A Right to Public Space

[Written for my Urban Ethnography class journal.]

Union Square

Union Square is probably my favorite place in the city. At the intersection of Broadway, Park Ave South, and Fourth Ave, it borders a business center in Midtown and a cultural center in the Village. It’s aesthetically appealing and functional, loved by residents and tourists alike. (I wish the Brooklyn Bridge was the same. I feel lucky to have it as my fastest route home and love it to death. I just wish I could walk it without constantly having to dodge out of tourists’ obnoxiously-staged pictures or being asked to take them myself. It really puts a damper on the atmosphere.) It’s also, I think, one of the best uses of public space I’ve ever come across.  Nowhere have I seen so many New Yorkers just sitting around, not rushing, enjoying their environment.  They have collectively claimed it as their own. Its designers were geniuses and I doubt any city planner would dare mess with the square’s vibe now. There are fountains, benches, guys playing chess, saxaphonists, guitarists, acrobats, and a market — and that’s on a slow day. You can browse works by a multitude of street artists camped out on the sidewalk, many of whom are legitimate rather than tourist scams. Companies use it as a mass distribution site for free samples — I’ve received entire meals by just walking through! Or, if you’re in a different sort of mood, you can sit shaded from all that on the grass and watch the dogs play.

For those on a mission there are stores, restaurants, clubs, places of worship, and movie theaters packed into the surrounding city blocks.  


Even some non-profits have got in on the action. Today I was there to help photograph an event for issuportthepublicoption.org, where you could make a video petition to Congress for a government-sponsored health care option.



Afterwards, having collected a free six-pack of yogurt, I sat on a fountain and watched a chess match. None of the men knew each other, they were just relaxing and enjoying the afternoon. Who knew something so mellow could happen in such a bustling place?

All photos taken with permission.


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