When I was two or three, my grandparents took me to a performance of Sleeping Beauty, a sprawling, three hour long, 19th century masterpiece, at the San Francisco Ballet (SFB). To the surprise of everyone nearby, I sat, rapt, through the entire performance.
From that first trip to the ballet, I felt like I belonged there. The War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco is a gorgeous, late Beaux-Arts grandiosity, all marble and grand staircases, but even as a child, every time I went there I had this feeling of calm. Of being part of something. At the Opera House I would grow quiet, still, watching the adult visitors swishing and clattering across the long echoing hallways and staircases, in their coats, suits, and dresses.
My grandfather was a trumpet player in the SFB’s orchestra, so my childhood was filled with last minute balcony tickets to weeknight ballets and trumpet solo rehearsals in the living room. I knew every score by heart, and when I grew older, the name of every dancer and his/her trajectory through the company. Every time I went to a performance, I would strain my ears for the special ritual my grandfather and I had: he has played “I’m a little teapot” from the pit for me at every performance of his I attend, from that first performance to today. As a high school student, I once got a chance to sit in a box seat for a performance of Swan Lake, and when the visitor services people heard that my grandfather was in the orchestra, they arranged to take me backstage to meet the prima ballerina. She signed my pointe shoe (I was, of course, an aspiring ballerina); I was surprised by how short she was and how stained her teeth were.
As an adult, I’ve realized how rare it was to grow up so close to this kind of culture, and feel as comfortable with it as I do. I realize that a place like the San Francisco Opera House isn’t a place that feels like home to most people, and that there’s nowhere in Boston, where I live now, that feels that way to me. Because feeling that kind of comfort with an institution requires the opportunity to feel like you belong. And if you’ve never felt it before, you’re unlikely to associate those grand places with such a feeling.
When I started planning school, after half a decade of working in the kinds of cultural institutions that I love, I felt frustrated by what I came to call “the threshold problem.” It was impossible, I felt, to get people into institutions where they did not feel welcome and where they didn’t feel like they were members. I went into planning because working in the kinds of democratic public spaces I’ve described seemed like a way to reduce the threshold problem and bring culture directly to communities.
Urban planners talk about the ways that public spaces, outdoor spaces, provide opportunities for shared experience, exchange, and meaningful connection to a broader polity. They call this practice placemaking. They talk about plazas, public markets, waterfront parks and busy sidewalks, as if everyone could live in Rome if they just create the right kind of outdoor environments and the right kinds of amenities there. (I was at a public space conference at Harvard a couple of years ago when I realized that our primary frame of reference for what a good public space is is an Italian piazza). We have many decades of research now about how to place circulation paths, seating arrangements, playing structures, vendors and art installations to encourage people to rest and to gather in these outdoor places, in a way that feels safe and meaningful to them, and how to develop community participation in these efforts. The newest wave of practice, as I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog, is tactical urbanism, which provides tools for citizens to develop interventions into city infrastructure that work better, look better, and feel better to them than what was there before. These tactical interventions are often good places, or make places better.
But I want to tell you the secret of placemaking. I knew it as a child and I found it out again as a master’s student, researching Haymarket, the great open-air produce market in Boston. Great public spaces need insiders and outsiders too. The people who love the market, who want to see it persist, who shop it weekly and swear by its bargains – they share a set of rules and customs so specific that they can recite them to you, even though they probably don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. They belong to the community of the market, and it makes them love it. The vendors are the gatekeepers of this belonging, and, as the insiders will tell you, if you are patient with them they’ll reveal the rules. Pay with $1s. Respect the vendor’s expertise. Be direct and friendly. Bring your own bag. Get to know the products across the market and who does what best. Without those rules, the market wouldn’t be what it is. A real place is personal. So it isn’t just a physical environment: it’s a set of rules, expectations, relationships, and memberships, from the most simple to the most elaborate.
