Why we need neighborhood squares. Part 2: Generating community

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

A neighborhood square builds trust and familiarity; this is self-evidently a place for dialogue and discussion, for meetings and greetings, for shared experiences and forming bonds.

As Wendell Berry observes, “community exists only when people know each others’ stories”. Learning about and knowing about each other reinforces social networks and cements bonds among the community as a whole. How can community members know each other, Berry asks, “if they have forgotten or never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.”

At any one time on the square, a multiplicity of conversations may occur between friends and families, young and old, native and stranger, conducted within smaller and larger groups, sitting, standing or moving. Some Venetian squares (Campo San Luca, Campo San Bartollomeo) are even designated as “talking campi” where one is certain to find someone to talk with even in winter months.

Some exchanges are merely a brief greeting, others are an update of the most recent news, and some conversations lengthen into an extended discussion, with some participants leaving and others taking their place as the conversation unfolds.

The square is an ideal place for face-to-face networking. Unplanned meetings lead to introductions all round, linking the community in ever-expanding circles. From the physical presence of a new acquaintance, their demeanor, what they say and how they say it, we can often immediately sense whether or not this new acquaintance may be a potential real friend.

What do people talk about in squares? No subject is taboo! Mainly they exchange stories about their lives and experiences; details about family, work, state of health, plans and hopes. In some squares, people may become engaged in intense political debates, or groups will talk about recent sports events. But these, too, will be interspersed with exchanges of personal information.

Conversation and gossip  “weave the social fabric” of the community. In some cultures, the word “gossip” carries negative connotations. And yet, providing it is not done with malicious intent, gossiping about persons can be of great value to the community. It expresses an interest, concern, or curiosity about other community members and increases awareness of their lives. Gossip about the health or travel plans of a third party can elicit recommendations for a home remedy, a medical specialist, or a delightful place to stay which can be passed on to the subject of one’s gossip. Even gossip is significant conversation.

Lewis Mumford defines the primary function of the city to be “the place of significant conversation and dialogue… the ultimate expression of life in the city”. And for Aristotle, “only the constant interchange of talk unites citizens in a polis, in a community”. The neighborhood square is the primary place for significant conversation and dialogue.

Turn to Part 3: Socializing children.