Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Obstructing Public Gathering Space

As people gather in open public spaces around the country right now for the occupy movement, it's important for us to remember just how much this tradition that is so fundamental to American cities is being further restricted and "managed."

Take the example of Findley Plaza here in Atlanta, which I have been visiting for a project for a few weeks. It's the center of an eclectic alternative neighborhood called Little Five Points which is definitely worth visiting. Having grown up in Charlotte, I have a hard time imagining a place that could very comfortably fit into San Francisco thriving here in the South. But Lil 5 has been one of the centers of Atlanta's multiracial alternative subcultures since at least the 70s according to one
shop owner who even compared it to Haight Ashbury, having lived there in the 60s.

A couple of merchants and residents I spoke to mentioned that people use to regularly gather at Findley Plaza and sit in the beds beneath the trees, sometimes to protest but usually just to gather, talk, share music, and be social. This obviously doesn't sit well with local authorities who built a fence around the beds to stop this informal gathering. These awkward low corrals (really the inverse of a corral) completely kill the space and remnants of this gathering experience can now only be seen on a few benches squeezed in probably as a token to what once was.

I'm sure there are many people who are thrilled by moves like this, but it's important to remember before taking such drastic action in our public spaces, that when people frequently gather somewhere, it's because that space is serving one of the most fundamental needs a city can for those people, it's enabling interactions. You only need to look at Findley
Plaza to see that any attempt to obstruct those interactions seems forced and artificial.