Last Monday, I found out there was (finally) a USB cable I could use to upload the images in my two-year-old cellphone. I happen to be in the thick of thinking the whole notion of a public square through, and by coincidence (or providence) I rediscovered a short series of photos I took almost exactly a year ago that has a bearing on the idea.
When I first visited the Mall in Washington, DC, I was most struck by its rough-and-ready quality, by its lack of polish even. No cement, and certainly no marble floors. Just grass and soil. I was so intrigued I took the following photos (don’t expect much, it’s only a 0.3 megapixel camera phone).
That’s my shadow, by the way, in the first photo. (Click on the pix for a better look.) Note especially the third photograph. It’s just … ground.
I’m not sure what I did with these photos, or whether I started thinking of the Washington Mall in particular terms as a specific kind of public square. But a few days later, on May 17, I sat in at a briefing by Steve Berg, an editorial writer of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He gave an admittedly simplified but nevertheless absolutely instructive comparison between the two sets of principles that have shaped the American project: "cowboy values" and "dude values."
Quite a bit of it was of course traditional: "the open range" vs. "cities and culture," the need for "moral clarity" vs. the imperative for "analysis," that sort of thing. (He was frank about the limitations of his scheme, and adept at using it to talk about aspects of the American experience in greater depth.)
But what struck me most was the following statement, which he used to illustrate the dynamic between "freedom" and "planned order." [It appears in brackets in my notebook, exactly like this.] The "Wash. Mall is really like a kind of pasture." A kind of open range but within the context of a city? I knew, immediately, exactly what he meant.