Years ago, one of my neighbors on Munjoy Hill had a nice little garden surrounded by a high wooden fence.
The family loved the peace and quiet they had when they sat outside, and they loved having privacy right in the middle of the city.
But they didn’t love it when their daughter found used syringes left by the junkies who had ducked into the yard for a little privacy themselves. And they really didn’t like it when they stumbled upon two strangers taking advantage of the peace and quiet to have sex.
They replaced the high fence with a low, white-picket one. Everyone walking by could see everything that was going on inside the yard. The family gave up some privacy, but they got their garden back.
I tell this story not to get myself in trouble with the Munjoy Hill real estate community (things are much better now, honest!) but because it tells me something about the complicated way that strangers interact with one another in a city.
Sometimes it’s unpleasant — like when they shoot up in your garden. But other times it’s welcome, when their mere presence on your street helps keep the peace. How public and private spaces are designed can determine which kind of contact with strangers you’re likely to have.
I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot during the debate over the future of Congress Square and whether most of the current park should be sold to its neighbor, the Eastland Park Hotel, which would build an events center. The city’s Housing and Community Development Committee is hearing a presentation today at 5:30 and could send the issue to the City Council for action next month.
Opponents of the plan say that parks are precious and should never be turned over to corporate interests. But just like my neighbors taking down their fence, this might be one of those times when you give something up to get something better.
If making the Eastland event center deal results in a better Congress Square, one that connects all the public space — including the streets — from the hotel to the Portland Museum of Art, this would be worth it.
I’m sympathetic to the people who want to hold onto the public space, but before we save the park we should think about what we are saving. What we call a park (or a “plaza” depending on what side of the debate you are on) is a hole where a building used to be that was dressed up to look like a park when there were some federal dollars available. It has been called a “failed public space” and people say it’s the site of aggressive panhandling, public drunkenness and other anti-social behavior that goes with public drunkenness.
But the problem with the park is less about who uses it than that it hasn’t been used much at all.
Supporters of the park say that’s unfair. They say that there were plenty of people around when it was used for programs by the city that have since been abandoned because of budget cuts. But if you have to put on programs to bring people in, the park is not working.
Compare it to Monument Square, only four blocks up Congress Street.
Both spaces are near important cultural institutions (Portland Public Library for Monument Square and the Portland Museum of Art in Congress Square). Both are near schools (Portland High School and Maine College of Art). Both are near stores, coffee shops, restaurants and bars that attract visitors from the early morning to late at night. But Monument Square is typically full of people and Congress Square is not.
Why? It’s not programming that brings the people to Monument Square, it’s the people. People like to look at one another, and successful parks are the ones where they have the opportunity to do that. It’s not about services: The people don’t come to the Monument Square because there are street musicians or a hotdog cart there, it’s the other way around.
And it’s the lack of people that leads to the anti-social behavior that the Congress Square critics complain about. Just like my neighbors’ yard, privacy in the city is not a good idea and if there were more strangers sitting around keeping an eye on things in Congress Square, the stuff people don’t like would be taken elsewhere.
I’m not convinced that what Portland needs is an event center (it sounded more fun when they were calling it a “ballroom”) but I am convinced that a smaller Congress Square plaza connected on both sides of Congress Street could be a fun and interesting place that would attract more people without displacing any of the ones who use it now.
If the city could leverage this sale to expand Congress Square across Congress Street and make a pedestrian friendly place to meet friends, eat a sandwich or just hang out, this would be a gain, not a loss.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at: 791-6481 or: firstname.lastname@example.org