Monday, February 17, 2014

People Need More PUBLIC Space - Apart from Work Or Commercial Venues

Photo: Elders in distress with no place to go.
It shouldn't be difficult to see that there is inadequate public or civic space in the country. I am talking about indoor spaces where the young as well as elderly can chat, or even connect online without the fear of being ordered out for not buying more Mickey D burgers, or Starbucks lattes. For example, one shouldn't have to see territorial issues erupt in commercial enclaves.  Say when working stiffs on short lunch breaks visit  Starbucks, and feel miffed when all the good seating is taken up by students lingering over their notebooks or laptops- with only dregs remaining in their coffee cups.

But say one thing, say the next. At least Starbucks offers the illusion of an unhurried social space, a "coffee house culture" if you will, where one can savor his favorite style of java without being on a timer. But other places, like McDonalds, aren't so forgiving as we learned recently when a group of elderly Korean-Americans were shagged from a Mickey D's in Queens, NY.  The seniors had been gathering there for conversation and fellowship, a place they could be comfortable and seated while exchanging pleasantries. They'd sit there all day enjoying each other's company, sometimes sharing a $1.39 package of fries and maybe a diet Pepsi.

But the owners fretted the oldsters were monopolizing valuable table space, and indeed - according to reports - other patrons would demand their money back because they had no place to sit and eat their meal. (They clearly don't buy into the 'stand up while you eat 'cause it's healthier' meme).  The owners tried different strategies, such as putting a 20 minute time limit on tables, but nothing worked and eventually they called the cops to oust the elders - angering many in the Korean-American community.

But these problems don't stop there. One need only note how public libraries, eateries and other places also turn into 'second homes' (or first ones) for the homeless, economically disenfranchised or mentally disabled who also need space to be human during the long days.

But does the nation offer much of any? No! Why? Because most public spaces are either relegated to the great outdoors (where it's difficult for kids to get a Wifi connection and seniors may find it difficult to brave twenty below zero while they chat) or commercial venues like eateries or bookstores - where lingering is frowned upon unless one purchases whatever is on offer. After all, the owners will attest, they aren't providing a social club.

It shouldn't be like this. And people of whatever class or type ought not have to beg, borrow or hide in a place to have somewhere to go apart from an office (for work) or home (for retirees).  Thus, there ought to be places for people to gather socially apart from public libraries or commercial operations.

Public or 'civic space’ – occupies the mid ground between where  a state or local government  exerts control and where the rapacious private sector does. In terms of set theoretics, imagine circles for ‘government’ and ‘private sector’ respectively – with larger and larger intersections of commonality between them. Civic space or the ‘set of civic society’ lies apart from the influence of these two.

But in the case of the United States this civic space has been shrinking the past 30-40 years to the point you can barely locate it. Again, sure there are pubic parks - in many areas - but these aren't useful for the sorts of social gatherings or uses I've already identified. What we need are more large senior centers, such as exist in Columbia, Maryland, for example - where seniors could gather and play checkers, chess, or just hobnob with each other.....away from the house.  We also need convivial places for the Millennials to gather with their assorted tech devices, laptops etc. Someplace other than Starbucks and taking up space for paying customers (ok, customers that don't buy one latte and nurse it for five hours!)

What we need then are more "third places" outside the domain of government venues like libraries, or commercial ones. If we had more such venues we'd be a healthier society and also see more of our consumerist problems diminish, as people could gather without having to buy, buy, buy. Sadly, it appears no one is making a move to establish more such third places for seniors as well as the young.

I guess there's no profit in it!

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