|[The bland Hennepin County Government plaza.]|
Sidewalks stand in for public space more generally. They're are the most ubiquitous and most important public space we have in our cities. (My flip estimate is something like 99.9% of Twin Cities public space is sidewalks and parks.) So, paying attention to what happens on sidewalks is (obviously) the focus of this blog.
But when the Middle East and North African protests were happening, I noticed how different these cities seemed from the ones we have in the US. For one thing, they’re far more dense. Protests in other parts of the world routinely get ten times the number of people that gather in US cities.
Secondly, there are actual public spaces in which to gather. It seems like every large city around the world has a “square” at its center, places like Beijing’s Tienenmen Square, Moscow’s Red Square, Berlin’s Tiergarden, Cairo’s Tahrir Square, or even Pearl Square in Bahrain. These places are symbolic centers of social life for their cities and countries, places where the government is visibly connected to the people. These are definitive public spaces, and they become important whenever a significant movement starts (or stops).
The US seems to lack these kinds of spaces. On the one hand, our capitol buildings all come with large public spaces. There are the obvious sites for rallies etc., in Washington DC. There is the capitol lawn in St Paul. But these places lie outside the realm of everyday life, away from jobs or shops or houses. These days those kinds of rallies are ignored by almost everyone.
|[A mayoral inauguration in Minneapolis's Gateway Park in 1924.]|
I guess that’s why I find the “occupy” movement interesting. I’d never really thought that the Hennepin County Government Plaza was a bona fide public square. It seemed like just another one of the many crappy Minneapolis office building plazas. Sure, it was the most successful plaza in town, but it lacked the scope and majesty of an actual public space.
|[Two images of the occupyMN public kitchen in action.]|
I guess I was wrong. Kinda. The occupy movement, as few as they are, have managed to turn this boring brick block into a public space. Sitting there and hanging out between the county and the city government buildings does feel “public” in a way.
At the same time, it’s is a bit boring. Once the workers are gone, there’s no actual “public.” You’re surrounded by terrible architecture, each 80s and 90s office tower blander than the last. The parts of the city that actually have people in them are all at least a half a mile away, over by the stadia and restaurants and clubs and theaters and neighborhoods. The occupiers are easily ignored by almost everyone, which is probably one of the reasons why they’re tolerated (so far) by those in power.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens. So far, the transformation is remarkable. Still, I can’t help but think how different this movement might look if it could occupy old Gateway Park. At least there you could stare at the river.
|[Signs occupying a bench.]|