Michael Kimmelman writes: Squares have defined urban living since the dawn of democracy, from which they are inseparable. The public square has always been synonymous with a society that acknowledges public life and a life in public, which is to say a society distinguishing the individual from the state. There were, strictly speaking, no public squares in ancient Egypt or India or Mesopotamia. There were courts outside temples and royal houses, and some wide processional streets.
By the sixth century BC, the agora in Athens was a civic center, and with the rise of democracy, became a center for democracy’s institutions, the heart of public life. In ancient Greek, the word “agora” is hard to translate. In Homer it could imply a “gathering” or “assembly”; by the time of Thucydides it had come to connote the public center of a city, the place around which the rest of the city was arranged, where business and politics were conducted in public — the place without which Greeks did not really regard a town or city as a town or city at all. Rather, such a place was, as the second-century writer Pausanias roughly put it, just a sorry assortment of houses and ancient shrines.
The agora announced the town as a polis. Agoras grew in significance during the Classical and Hellenistic years, physical expressions of civic order and life, with their temples and fishmongers and bankers at money-changing tables and merchants selling oil and wine and pottery. Stoas, or colonnades, surrounded the typical agora, and sometimes trees provided shade. People who didn’t like cities, and disliked democracy in its messiness, complained that agoras mixed religious and sacrilegious life, commerce, politics, and theater. But of course that was also their attraction and significance. The agora symbolized civil justice; it was organic, changeable, urbane. Even as government moved indoors and the agora evolved over time into the Roman forum, a grander, more formal place, the notion of the public square as the soul of urban life remained, for thousands of years, critical to the self-identity of the state.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that early in 2011 the Egyptian revolution centered around Tahrir Square, or that the Occupy Movement later that same year, partly inspired by the Arab Spring, expressed itself by taking over squares like Taksim in Istanbul, the Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona, and Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that the strangers who came together at places like Zuccotti and Taksim all formed pop-up towns on these sites, producing in miniature form (at least temporarily) what they imagined to be the outlines of a city, with distinct spaces designated for legal services, libraries, medical stations, media centers, kitchens serving free food, and general stores handing out free clothing. [Continue reading…]