“Fourth Places”: Thoughts not worked into recent guided walk

The “Fourth Places” depicted in the Art of  Maxwell Bates and Philip Surrey
Remarks Prepared for the July 14th, 2012 Walking Tour Left on the “Cutting-Room Floor”

Being a guide – or as author E.V. Walter (see reading list) called it,  periegete or ciceroni –  means working with serious limitations other speaker or writers don’t face: you are mobile and you have to compete with sounds and sights that you can’t control.  But those other influences are part of the charm of these walks.  In any case, despite my experience with being a guide, found it hard to work these snippets of wisdom in, putting my limited time into point to things that were tangible.

The art of these two artists of the 1950s and 1960s depicted people in places.  Were these the “third places” described by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place? And by Jane Jacobs in the Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Or were they more like the places depicted by Jonathan Raban in Soft City and by Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man and by David Engwicht in Reclaiming Our Cities and Towns.  The former are populated by people who know each others and feel a sense of proprietorship of the places, seeing the link between their own health and that of the places they shared; the latter were marked by anonymity.  The setting for Cheers TV comedy is like this.  The latter are more on their own, seeing people as instruments of achieving their own personal ends.

Oldenburg refers to the former as “third places” to distinguish them from the other two main places we spend our time, our homes and our workplaces, which are formally structured to assign roles and responsibilities, while “third places” are informally structured to allow for social “play.”

We come out of our homes to get supplies and services and to make contact with others outside our family and place of work or study. The people depicted in Surrey’s and Bates’ drawings are not at first and second places (although the waiters are at work), but are these places third or fourth place?  Do the people know each other?  It is important because some people enter publoic and semi-public places seeking anonymity – to get away from the people and related responsibilities at home or work – while others live, perhaps because they live alone or work in an isolated setting, enter such places to have meaningful contact with others, whether people they already know, or meet new friends and associates.

Australian David Engwicht, writer and artist, after his first visit to Paris, referred to the activity of sitting alone at sidewalk cafes, facing the passing flows of people, as using the strangers to imagining fanciful tales for each, guessing what each is doing or their life history.  At the same time, Raban emphasizes people`s loneliness or their need for stimulation they gain by experiencing the view of people different from themselves, or their fanciful adventures with seeing how others react to their appearance and speech.  David Reisman (The Lonely Crowd, 1950) talks about “other-directed” people looking to others for guidance on how they should act or dress.

There is also the matter of people whose needs are not considered by the people who build public places.  The two elderly men (“Old Men,” Bates, 1967), although not conversing – they are looking, not at each other, but at something ahead of both – are clearly together, presumably sharing things after meeting at their regular spot.  The probably like to sit silently for periods of time; then compare their “readings” of what they both see.  They likely have limited means for buying food at restaurants, so they need public benches, since patio seating is only for playing customers. Students have similar needs, as do adults with young children.  Being “on the margins” means being in the half of the population that does not make and spend enough money to be among those I call the AAA’s, Active Affluent Adults; they are instead part of the groups that make up what I call the “PED-CIVS” – poor, elderly, disabled, children, ill/infirm, visitors, and “simplicists.” Government and business leaders assume they are provided for by AAAs, either directly or via various “assistance” programs.  Transit agencies talk of the former, who own and drive cars, as being “transit-choice,” while the latter, who have no choice but to travel by transit, as “transit-captive.” with the implication that the latter group need little service and consideration to be drawn to transit, especially since transit is a “natural monopoly.”

Last year, I did a survey in the very walkable Byward Market to look for City-provided seating and found none; there is only the private seating provided by restaurants on city sidewalks that requires payment for a person to sell food, and the National Capital Commission, which has supplied seating in its delightful back lanes and along one side of Sussex Drive, the toniest area for retailing (most of the retail outlets are in NCC buildings).  The city, though, does provide a good deal of bicycle parking.  There are several planters holding trees, but their ledges are too high for seating, except if the person is tall and athletic.

The evolution of retailing since the artists did their work has made the plight of PED-CIVS more difficult.  Shopping now occurs in shopping malls and “power centres” further away and more car-oriented.  The malls discourage loitering and power centres have no places to sit and visit, not to mention sidewalks that provide a segregated area for people moving on foot.  Those who might displease AAAs and shopowners are ushered out of stores and malls.  Although many malls support seniors walking clubs, malls seem to be in decline (no new ones are being built, and some are being revamped to remove the indoor walking/seating areas).  The centres of towns, which have the best transit and where people without cars live, don`t attract this new “format” of retailing, which needs larger parcels of land for the larger stores and even-larger parking lots, on land that is less expensive than central lands.  On the whole, people of all backgrounds are better served by smaller stores, so that a larger variety can fit into a small area.  The website, http://www.walkscore.com, can compute “walkability” for any address in North America, as well as scores for “bikability” and transit access.

