One of the qualities of an urban environment that, as far as I know, has failed to be replicated in a suburban environment is that of the common public space. It’s hard to imagine, really, a space formally or informally designated as a public gathering place for expressions relevant to the human condition. Want to have a protest in west Knoxville, where do you gather? I’ve seen protests along Kingston Pike or outside the mall, but those spaces are mainly selected for the volume of car traffic.
What if you want to have a public memorial? I can’t imagine where you might go in the suburbs for such a thing. By its very intimate nature it calls out for a pedestrian friendly location. How does one interact with a memorial as one drives past? Flash your lights? Honk your horn?
The very first month I wrote for this blog, in June of 2010, I found such a gathering. A group of drummers assembled on the edge of Market Square and I scrambled there with my camera expecting to document a fun scene, pretty excited that Knoxville had a drum circle at all, let alone on a week night. I got more than I’d bargained for as the group had assembled for a farewell ceremony for their friend, Michelle Rivera. It was quite moving.
Recently I found another such gathering for someone who was loved and passed too soon. Friends and family of Heather Marie Roark lighted candles, placed flowers and mourned the loss of a friend and a loved one. Her mother sat quietly at a table in front of Preservation Pub. If there was a ceremony beyond that, I missed it. Heather was from Kentucky, but had lived in Knoxville and had many friends here who needed some closure.
There are other gatherings on the square and in Krutch Park which are very different in nature. We’ve had rally’s for immigration reform and against increased enforcement of immigration laws. I’ve found weddings and after-wedding gatherings. Protests of various sorts are also common. I included a couple of photographs of the Slut Walk recently. More formally, opponents of abortion utilize the square a couple of times a year to make their point and I’ve seen the same group protesting any event on the square with a connection to Planned Parenthood.
This past weekend a small contingent protested against Monsanto, calling for them to cease production of genetically modified organisms or genetically modified crops. It’s doubtful Monsanto was moved, but the spirit of public discourse stands affirmed, once more. This was not the first time the topic has been raised and it’s likely to continue as an issue for sometime, possibly becoming larger as time moves onward.
The photographs here are from a recent protest and rally against the U.S. bombing of Syria. Maybe they were the deciding factor in finding another solution. Maybe not. Still, their perspective had a place to be aired and to invite dialog. It reminds one of the quote most often invoked when discussing the history of Market Square in which it was called, “the most democratic place on earth.” Or maybe it’s just one of the most human places in our city. That’s not a bad designation, either.
It’s ironic that as Americans abandoned cities in droves during the final decades of the twentieth century in order to find a greater version of the American dream, we lost some of the very qualities which define it. We are only, after all, who we are in relation to the larger group. Public spaces for celebrations, protests and mourning connect us to the larger group to which we belong. We are necessarily involved in our neighbor’s lives and that’s not always comfortable or pleasant, but maybe it is essentially to remaining completely human.
PS. Thank you to the thirty new members of the Urban Family who joined yesterday: We now have well over 1000 people who have “liked” this blog on Facebook. Thank you to each and every one of you who have chosen to share this journey as a group. I’m glad you’ve come along.