thousand ways to the universe but disconnected if not wholly oblivious to the iPad user at the next table.
I’m certainly not the first person to comment on America’s love affair with fast highways and expansive, large-lot, porchless, suburban subdivisions surrounding our urban waistlines, but there is a clarity made possible by visual contrast that enables the American traveler to mourn the loss of the metaphorical if not the actual Norman Rockwellian American community in towns whose organizing principle was the interstate highway.
Perhaps it is fitting that I scratched out my draft of this post while sitting in a public square of the small town of Pienza. Although the human interactions in front of me emanate more from tourists than locals, there is no doubt — at least in my mind — that the public square itself, as urban artifact, draws folks in and creates a sense, however temporary, of common purpose.