Thursday, December 17

Public space doesn't matter until it matters

From the Greek Agora to the New England town hall, the public square has always been the place where urban society hashes out its politics and culture. Over the last several decades, the physical public spaces have gradually been chipped away and privatized. The quintessential Main Street has largely been replaced by the indoor mall, and then the lifestyle center. Panera bread and Starbucks have become the primary gathering places of community. The streets are no longer the place to hear and be heard.

There's nothing wrong with Starbucks or commercial establishments in general, but what happens to the activities that get in the way of commerce - the political expression, art and music, religious proclamation, soapbox speeches, private solicitations - all of the messy diversity inherent to democracy? As public as our new third places may feel, they still maintain the legal right to exclusion.

Two unrelated controversies from the Charlottesville area highlight the abiding need for enough truly public spaces in our communities.

The first case is a clash between the ideals of free speech and private property. The congressional representative for Virginia's 5th district, democrat Tom Perriello, has an office near the downtown of Charlottesville. On several occasions, large groups of protesters (yes, tea party) have stood outside his office to make themselves heard. However, since the parking lot is technically private property, and nearby businesses have been impacted by the crowds, the protesters are being required by the landowner to stand 100 feet from the office on the public sidewalk. They have been threatened with a trespassing violation.

The Rutherford Institute, a national civil liberties advocacy group, has publicly asked Perriello to move to a place where he can be petitioned more easily. Founder John W. Whitehead wrote in a letter:

"Unfortunately, it is your choice of office location that has hindered the ability of citizens to effectively communicate concerning issues of the utmost importance to you, Congress and the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia."
Local conservative talk show host Rob Schilling asks for the same thing:
"will the Congressman relocate his office to a “public” site so as not to abridge his constituents’ access to him and his staff?"
But where might this "public" place be?

The second story is less thorny legally, but still important. As we all know, the Salvation Army has a tradition of soliciting for the poor during the holiday season outside of shopping centers. What we tend to forget is that this all happens under the good graces of the property owners of the shopping centers. A few stores in the Charlottesville area have begun to bar the bell-ringers from their property, under the grounds that it disturbs their customers. The space along the walkways that has appeared public all along suddenly becomes obviously not. The local Salvation Army has claimed to take a $22,000 hit as a result.

Charlottesville actually fares better than most places in it's vital public spaces. The car-free downtown mall hosts every variety of speech or musical talent year round and even reserves a special wall to encourage political expression. And, health care debates aside, this era in our country does not happen to be one of extraordinary political tumult. If some people in contemporary Charlottesville are even struggling to be heard, what does it mean for those towns and cities that have long since sold off and moved away from their only public squares.


Stephen Gross said...

I have never really understood why it is legal for private entities to build their own roads or sidewalks. Why don't planning / zoning commissions forbid such construction? As for parking garages, that's a very thorny issue. I'd love to hear ideas on how to amend existing law to accommodate political expression on such areas.

Diane said...

The first story is delightfully ironic since conservatives (ie. tea partiers) would like to privatize everything.