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Posts Tagged ‘public spaces’

Finding Public Relief

One of the major changes in American life about 100-120 years ago was the domestication of public spaces, particularly in our cities, making them places where “respectable” women went shopping and for entertainment. As described in an earlier post, the streets were historically dangerous places for women, even in daytime. Beginning after the Civil War and accelerating around the end of the century, authorities established dependable public order in many areas of the cities, especially in commercial districts, to the point that going downtown rather than avoiding it was what fashionable middle class women did. (Americans went through another cycle of shunning public spaces in the 1950s to ‘90s and then flocking back to them more recently; see here.)

Two just-published papers reveal yet more of how women claimed urban spaces in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One describes how middle-class women came to drink in public places, getting a bit of alcoholic relief downtown. Another describes women reformers’ efforts to provide public bathroom relief downtown. That campaign stalled and the search for public facilities continues, as witnessed by smartphone apps for finding toilets downtown. Both accounts fill in the story how women tamed the city.

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Middle-class Americans have alternatively immersed themselves in and withdrawn from public urban spaces. In the early nineteenth century, the streets and squares of American center cities were commonly crowded, filthy, and dangerous – certainly no place for a “respectable” woman. By the end of that century, those same spaces had become even more crowded, but were now elegant and enticing – just where “respectable” women went to lunch and window-shop.

By the 1970s, however, middle-class Americans were again avoiding those streets and plazas. Television and the growth of suburbia had drawn many people into their homes. The center cities’ growing poverty and crime drove people away, leaving great American downtowns with abandoned stores and empty plazas. (See these previous posts: here and here.) We would expect, given all the speculations about how today’s communications technologies enable Americans to curl up in their burrows, for the flight from public spaces to have continued. Why go out at all? And if you do, why linger in public spaces?

Keith Hampton, Lauren Sessions Goulet, and Garrett Albanesius just reported a study in which they literally compared pictures of Americans in public spaces in 2010 to similar pictures in 1980. They found the pessimistic descriptions of changes disconfirmed.

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