PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

What Fills the Empty Spaces in 'City Squares'?

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


City Squares: Eighteen Writers on the Spirit and Significance of Squares Around the World

Publisher: Harper
Length: 304 pages
Author: Catie Marron
Price: $32.50
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-04
Amazon

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.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.