TThe pandemic has caused us to re-evaluate the value of public spaces in our lives. The parks have become a respite from isolation. Pubs and restaurants have spilled onto the sidewalks. Plans to reclaim city streets for pedestrians have flourished. Schools with open doors have become a source of celebration rather than complaint.
Architect Richard Rogers has said that architecture “is about a public space in the hands of buildings.”
While writing The big mistake, a novel about the life and murder of a forgotten Central Park and New York Public Library creator, I became obsessed with public space in the hands of books. All of the stories in my top 10 below are celebrations of areas where strangers can mingle, think, and be less alone, even that of a huge man-eating shark.
1. Peter Benchley’s Shark
Someone should make a movie out of this book! The power of Tiburon lies not in the horror of a note, but in its consideration of what would really happen if a large predator besieged the public spaces that are the lifeblood of a resort community – the beach and the ocean. Before writing Jaws, Benchley worked as a speechwriter for President Lyndon B Johnson. After it became a best-seller, he spent much of the rest of his life working in shark conservation.
two. Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrower
The protagonist of Kushner’s novel drives her Moto Valera motorcycle from Nevada to Utah to participate in land speed trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The outdoors becomes a space where an entire community gathers in its own risky quest for transcendence, captured by Kushner’s stately attention: “The parents and uncles who huddled around the workbenches, bent over vehicles, their belts were fastened off-center to avoid scratching the paint. “At the same time, artists are colonizing an industrial and deserted SoHo in New York, staging communal actions that test the boundaries between life and art, and the public and private space.
3. Central Park Then and Now by Marcia Reiss
I found this photo book inspiring while writing The Big Mistake. It is developed according to a simple but effective idea: archive and contemporary images are placed side by side to capture the evolution of Central Park over 150 years. The result is a hauntingly wonderful juxtaposition of past and present. Crowds in top hats are displayed alongside mass gatherings in the park in modern times, such as the 1968 demonstration against the Vietnam War, or the vigil that followed the assassination of John Lennon in 1980.
4. The Cambodian Embassy by Zadie Smith
Some of my favorite Smith nonfiction works explain why public spaces, like libraries, are an integral part of communities (see his essay North-west London Blues on Feel Free). In this tale, his focus is on similar areas: the public spaces between and around Willesden’s high-walled private residences; its streets, gardens and public swimming pool. The Cambodian Embassy raises a question, for art and for life, that I think has more and more contemporary resonance: “Surely there is something to be said to draw a circle around our attention and stay within that circle. But how big should this circle be? “
5. Cairo: Memories of a City Transformed by Ahdaf Soueif
Soueif’s book is a fascinating examination of how citizens find new ways to reclaim public spaces, from historic architecture that has been abandoned to greedy golf courses for the water-guzzling wealthy. Tahrir Square emerges in these pages as a reminder that public spaces are often places where history is made: places for activism and the destruction of established narratives.
6. Jazz by Toni Morrison
Filled with improvisations, compositional changes, and events repeated and reinvented from different perspectives, Morrison’s novel epitomizes the jazz of its title, but also the “call and response” pattern of democratic participation in politics and public performance. The characters come together in the Harlem of the 1920s, where even the seemingly innocuous lines are illuminated by an awareness of the fact that not everyone in society has the same space to breathe: dance, because there is none “.
7. The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri
There are those who have public space as the only available space. At age eight, Nayeri fled Iran along with her mother and brother, living in a refugee camp before she was finally granted asylum in the United States and headed to Princeton University. Here, she weaves her own vivid story with the stories of other refugees and asylum-seekers who have been displaced in recent years, ushering us into their daily lives as they gather in camps and border areas, trying to find a way to it. resettlement in the homes in which they live. you can call yours.
8. Barbarian Days: A Life of Surfing by William Finnegan
Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book falls into my favorite nonfiction category: memoirs of obsession. Here the obsession is surfing and the public spaces where surfing is practiced. Life on land becomes less real and transformative than the “lazy days of waiting for waves” between surfing communities silently gathered in unpredictable oceans. “Out in the lineup,” Finnegan writes, “once the surf began to pump, great pools of wonder seemed to accumulate around us, silencing or reducing us to codes and murmurs, as if we were in a church.”
9. Elisabeth Beresford’s The Wombles
Elisabeth Beresford took her young children for a Boxing Day walk on Wimbledon Common in southwest London, where her daughter Kate repeatedly pronounced it as “Wombledon Common.” This sparked an idea, and in 1968 Beresford published his first children’s book on The Wombles, a group of furry creatures with the motto “Make Good Use of Bad Trash.” Environmental pioneers ahead of their time, the Wombles gathered in burrows and open green spaces with the goal of creatively recycling trash. They were also early farm-to-table advocates, demonstrating a great hunger for the kinds of dishes that would now cost you a month’s salary at a Michelin-starred restaurant: margarita buns, acorn juice, fir cone souffle. and elm bark casserole. .
10. Here Is New York by EB White
Perhaps the best New York book ever written, Here Is New York unfolds as a single imagined walk through the city. “Manhattan is without a doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth,” writes White, “the poem whose magic is understandable to millions of permanent residents, but whose full meaning will always be elusive.” White captures how a city becomes great not by virtue of its horizon, but by the communion of people gathered in its public spaces.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism