How Public Squares Disrupt City Life and Why That’s a Good Thing
They can break up the monotony of the grid, provide the backdrop for social protest and change, spook you and mystify you—hard to define, city squares are indispensable.
A city square is a physical pause in the urban landscape. It’s a deliberate gap that interrupts the mass and clamor of buildings and streets, breaking up the flow of daily business and creating a space where people can come together, by design or happenstance. City squares are planned absences—they’re defined, first of all, by what they’re not. A city park already has a definition (grass, trees, paths) that tells you how it’s to be used: for leisure, for recreation, as a withdrawal from the city, with the illusion of being in nature and often alone. Squares, unlike parks, don’t take you out of the city. As an extension of urban life, neither natural nor solitary, they’re of the city as well as in it, but with a function that alters through history. Because of their very emptiness, they are full of possibility.
Their essential feature is open space, and their essential function is sociability. Where much in the modern city is private and inaccessible, squares are for the public. People gravitate to them in order to yak, kibitz, palaver, gossip, argue, show off, watch, eavesdrop, play, protest, hustle, con, love, fight. In the case of Italian piazze, French places, and Spanish plazas, the restaurants, cafés, and shops that line the perimeters encourage the ease of human encounters. But their openness can also give city squares a feeling of desertion. They’re places where people with time on their hands hang out—the jobless, the old, the lonely. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs quoted an Indiana woman on her town square: “Nobody there but dirty old men who spit tobacco juice and try to look up your skirt.” The square in front of the Paris city hall used to be called Place de Grève and was for centuries a place for unemployed Parisians to gather in search of work, which gave French its word for “labor strike.”
What determines a square’s atmosphere and use isn’t its shape or architectural details but mainly its location and scale. Some squares leave the visitor dwarfed and conspicuous, with no comfortable way to linger, as if the message is to keep moving. Look at pictures of the Zócalo, the vast central square in Mexico City, or Red Square in Moscow: huge paved plazas surrounded by beautiful architecture, with hardly anywhere to sit, making the people in them look like clusters of pigeons. Even squares built to a more modest scale can seem like pockets of isolation at the heart of a city, where the urban buzz suddenly goes quiet. I’ve never felt lonelier than crossing a Tuscan piazza at two in the afternoon, nor more spooked than hurrying through Bienville Square in Mobile, Alabama, at four in the morning, at the end of the 1970s.
City squares seem to be waiting for a crowd to fill them up—to assume a collective character and confer a public identity on private individuals. They possess a theatrical quality, as if the square is a stage and everyone in it a performer, even if the assigned role is that of an audience member. Many squares are best known for occasions when large numbers of people assemble there for a single purpose—to celebrate, to remember, to hear music, race horses, salute a leader, overthrow a government, attend a parade or an execution. City squares are where rulers and their people meet, sometimes with unpredictable effects. A gathering of citizens can turn into an obedient herd, a violent mob, or a voice for hope. Squares can become instruments for autocratic control or democratic change.
Being communal, squares reflect the civic culture of a city and a civilization. Times Square—whether the sleazy 1970s version (preserved forever in Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver) or the more recent corporate-neon fantasyland—represents the naked capitalism of New York, open to all comers. That it’s not so much a square as a series of intersections surrounded by stores, theaters, and offices, rendered nearly indistinguishable by the ubiquity of advertising, only emphasizes Times Square’s fluid, malleable American character. The Place de la République in Paris—whose 19th century grandeur was achieved by the destruction of eighteenth-century theaters and cafés—is a perfect expression of French republican pride, never more so than on January 11, 2015, when up to two million people gathered there to march for free expression and secularism after the terrorist attack on the weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo. In Pyongyang, the manufactured capital of North Korea, Kim Il-sung Square, more than eight hundred thousand square feet in area, is designed for vast military parades and anti-imperialism rallies in which individuals dissolve into an undifferentiated mass of movement and color. Squares are places where people go to shape an idea of society itself. For this reason, they are contested spaces.
From City Squares by Catie Marron Copyright © 2016 by Catie Marron. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America and The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq and other titles.