The Town Squares We Used to Have — and Could Have Again
They have a long history, and they have been our "public living room." Some cities and towns that have lost their central gathering places are trying to re-create them.
The square in Russellville was just about perfect. It was a lovely place, gloriously green most of the year, replete with maple and oak trees, geraniums and tulips, and notable for its brick walks, working fountain and green wrought iron benches. It was surrounded by two-story brick commercial buildings that dated from the early 1900s.
Talking to the locals, mostly older ones, I was able to draw a picture of just how this beautiful spot had been used at different points in its history. In the 1920s and 1930s, it played host to Jockey Days, monthly fairs at which residents gathered to stage athletic contests and trade horses, mules, knives, vegetables and anything else someone might want. On Saturdays, its sidewalks were jammed with farmers in town to do their marketing, and all the stores were open late.
In the mid-1940s, the square was populated by young war veterans sitting on top of the bench backs, renewing friendships and seeking work. On spring afternoons in the 1950s, it was mostly the province of teenagers, boys in letter jackets and girls in cheerleading costumes, drinking Cokes from the drugstore soda fountain and staying until dinner called them home. And in all of these decades, the courthouse on the square was a gathering place for the town’s older men, some of whom spent their time whittling on the benches right across from the building.
When I visited in 1999, the square was as picturesque as it had ever been. But in contrast to the earlier times, it was largely empty. The last café on the square had closed; the shoe store and hardware store had moved to the outskirts of town. There was virtually no foot traffic on the streets or in the park. Locals were still coming to the center of town, but they weren’t staying long. They shopped for groceries, checked out and went home. The women who had once spent hours chatting under dryers in the beauty salon were getting quick haircuts and leaving. The square was still the physical center of town, but it didn’t seem to be the social center anymore.
I haven’t been back to the square in Russellville since then, but from what I’ve been able to find out, it’s much as it was when I was in town. Maybe a little livelier; there are nearby restaurants again and a place to get a good cup of coffee, and, if one chooses, stay for conversation. But the local businesses that used to sit on the square are nearly all gone — the main business street features a Dollar General, an IGA supermarket, a Subway food shop and a car wash. The courthouse and county library are still there, although many of the courthouse functions have moved out of the center of town.
The Russellville town square doesn’t play the role it used to play for most of the last century. There’s no mystery about that; it’s easy to document. What’s harder to measure is how important such losses have been, and whether there’s any way, in all the towns like Russellville all over the United States, of re-creating the social nexus they used to have in the middle of the community.
TOWN SQUARES HAVE AN ANCIENT AND NOBLE HISTORY. Archaeologists have uncovered them in Bronze Age Ugarit, in Mesopotamia. Athens had the agora, where Socrates was accused of corrupting the morals of the young. “If one waited around long enough,” one historian wrote of the agora, “one would meet one’s friends and cronies.” Rome had its forum, not exactly a square but the undisputed center of everything. The medieval Italian cities had them, and they hosted all the important events that took place during the year.
And they adapted well to the New World. The Spanish empire decreed that every town it started had to have a central square. The colonies founded by the British had a similar geography. Geometric squares were (and are) the heart of Savannah. Nearly every New England town had a village green, punctuated by a stately white church. In most cultures around the world, the urban scholar Ray Oldenburg wrote a couple of decades ago, “the square is still the public living room.”
We sometimes forget the importance of central squares in even the largest American cities. Washington Square in lower Manhattan, saved from obliteration by Jane Jacobs in the 1950s, is as vibrant today as it was when Henry James wrote a novel about it in the 19th century. Rittenhouse Square has survived all the ups and downs of Philadelphia life since the 1950s. The same is true of New Orleans’ Jackson Square, which dates back to the early 1700s. Portland, Ore., created Pioneer Courthouse Square in the middle of downtown in the 1980s, and it almost immediately became the fulcrum of local life.
This historic importance of town squares, in towns of all shapes and sizes, is impossible to dispute. The question is how badly we need them now — not just as picturesque garden spots but as gathering places for a functioning community. A number of urban planners have argued that we do need them, and that we can create them out of what might seem the least promising material. “The bottom line,” David Gensler, a developer who has worked on town square projects on several continents, wrote a few years ago, “is that open space and town squares humanize and invigorate cities and are essential to the health and welfare of the people who live and work in them.”
I WOULDN’T ARGUE that town squares are being reborn all over this country, but things are happening in unlikely places. Xenia, Ohio, a town of just 26,000 people, wants to spend more than $100 million on a project aimed at re-creating a central gathering place in the middle of the community. Xenia currently has something it calls a town square, but that’s a misnomer. The traditional square was largely destroyed by a tornado in 1974. The existing one is in the middle of town, but it’s a hodgepodge of buildings bordered by a multi-lane highway and a strip-mall shopping center and basically unconnected to the rest of Xenia in any meaningful way.
Suitland, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., is working on something even more ambitious. Presently a collection of enormous government buildings with a transit station but little else to recommend it, Suitland and surrounding Prince George's County (along with private developers) are hoping to spend as much as $400 million to convert 25 acres and 125 blocks of uninviting land into what they call “a gathering place for the community.” The man who envisioned all this, former County Executive Rushern Baker, has vowed that “the new town square will be the spark that will ignite the Suitland community that residents have been longing for.”
Most intriguing of all is what is starting to happen in the town of Clarkesville, Ga., as described recently by the diligent urban chronicler Robert Steuteville. Clarkesville, with a population of little more than 2,000, has lost its traditional center to a highway and two strip malls, much like Xenia. The courthouse on the old town square has been torn down. But a local developer has plans to re-create the grassy oval that used to exist, with 185 dwellings, new public buildings and a museum, and a gazebo in the middle of it all. Whether a community of this size will be able to afford it all is a very legitimate question. But the mere fact that it is being discussed should count as an achievement.
So far, these projects exist more as blueprints than as finished products. Still, they raise the question of just what role town centers are to play, in places large and small, in the 21st century. One can argue that in a digital age, when most communication is electronic, central gathering places just aren’t necessary the way they once were. But it’s equally plausible to argue that when people have limited opportunities to see each other in person, a physical magnet for social life is just as important as it ever was. Maybe more.