Squarks?

Until the nineteenth century, a square or plaza was a hard surfaced open space between buildings, a place for contact with our fellow human beings in exchange, dialogue, debate, play and democratic decision making. Parks belonged to the nobility and were for recreation and contact with nature. The confusion began in the 19th century when market squares resounding to the hullaballoo of trade were transformed into genteel gardens where newly middle class ladies with parasols strolled and listened to brass bands. In North and South America, plazas founded by the Spanish were refashioned overnight from busy market places and parade grounds into geometric gardens with paths, benches, flowers and bandstands. In America, the words “square” and “plaza” no longer convey their original meaning. They have become associated with park-like features and recreational uses.

No wonder that today, when a square or a plaza is created in America, it turns out to be a squark!

The Spanish brought the European style square to North America. Every city founded by the Spanish had to be laid out around a central multi-functional plaza that functioned as a social gathering place, a market place, and a military parade ground.

During the 19th century this kind of multi-functional plaza where all, rich and poor, and different ethnic groups could mingle fell out of favor. Around the world, the rising middle class wanted to separate themselves from the poor and working class. It became fashionable to redesign open plazas as ornamental parks with fountains, bandstands, flower beds, gravel paths and benches to support recreation - strolling, listening to the band, and polite conversation. Indeed, in many parts of the world, these parks became fenced and policed to keep out those who were too poor, lacked shoes, or were from the wrong ethnic group.

In the US, almost all Spanish plazas underwent this transformation; they changed from being a multi-functional democratic space from which no one could be excluded into a genteel garden designed for relaxation and entertainment. This narrower definition of expected behavior tended to exclude the poor because they “had no business” there. Access could easily be denied because the squares became fenced.

At the same time that squares were transformed into parks, the markets that used to take place on the square, bringing together rich and poor, vendors and their customers, people from the country and from the city, were moved into the other great Victorian invention, the cast iron market hall. The market hall was functional and emphasized the instrumental role relationships of vendor and customer, rather than the multiplicity of social interactions and nuanced relationships that developed on the square.

In recent years, farmers markets are again flourishing across North America and justifiably have become wildly popular. Lacking a central square, they have been relegated to a main street (in the best cases), or a parking lot beneath a freeway (in the worst cases) where their vibrancy and their ability to act as catalyst for social and economic development is unused.

For the sake of our democratic decision making process, and for our social and physical health, it is time to revive the main square and the neighborhood square as multi-functional open paved spaces surrounded by mixed-use buildings including residential, commercial and civic functions, where the farmers market and democratic dialogue may once again take center stage.

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