When we join that membership we claim a place as ours, even if it’s simply by finding a favorite place to sit. For us to feel really comfortable, it has to feel uniquely ours. One of the things that tactical urbanism does is create opportunities for people to develop these feelings of ownership. But it happens in everyday life, too. In Central Park, for example, there’s the place for the dogs to run around, the places for the lunchtime joggers and the lunchtime readers, the place for the tourists to take their pictures and the place for the families to stretch out and watch their toddlers play in the grass. There’s a place for the hacky sackers. Every place is used particularly by a particular group. (Planners sensitive to intercultural or interclass dynamics would further note that different status and social groups use space differently: that Latino families and Vietnamese families want different kinds of parks, and that poor people and rich people feel comfortable in different kinds of places.)
This is where inside places have so much to offer and so much work to do, because they have that threshold, which can cue us: this is a new place you’re entering, this is a place where you and the other people inside have decided to go. The threshold, if the expectations and opportunities of those crossing it fit with the goals of the place inside, becomes an asset, not a barrier. For instance, there are third places, those social gathering places like local pubs, bookstores, and coffee shops where people have a chance to become regulars, to spend intimate time with friends and have casual conversations with neighbors and acquaintances.
Third places were originally described by Ray Oldenburg, who saw them as primarily male spaces that provided a relaxed, convivial, social environment in between work and home. Today, we have a broader understanding of them, and have adopted some of the principles of third places into our programming of public spaces, like putting coffee tables in parks or a piano on a plaza. Local retail venues can have the feeling of a third place, because they’re places we have to go to regularly and might casually encounter the same people over and over: Jane Jacobs describes her neighborhood hardware store that way, and I’ve heard some people talk about their laundromats or food shops that way. Ditto for barber shops. One of the important aspects of a third place is the facilitator who sees every face and knows everyone’s name – the chef and owner of my local café, Paul, is one. He greets people by name and asks after children and vacations. If I had to leave a key for a visiting guest, I’d leave it with him.
I want cultural institutions to be places like these kinds of places. I want people to have the feeling that I had as a child in the Opera House.
But cultural institutions are really a fourth kind of place. They can be meeting places, comfortable places, with regulars and rituals and rules; they can be open places, places of large gatherings and random encounters or being-alone-in-a-crowd. But what they also are, are places with a unique story, collection, and mission. If people want to be in a place where they can focus on socializing and drinks, they will go to a bar. If they want a place to read a book and look out at a great view, they will go to a favorite bench at a park. They come to a museum because it’s a museum, and we can’t forget that. It’s not that museums, libraries, archives and theaters should pretend to be bars, or should pretend that there are no rules and no insiders – it’s that museums can become better at their mission by figuring out what kind of place they are, and as a result better serve their visitors and their community. If they do, they’ll find that they’ve created true members – like me as a two year old, or like this El Greco infatuated 2 year old – who feel committed, involved, and deeply a part of what they do.
This kind of placemaking takes a clear understanding of those unspoken rules. What are they, who knows them, how do people learn them, how are people invited to do so? And how do they interact with the institution’s mission? Then, they can develop cues, whether personal – the bartender who helps you decide what to order – or environmental – the stately library which reinforces the message that you should be hushed inside – to help members feel like they have a place that’s truly theirs, and newcomers to assess how and whether they’d like to join. If you would like your institution to feel to the public like a place for conversation and fun, for example, you can’t expect them to feel comfortable behaving that way without support, examples, and permission.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of my favorite fourth places. I like it because it’s very clear who they are and what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to follow one woman’s legacy, and to share with the public the things that gave her joy when she was alive. One thing we know she loved was entertaining people, in her museum. She also loved music, and the plants in her courtyard. So, those are the things the museum showcases with their collections, exhibitions, and events. With their new addition, they have the opportunity to have two kinds of places: one, the old palace, where they preserve Isabella’s carefully designed environment, and the other, the new glass wing, where they provide opportunities to showcase new work. When you cross through the passageway from one side to the other, there is a sign that tells you to turn off your cell phones and leave digital technology behind – this threshold directly cues you about how to behave, and also, more subtly, cues you about what the place is for. You’re going from the present day, into the past, and you are expected to give your full attention to the rich experience of that carefully constructed historic world, which exists in exactly the same form as it did when Isabella lived there. There are places to sit and look out at the courtyard, and so many objects you can’t possibly see them all. There are no wall labels and no curatorial statements – you’re in a home, truly.
