Friday, February 18, 2011

Public places, contemplation, and E. B. White

My friend Diane VanderPol, the Director of the Giovale Library at Westminster, wisely pointed out that libraries have bucked the decline in public spaces.  In response to my last post she wrote:

I hold out hope for one public something: libraries! In the economic downturn, public libraries have seen increases in numbers of visitors, check outs and program attendance. During the very eras that saw a decline in the private fraternal orders, civic groups, etc, public libraries- as municipally and regionally supported entities full of paid professionals- thrived. Public libraries= the quintessential third places and the last hope for public something! 

Diane's is an important insight because it highlights an exception to the rule of public decline.  But it is even more interesting because it hints at an important but under-appreciated role of public spaces--they are a venue for communal contemplation.

Thinking of public places as refuges goes against most of the literature on those locations, which focuses on their ability to spark deliberation and engagement between citizens.  Think for example, of Robert Putnan's Bowling Alone which uses individual action in public spaces as a metaphor for the decline of community life.  Or consider Christopher Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites, which laments the decline in public dialogue that has accompanied the decline in third places. 

Recall for a minute, though, those types of public spaces that have flourished in the past 20 years--libraries, spas, yoga studios, coffee houses, and trail systems.  They all provide people the opportunity to be alone in public.  When I run on the trails near my house I often see other runners.  We always greet each other but never stop to talk.  When my wife and I stop at Starbucks we are surrounded by other couples who engage in quiet conversation, and by individuals alone with newspapers or iPods. Spas fill up with people getting massages or manicures in close physical proximity, but they may never speak to each other.  Yoga classes consist of rooms full of people enacting what has been for millenia a contemplative practice.  And when I have had enough with my office and the pressures flowing through the computer and phone, I get up, walk across campus, and enjoy the peace of being quietly surrounded by dozens of other people who pay me no mind.

I have no great wisdom about why this is the case.  But it is true that those places that once provided contemplation--churches on one hand and homes on the other--have lost their ability to do so.  Home is either a riot of engagement--getting kids to lessons, rushing to make a meal, cleaning house, watching TV while online--or a place of genuine alone-ness.  Churches (at least in the Protestant traditions) have moved away from quiet, solitude, and thoughtfulness to electrified music, non-stop talking, and enforced interactions.  So perhaps we must get into public now to find the conditions we need to be alone.

E. B. White, author of Charlotte's Web and essayist for the New Yorker made this point in 1948 when he wrote, "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy."  His insight was a simple one--it takes being around others to experience the solitude that makes us well.  Some public places do that, and we should be grateful for them.

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