The area of the walk has the largest shopping mall in the region, Rideau Centre.  Although it is “anchored” by the last two of four department stores in the area (Caplans and Ogilvy’s have closed), it specializes in fashion, lacking what the Byward Market has: food products, full-service restaurants, and clubs, let alone a “street culture.”  The windows of the department stores lack the elaborate display of time past.  “The windows of the department stores were theatres.  They showed Americans lives as yet unlived in, with vacant possession.  When your nose was pressed hard against the glass, it was almost yours.” [Raban, Hunting Mister Heartbreak, p. 51]  Two bright signs: However, recently, Forever 21 took over two floors next to the main entrance, to which they added windows facing the street.  The site of the Caplan’s store, now a condiminium, now has a two-storey street-facing Urban Outfitters store.

This section of Rideau Street in front of the Centre’s entrance was the subject of an urban design experiment in the 1980s that failed.  The business owners on the street, envious of the climate-controlled environment the newcomer business would be getting in the mall, demanded that city build a structure to cover the sidewalks.  Although it provided climate-control, the fact that it was still a public sidewalk denied the merchants “client-control.”  Predictably, the “street people” used it as their personal space and the merchants, after few years, demand it be removed.  The structure lives on, serving as the “roof” for the farmer’s market in the town of Perth, about 60 kms to our west.

Those who are most left out are the homeless, who can’t manage the accoutrements of the AAAs.  If life in public is a theatre, they are never off stage.  Like many cities, these people are mostly found in the core, thanks, ironically, to popularity of public areas that assure the crowds on sidewalks they need for begging – or getting donations for their“busking”.  Each day they shuffle between the places that provide overnight accommodation and the other places with social and training programs and some individual counselling.  The men and women are segregated, too.  Drug-dealing and prostitution also occur in these areas.  Nearby is Ottawa’s largest concentration of public housing for families (most tenants are new immigrants) and seniors.  The manager of the largest grocery store says that more than 70 percent of his customers arrive by foot or bicycle.

Most merchants in the area are members of self-taxing associations, business improvement areas, that have slowly eliminated public seating and places where the homeless might congregate or sleep, often by putting spikes on ledges, as one does to protect high places on one home from pigeons.   This, according to author and student of urbanism, William Whyte, won’t: “The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is  to make a place attractive to everyone else.” [1980, p.63]

Raban has some choice comments about the lower element of cities (from Hunting Mister Heartbreak):

The current term for these misfortunes was ‘street people’, an expression that had taken over from bag ladies, winos, and bums. . . . The term was too easy by half.  It casually lumped together the criminal and the innocent, the dangerous and the safe.  It included long-term mental patients discharged from hospital under what was called, in a sublime euphemism, the “de-institutionalized program”, along with crack addicts, thieves, alcoholics, hoboes, the temporarily jobless, the alimony defaulters, rent-hike victims and everyone else who’d fallen short of the appallingly high standards that Manhattan set for staying properly housed and fed. . . . ”

“There were the Street People and there were the Air People.  Air People levitated like fakirs.  Large portions of their day were spent waiting for, and travelling in, the elevators that were as fundamental to the middle-class culture of New York as gondolas had been to Venice in the Renaissance.  It was the big distinction — to be able to press a button and take wing to your apartment.  It didn’t matter that you lived in the sixth, the 16th or 60th floor: access to the elevator was proof that your life had the buoyancy that was needed to stay afloat in a city where the ground was seen as the realm of failure and menace. [pp. 65-66]

One of the poems from Larrick’s book, On City Streets (chosen by young people) that I did read to end my walkabout, is worth repeating here:

[Untitled]
Two girls of twelve or so at a table
in the automat, smiling at each other
and the world; eating sedately.
And a tramp, wearing two or three tattered coats,
dark with dirt, mumbling, sat down beside them –
Miss Muffit’s spider.
But, unlike her, they were not frightened away,
and did not shudder as they might if older and look askance.
The did not steal a glance
at their dark companion and were slightly amused:
in their shining innocence seeing
in him another human being.
Charles Reznikoff, p. 90

We Real Cool

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool.  We
left school.  We

Lurk late.  We
Strike straight.  We

Sing sin.  We
thin gin.  We

Jazz June.  We
Die soon.
Gwendolyn Brooks (p. 59)

The depicted encounters in restaurants also suggest of anonymous “fourth places”, the patrons sitting alone at tables or at counters, where people seated adjacently don’t look at each other, so it is not possible to tell whether that are communicating or not.  Only Bates’ two “Tavern” paintings suggest people related to each other, not as couples.  Such places are favourites of Oldenburg.

There are three paintings depicting transportation: a commuter train, a line of taillights of commuting motorists at dusk, and a family near a busstop, presumably going to a common destination.  Commuting, although an activity feely chosen by AAAs, is depicted seen as tedious, whether also lonely (the motorists) or anonymous (those on the commuter train).  The driving commuter faces the delays of congestion, but does so alone, making his delays harder to take.  Jonathan Raban says of this experience, “Who feels love for his fellow man at rush hour?  Not me.”