In the modern wing technology is in bounds and relaxing is invited – there is the “library,” filled with books and couches, and a café, for dining. There is a contemporary art gallery and a music performance space – intimate, casual – where Sunday afternoon performances take place. The greenhouse is visible to visitors in the museum, so you feel like you can see “behind the scenes” and have an intimate relationship with the work of the museum. So in the museum there are places for looking, for socializing, for listening, for getting your hands dirty, for learning, for eating. Each environment tells you what it’s for, and it all is grounded in the story of the institution; the relaxed spaces remind you that the museum was once a home, and invite you to be at home there yourself – sit on the couch with a book, and hang out for awhile.
There’s no denying that while the Gardner is comfortable, inviting, warm and intimate, it is also exclusive. It has all the usual insider/outsider dynamics – only the people who truly feel comfortable there will actually take the museum up on its offer to sit in the couches and read for awhile, thus delineating the casual visitor from the experienced “member” – but it also costs a lot of money to enter. This is one of the inherent barriers of many cultural institutions. But not public libraries.
Public libraries are perhaps the platonic ideal of fourth places. They provide quiet places to work and read, combining the intimacy of the third place with the public access of the public space, and the collection and mission of a museum. They have children’s reading areas for programs and family outings; they have armchairs and computer labs; at the Cambridge Public Library main branch – where I’m writing right now – they also have a whole teen lounge. Like the Gardner Museum, the Cambridge Public Library has benefited from a recent contemporary glass-and-steel type addition, which allows the historic portions of the building do what they do best (convey an atmosphere of studiousness and silence) while the running around of children, the tutoring of English, the snacking while working and the socializing of teenagers can take place in the new, bright, open, functional contemporary space.
The Cambridge Public Library, in other words, is not only about books. Because there are so many other ways that any person can access books. It’s about learning, about the neighborhood, about self-education and self-improvement, and about a public investment in the curiosity and comfort of its citizens, rich and poor, young and old.
This morning at the library, among the laptoppers and problemsetters in the first floor corner where I usually set myself up during the day, an older man with loose jeans, a stocking cap, large plastic glasses and a white, closely trimmed beard, sat down. He asked to borrow a pen from the man sitting at the desk next to him – this man, middle aged, with a small e-reader, a pen and paper, and his red parka still on, is a regular at the library. The older man then got on the phone and loudly conversed with a muffled, gruff female voice, to whom he told the story of his search for a “real person” to speak with about his veteran’s benefits, anywhere he could reach by public transportation. He was far from home, he explained – he lives on the North Shore – and could only travel by bus or train.
Part of the way through the conversation, the man in the red parka started paying attention, chiming in under his breath and tapping the older man on the arm to tell him what to say. When the phone conversation ended, he explained to the older man, “I’m a veteran myself.” And he told him where he should go to get the best attention. There was a small relaxing in the older man’s body, a softening – he subtly warmed with recognition when the younger man said that he was a veteran, and he grasped his hand solemnly as their conversation finished. He left the library straightaway, into the snow.
Many thanks to Wendy, Mimi, Rainey, Kellian, Michelle, Molly, Corinne, Mandy, and – of course – to my Nonni and Nonno (happy birthday!), with whom I have had many conversations on this topic, and whose ideas and words echo through my thoughts.
Who else is working and thinking about this stuff? I should be learning from you, too.