The Vital Pleasure of Existing in Public

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We waved hello or exchanged verbal greetings with some of these people, but most we just observed from afar—in my daughter’s case, with intense curiosity. It’s like her very own live Discovery Channel documentary: the human in its natural habitat. She loves to take it all in.

COVID-19 first exploded in the United States three weeks before my daughter’s birth. The changes that the pandemic thrust upon my life have been completely inextricable in my mind from the ones that parenthood wrought.

Long after Florida mostly reopened, we stayed pretty locked down as a family. I don’t mean paranoid, but we’ve certainly chosen to err on the side of caution, given the uncertainty around possible long-term side effects of even a mild COVID case, including in children. So she’s simply never had certain social experiences that she normally would have by her age. She hasn’t seen the inside of a grocery store or a restaurant. We don’t have big parties (though she knows our close friends) and she’s not in day care.

What my daughter does have is downtown. It’s her window to the world.

When asked what it means to me to be an urbanist, I think about this often. One of the most fundamental differences between an urban place and a non-urban one has little to do (directly) with the density or height of buildings or the width of sidewalks or anything material at all. It has to do with the extent to which people go about their lives in public or in private.

With the growth of suburban life, many of the activities I listed encountering downtown have retreated behind closed doors. The joggers and weightlifters and yoga class participants have gym memberships. The birthday parties happen out of public view, or in spacious parks you have to drive to, where everyone has come with a purpose in mind and is keeping to themselves. There are no street corner buskers, because there is no audience. The cops are chatting in the station’s break room, not at the coffee shop. There are no bells to be heard driving by a church campus at 40 miles per hour.

In non-urban places, transportation, of course, is overwhelmingly in private cars, from within which we experience each other more as annoyances than as compatriots.

When my daughter is older, I will be glad for the way rubbing shoulders with her fellow humans helps my little human build empathy and understand difference. In adults, I believe this experience is central to cultivating civic virtue. “You can’t feel ’em if you can’t see ’em,” in the words of Kirk Whalum. It’s from seeing each other that we get the sense of shared destiny that makes for the kinds of places people will work to improve.

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