Here are two poems about commuting on transit from the same collection:

Fatigue

The man in the corner
all slumped over
looks forlorner
than a tired lover,

Forehead dulled
with heavy working,
eyelids lulled
by the train’s jerking;

Head hangs noddy,
limbs go limply,
among a number
he dozes simply;

A dumb slumber,
a dead ending,
a spent body
homeward wending.
Peggy Bacon, p. 62

Subway Rush Hour
Mingled
breath and smell
so close
mingled
black and white
so near
no room for fear.
Langston Hughes, p. 63

The family, if they take the bus together, will generally travel outside rush hour and will avoid being jostled and squashed; instead they parents will be offered comments from other travellers about how nice the children are, especially from seniors.  But such comments usually don’t develop into conversations or even an exchange of names or phone numbers.

Children see many adults on these trips.  Here is a poem of one such experience:

A Lazy Thought

There go the grownups
To the office,
To the store.
Subway rush,
Traffic crush;
Hurry, scurry,
Worry, flurry.

No wonder
Grownups
Don’t grow up
Any more.

It takes a lot
Of slow
To Grow.
Eve Merriam, p. 44

The car has a strange relationship to public places.  Although it has a role to bring people to such places, it is also isolating; and it takes up a lot of public space when parked. Despite the lack of public seating, each parked car has seating that is deemed private and unavailable.  When on the road, it also pollutes: air, noise, grime.  But worse, it is a threat in which the smallest error by a driver or pedestrian can result in tragedy.  As a result, we see few children and elderly in public places in city centres.  Here is my Haiku contribution to the basic principle governing the use of inequitable power in public places:

“In every field, the more you wield, the more you yield; lest others shield.”

Even outside the commuting and the restaurant or sitting-in-parks experiences, there are many others where we are mostly anonymous, from the semi-anonymity of the sales process of questions and answers and the offering of a credit card to complete a sale, or the many faces we see on sidewalks and in crosswalks, or looking back from the seat of a car.

Faces

People that I meet and pass
In the city’s broken roar,
Faces that I lose so soon
And never found before,

Do you know how much you tell
In the meeting of our eyes,
How ashamed I am, and sad
To have pierced your poor disguise?

Secrets rushing without sound
Crying from your hiding places –
Let me go, I cannot bear
The sorrow of the passing faces.

– People in the restless street,
Can it be, oh, can it be
In the meeting of our eyes
That you know as much of me?
Sara Teasdale, p. 69

But this anonymity can produce unique benefits, the the participants as well as to the broader society.  The kinds of encounters in public places, which we don’t see depicted, are what William Whyte called triangulation, in which two people, who are already engaged in conversation, are passed by a third known to one of them.  It is this phenomenon that Whyte says is so important to cities performing their major function of commerce (what Engwicht labels exchange), and how in late financially-strapped 1970s NYC, companies that relocated from Manhattan to the outskirts of Connecticut, New Jersey and Westchester County did significantly worse than those which remained.  Sometimes a window display or a street performer, can also provide the “third leg` of a triangle.  Both writers also play up the importance of joy of street vendors.  I refer to the purpose of cities as, “maximize commerce, minimize commotion.”

Another element of being in public places is the feeling of safety and respect from the others also using it.  Jane Jacobs coined the phrase, “eyes on the street,” to contrast the “organic” what this occurs vs. the modern approach of having more police and more surveillance cameras.  These add nothing by their presence except the increased possibility that a lawbreaker or pest will be prosecuted successfully.  But having a place occupied or watched by a number of people who relate its health and conviviality as important to their own well-being is better.  I composed a talk about this, “Feet Follow Fabric,” for a web conference for World Planning Day, November 1, 2011, which is posted on hearthhealth.  It itemizes the factors that contribute to “eyes” playing a successful role: 1) a sense of “proprietorship” by occupants and neighbours, 2) flanking buildings that face the area, with a clear line separating the public from the private (but storefronts should be “active and flush” to the sidewalk), and 3) lots of people walking and/or sitting.  Obviously, neighbours should also keep windows clear for viewing and, when possible, open so that noises suggesting things happening outside will reach the occupants’ ears.  Children are not very good as “eyes” but they are important in attracting people to public places.  And dogs are a positive influence: Owning a dog helps: they induce their owners to make extra early/late walking trips.  And dogs scare criminals, according to a police friend.

To tie things up, we should ask: do the “street people” we saw at the beginning of our walk people provide ‘eyes’ for the streets they occupy?  I don’t think they do.  Despite the amount of time they spend on the streets, they feel little ownership.  I rarely yield to their open hands, but would, gladly, compensate them for doing work to maintain the street, such as picking up litter.  Even though I have suggested it to a few, there has been no positive response.  Perhaps it is the home/business-ownership thing they lack that would stimulate them into caring about the health of the public areas they use.  It could also be that they feel that they have little to offer or that, being rebuffed in so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways each day, they owe nothing to the “greater good.”  I favour the idea that most do not have an upbringing in which they were provided a very elaborate “mental model” of how society works, but rather a capricious one in which whim rules, especially for those with more power and money.

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One Response to ““Fourth Places”: Thoughts not worked into recent guided walk”

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