Commentary

3-Minute Civics: Public spaces make commonalities, town squares create allies

October 7, 2021 5:55 am
A statue in a public space in Warner, New Hampshire

Public spaces, like this one in Warner, bring people together. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

In just about every town in New Hampshire, you will find at its center a public common or town square.

The ubiquity of these open spaces suggests that town and urban planners shared the same goal. They tried to create and maintain a public space or common area where the various social fabric that weaves together different members of towns and communities could in practice be seen.

These invisible threads linking individuals into communities can usually be seen only when they are actively being used. For example, think of the many groups and activities that each week are found in the common space in your town: a farmers market, picnic tables with convenient areas for pets, green open areas marked by a historical plaque or historic figure, a gazebo, some trees for shade, perhaps a stage. This public space for common use and exchange of ideas harkens back to Europe. Ever since the days of neighbors around bonfires at night, people have spent time in the presence of strangers seeking commonality, drawn together in hopes of community. 

Here in New England, our legacy of civil public discourse comes from the region’s Puritan legacy that is shaded with some serious Old Testament overtones (for fun facts and citing, read William Bradford’s diary entry about the execution of Thomas Granger).

These Old Testament vibes were common throughout United States history, up and especially through the Civil War, where the morality of society could be debated hotly in public squares. In particular, there was the public use of a regional type of speech, the jeremiad.

The jeremiad was a sermon given in public that “grew out of the conflict and consternation experienced by second and third generations entrusted with maintaining the vision of their forebears. These children and grandchildren … found themselves caught between the original hopes of the founders and their own lived experience and practice,” writes Ronald C. White in “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech.”  A “jeremiad combined social criticism and reaffirmation … facing up to these adversities became an opportunity to reaffirm the beliefs and behaviors associated with the founders of New England,” White writes. 

Public spaces have often served as a place of social criticism, particularly by older generations upset with younger generations.

Last summer, the happenings of places far away became local and prominent as communities brought out their private concerns and sought commonality with the like-minded into the public spaces. All over New Hampshire, citizens across the political spectrum utilized their town squares to make public the ties that bound them. We reinforced community – neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend were strangers no longer but collaborators to a shared commonality. 

Last week, many locales, including the State House grounds, were home to many of these public airings that once again “grew out of the conflict and consternation experienced” between those “caught between … original hopes” and “their own lived experience and practice.” 

There are corresponding events playing out in our towns as a result of the aftermath of the collective trauma we are experiencing: the global pandemic, continued police violence, the slow train wreck of environmental collapse, or people awakening to a seemingly uncaring, ineffective, and self-serving older generation tasked with coordinating an effective response for the mostly younger generations to these crises.

When these events play out publicly, they illustrate the health of our society. Test the health of your opinions and the health of your community by utilizing your town’s common and get rid of the otherwise societal harm of isolation and stagnation. Find your commonality in public and join the many conversations that exist in your neighborhoods.

There is no shortage of controversies to engage in today. However, by engaging in the conversations that shape our neighborhoods, at least one can then attempt to bridge the divide between “hopes” and “experiences.”

(Three-Minute Civics is an occasional column that seeks to help the people of New Hampshire navigate the issues and debates taking place at every level of government.) 

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