The public realm
We were talking about parks and open spaces in an all-day conference. One of the panels concerned itself with those agreeable small plazas that increasingly dot the downtown areas of our cities, open spaces constructed as part of major corporate developments. To a refreshing degree, in contrast with other areas of the urban environment, these enclaves seem well maintained, well cleaned, and safe. The streets around deteriorate; city parks show the effects of neglect and of a declining work force. Is it normal, is it healthy, that the private spaces of the city should so often appear more attractive than the public ones?
A member of the panel, Dr. Jean McClintock of the Parsons School, offered a provocative answer. She remarked that in our society institutions born of the public realm are almost all in difficulty. Public schools, public libraries, public parks, were great and original social inventions of the 19th century; now , in the 20th, they seem ill at ease. It is perhaps not the institutions themselves that are failing (it was implied), but the values that once sustained them, the environing culture from which they first drew their life.
On and off since then I have been thinking about the concept of the public realm -- and worrying about what it means when this realm tends to lose its hold on the minds of the people. Clearly, the public realm once possessed an objective, almost palpable, being. Men and women accepted the fact that outside their private existences stood a sphere of thought and action more pure, more disinterested and more ennobling than the preoccupations of the daily round. Here men's petty interests were transcended; their narrow ambitions were enlarged. The institutions that developed in these bracing airs were cherished as the finest expression of a civilized community.
A youthful and optimistic American democracy broke through the cluster of closed institutions inherited from earlier periods. The museum took the place of the connoisseur's gallery; the public library, of the collections of princes. When Olmsted designed the new public parks that were the glories of American cities, they were accessible to all the citizens, not pleasure-grounds for an aristocratic class. These things were possible because men and women had formed the image of a public domain sustained and nourished by public virtues -- by common sacrifices, common discipline and common civic decencies.
That this public domain should now be withering is a grave and undeniable phenomenon. I do not know how one can more meaningfully explain the graffiti in our subways or the vandalism in our schools than as the result of an ethic radically at odds with public values. Not only do people ignore the realm existing above their personal lives; they violate and besmirch it. Similarly, a widespread tendency to turn from public education to private education marks retreat from a commitment that has been one of the most striking in the national life. The idea that within a vast territory containing many races, nationalities and religions, harboring the poor as well as the wealthy, there should be formed an educational system bringing the whole youthful population through secondary levels was an idea as challenging as political philosophers ever conceived. Today that idea and that commitment are being questioned.
The retreat to privacy is encouraged by the feeling that we cannot afford the costs of public systems. The question of what a great people can afford is always a difficult one, but it depends largely, I suggest, on what the people as a whole consider important and on what they deeply believe. If the image of the public realm had kept its original vividness, we would today be taking a stronger stand against the impoverishment of our public library systems and growing abandonment of our public parks.
In my imagination I see the Stars and Stripes floating free under the winds of heaven, high above the homes and workplaces of the community. To that benign , invigorating atmosphere our hopes, too, must be lifted up, if America is to keep the promises it once made to the world.