What Fills the Empty Spaces in ‘City Squares’?

Squares are the empty hearts of cities waiting to be filled by individual and public meaning.

Editor Catie Marron divides City Squares’ 18 essays into culture, history, and geopolitics. The exploration of public squares demonstrates the range of their purpose as they take shape from culture and public needs. Public squares exude loneliness when disused. Even when a square becomes tied to history, it does not retain the energy or meaning outside the historical moment. Public squares act as liminal spaces that allow performance of personal, social, and political identity.

Nostalgia seems to be the lens many of the collection’s writers use to consider the meaning of the public space. Essays may give a thorough history of public spaces, but they only produce meaning when the profoundly personal allows them to frame a lived moment. An anonymous political movement can suddenly be embodied by a congregation of strangers. Old friends can meet around the ruins of a square and feel they have returned home. When a child experiences growth against the public backdrop, parents may have their most personal memories associated with the square.

City Squares offers many views of history, with different authors imparting their own understanding of public spaces. Information ranges from the often-cited Greek agora to Alma Guillermoprieto’s very personalized account of a Mexican citizen visiting the Zócalo at Christmas the year 43 students had been kidnapped by Iguala police. Michael Kimmelman gives an interesting overview of how a public square can be understood and uses an example of Michael Bloomberg’s reimagining of public spaces in New York to demonstrate how they can be used by a diverse public. Kimmelman’s memories of his children playing in a German square resonate more strongly than the history and conjecture. Adam Gopnik mixes the commercial history of Place des Vosges with the memory of witnessing his daughter understand her first joke.

Many of the highlights dispel the idea that public squares have universal purpose and importance. Rory Stewart’s essay demonstrates how citizens in a culture choose to appropriate uses of their public space. As Stewart details his attempt to clean up and open a square in Kabul, we learn that even though the community backed the creation of the square and supported the public services it would enable, the adults refused to use it as a public space because their social structure would not allow them. Stewart’s failure illustrates the performative nature of public space through the community’s refusal to use it as a place for adults to interact.

Evan Osnos’ essay on Tiananmen Square details how the 1989 protests have been written out of Chinese history. While images like the young man standing in front of the tanks may have been frequently seen in Western media, the subject of the protests became taboo in China. Neither the site nor the culture retains any sense of the political moment.

Even when discussing a square from a political perspective, the writers attempt to cite personal experiences that can define the performance for the reader. Ari Shavit walks Rabin Square as he describes the activities. His essay flows from the history to what he sees in front of him, and through his memory, he demonstrates the symbolism of the square based on his experience of political moments that shaped Israel’s government and policy. Other essays on the Maiden in Kiev, Tahrir Square in Cairo, and Taksim Square in Istanbul utilize similar blending of history and the authors’ experience to construct the moment a disparate people form a political body when they feel the need to support their fellow citizens.

Only three essays seem out of place in the collection. While it fits thematically and works well as a standalone piece, the direct address of Zadie Smith’s creative nonfiction essay creates a jarring dissonance with the other more traditional nonfiction voices in the collection. Andrew Robert’s essay focuses more on the lives of famous residents than the use of public squares where they lived. Gillian Tett begins by describing the physical space of the Facebook campus and the intentions of one of Twitter’s co-founders to create something that worked like a virtual public square. The essay fails to develop as Tett attaches concepts like the socialization of youth and the undefined idea that social media has an architecture. This final essay does, however, act to raise further questions about virtual public space.

City Squares demonstrates the potential of public space to influence both personal lives and social conditions. Authors warn us that a political demonstration may not be more than a single step in a city or country’s long evolution, but as we perform the roles of citizens, consumers, family, or lovers in these public squares, we bring meaning to our lives. These 18 essays remind us that we bring ourselves to fill the empty spaces.

RATING 7 / 10