Ah, yes, the quintessential American Midwest small town. The idyllic Main Street, USA. Oklahoma is full of tiny towns that are little more than 2 perpendicular highways that slow and dwindle at their crossroads into rows of shops and stores, a concentration of 500 or 2000 or so peoples. These towns, however, suffer from a grave problem.
The American Small Town, and by extension those who use and live in them, suffer from a lack of natural gathering points. Places like cafes, plazas, and town parks, spaces that exist somewhere in the middle of the public/private spectrum, where the chance encounters that they engender can create conviviality and spontaneity.
Restaurants, if they exist at all, are limited to fast food joints. The nearest public place is the local reservoir. A pedestrian can't comfortably stop on a ghostly empty Main Street, and the only seating is an occasional bench facing the brick wall of the building facade 6 feet away. It is a place meant for an automobile, not a human being on two legs.
A place like a church- and I choose this as an example only because it seems quintessentially small-towny- can't fulfill the function I refer to. It isn't public enough. it is fundamentally closed, belonging to a particular in-group. The interactions occur only at planned times, on certain days.
Yes, this is a rant spurred by some of the small frustrations of traveling through the back roads of a place like Oklahoma. Konawa, Wetumka, Eufala- in towns like these, one can't find a place to relax, perhaps eat tranquilly, pass the time. Are other states like this, beyond the South and the Midwest where I've spent most of my years?
I think about what alternatives I've seen, that I can compare it to. Small towns in the Mediterranean; in Spain or Italy, that have public plazas and centrally located parks where pedestrians naturally pass through en route to their destinations. Nooks, crannies, and ample seating allow a sense of privacy and security in a very public place. Passersby can afford to be friendly and open to strangers and acquaintances because of how public the space is, and the new gradients and nuances of privacy and publicness allow each to more effectively choose the level of intimacy they want with their fellow man.
Says Christopher Alexander (pattern 67):
Without common land no social system can survive. In pre-industrial societies, common land between houses and between workshops existed automatically- so it was never necessary to make a point of it. The paths and streets which gave access to buildings were safe, social spaces, and therefore functioned automatically as common land.
Cafes, and perhaps the American diner, can provide a similar social glue. Located on the public promenade or plaza, it serves to "anchor" the public street or square and provide passersby and an excuse to go leave their house, a goal to stroll or saunter towards. More sheltered and intimate than the street, it provides a psychologically and physically safe zone from which to view the life of the street, be around others, chat or pass the time in whatever way one sees fit.
Once again, Christopher Alexander (pattern 88):
In European cities and towns, there is a street cafe in every neighborhood- they are as ordinary as gas stations are in the United States. And the existence of such places provides social glue for the community. They become like clubs- people tend to return the their favorite, the faces become familiar... It helps enormously to increase the identity of a neighborhood. It is one of the few settings where a newcomer can start learning the ropes and meeting the people who have been there many years.
This is certainly not just a European phenomenon. A perfect example I can think of in Norman, where I live, is Cafe Plaid. Though it is infernally cold inside due to an overworked air conditioning system, it has the best terrace in town. It becomes a natural meeting place. One can just as easily go there to work, people watch, meet for lunch, on and on.
This may not seem important in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. But therein lies the problem. Do we want our communities to be stagnant by design? How can we open our communities, and by extension ourselves, to new people, places, and encounters? And how can these new interactions, beyond those at the local public school or the town's Sonic fast food restaurant or Kwik-E Mart, how can they enrich our lives?
Ultimately, I see it as a question of the culture we want in our communities. Surroundings matter- our surroundings to a large extent determine who we are and how we act. If you don't believe that, I will draw on an example I read on Steve Pavlina's blog many years ago. Imagine who you are right now, in the safety of your home perhaps, quite comfortable. Now imagine who you would be if you were suddenly locked up in a maximum security prison. Or an insane asylum. You are probably very, very different people in each system.
So my question is this: Do we want a stunted, stagnant culture- comfortable perhaps, but impenetrable and uninviting? Or a culture that enriches and enables greater nuances of meaningful interaction as well as the possibility for each to have greater agency in their social lives?
...sees much and knows much