Monday, March 06, 2006

What would Habermas have to say about Mountainair?

According to sociologist Jurgen Habermas, the “public sphere” is a virtual or imaginary community, not necessarily existing in space. Ideally it is "made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state" (176). What would Habermas make of Mountainair?

The public sphere in Mountainair is the grapevine – rumors and all. The street and the post office constitute public space. The public library is not truly public space because a) it is closed more often than open, and b) the librarian not only holds good books and intelligent reading in low regard, but, according to some library patrons, them as well.

The Chamber of Commerce, in one of its rare bright moments, proposes sponsoring the creation of a town square by closing the block in front of the Town Hall and the Dr Saul Community Center to traffic. The street is already extra wide in this block – wider than the blocks leading into it. The space is already a town square in the imagination, just waiting to be given life.

The resulting space would then be garnished with trees and shrubs, possibly paved with locally quarried stone slabs. Voilà – public space, a town square near the village “core,” complete with trees, benches, and pushcart vendors, hopefully some provisions for shelter from the elements, shade in the summer. A call for public art by local artists comes to mind. It would also provide a central location and focus point for events. This square would also front on the library – no telling what the librarian will think of having so much public just outside the door.

Public spaces have played a fundamental role throughout history. Ever since humans first defined private spaces, public spaces have served as places where people meet, by chance or on purpose, to exchange ideas. From the ancient Greek's Agora to the Middle Ages' Commons to early 20th century American streets and parks, public spaces have been centers for free speech and public discourse.

Most discussion and writing about public space focus on urban public space, not small town public space. Historically, the public spaces of cities have been centers of diversity. Even when housing was segregated, people from every background possible met and crossed paths with one another in public spaces. City streets, parks, and public transportation were melting pots of cultural differences, places where one would encounter people who dressed and spoke differently, hear people expressing opinions that one would never hear amongst their "peers," see people engaged in activities one had never seen before. The diversity that people were exposed to in these public spaces was eye-opening, and led them to new ideas and to see beyond their insular world.

In small towns, the perception is that diversity does not exist and insularity rules. Yet, diversity does exist, albeit in a more limited form – lacking the scope of a cosmopolitan urban center. However, the tendency to insularity lurks at every turn, taking center stage in many encounters. The outside world intrudes – new people from other places move in, the Mountainair-born move away and come back, economics force residents to seek work outside town, people travel more, experiencing diversity and then bringing those experiences back with them. Finally, there is the globalizing effect of media and the internet. The “other” and other ideas are there for the surfing.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are ideas to share in Mountainair. The problem is less in the ideas than in cultivating a zone for sharing them – then facing them instead of politely ignoring them as we would political or religious views that we do not share with our neighbors. Rather, the question might be: “Is it safe to share them in a town dominated by fundamentalist churches, a library stripped – with official blessing – of the ‘wrong kind of books,’ and a population of less than 1,200?” There is no question that Mountainair would benefit from a town square, but can that precious space live up to historical traditions of agora, public forum, commons, and the participatory New England town meeting held in public space?

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