“Turning and turning in the widening gyreWilliam Butler Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Quick – where’s the center of New York City? Times Square? Central Park? Narrow it down – Rockefeller Center, Famous Original Ray’s on 7th and 54th? What are the crosshairs on Chicago? Philadelphia? Miami? Where’s the
heart of a city? Where would you find someone if they said “Meet me in Saint Louis, Louis”?
For the most part in America we’ve lost the concept. In Paris, the steps of Notre Dame would be a good bet, or maybe beneath the Eiffel Tower if it weren’t for all the new security barriers. In London, maybe Trafalgar? Westminster? The base of Big Ben? Harder to say. And if someone asked you to meet them in L.A. – no other specifics, would you have the slightest idea where to go? But in countless far-flung 2nd and 3rd world countries (and in smaller towns across the board) you can find it in a heartbeat.
I wondered this some years back while sitting in the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco, Peru. Not exactly small at a population of 350,000, but it’s undeniably the middle, the main square. There’s a fountain in the centre, verdigris swans and mermen spouting, school children posing for photographs, soaring cathedral to one side. If you asked someone to meet you in Cuzco, no other directions, this is where they’d come. And any small town in Peru has its equivalent – on Isla Taquile, in Lake Titicaca, it’s a dusty, cobbled rectangle surrounded by maybe 70 adobe and clay-tiled houses, church on one side, overlooking the lake on the other. Weekly markets, produce brought in by donkey, women weaving, children scattering, chickens scratching, old men watching from the shadows. In Cuzco it’s almost European in feel; cafés, manicured flowerbeds, whistle-blowing policía directing a constant flow of traffic and people. Even up on 600 year old Machu Picchu there’s the Incan version, a large central grassy swath bounded by temples and granaries – llamas graze there nowadays, but it’s easy to see it was the main thoroughfare and meeting place centuries ago.
A town square is a place where things happen. Or don’t. One day a raucous festival, the next an impromptu soccer pitch. A brilliant place to sit with a café con leche and write postcards home. A brilliant place to people watch, to take the pulse of a town, to be a part of it. And everybody, everybody knows where it is. It might be a function of how cities developed in these countries, and maybe how they started off developing in America, but somewhere along the line we changed directions. In “town square” countries there’s a palpable, vital sense of community – maybe life’s a bit rougher, and they need each other more, their daily lives more intertwined, there still might be an actual wolf at the door, let’s band together ‘round the fire.
In America there are less wolves, we’ve ‘developed’ past the need for that connection, and towards a more individual society. We don’t depend on our neighbors anymore – how many places have you lived where you didn’t know the names of the people living next door, or what they did for a living? The folks in the apartment above you – do you even know what they look like? Getting the community together as a whole in any American city is a rare occurrence and it takes a Herculean effort. But in town square countries it’s not that unusual.
In Arles, our current home, the Place de la République is definitely it. There’s a fountain skirting the base of a soaring obelisk, transported from the ruins of the Roman Hippodrome. Verdigris encrusted Hercules spouting water to a coin catching pool. Basilica to one side (sort of a theme developing), the Marie (City Hall) to another, an expanse of flagstone and cobbles, occasional home to festivals and seasonal markets, more often pigeons, squealing children chasing each other, tourists gazing up at the church, and ice cream being enjoyed. If someone said, “Meet me in Arles.” And didn’t narrow it down past that, this is where you would come. If I waited for you and you were late showing up, I might wander over to the steps of the Roman arena, but would probably find you back at the Place, soaking up sun and listening to a few buskers – perhaps the Peruvian Pan-flute trio, who probably kicked off their tour in the Cuzco plaza. ‘El Condor Pasa’ echoing off the Basilica.
Arles isn’t exactly small either, at a population of fifty-some thousand, but it has a small-town feel. The Place de la République can get crowded, but there are times, early mornings, some mid-winter afternoons, when it can be just you and the pigeons. It’s where announcements are made, where all parades end up, where weddings are celebrated in front of the Marie. At Christmas it is festooned and lit, during Feria there are regional market stalls and processions of gypsy horsemen.
One year, during Carnevale, we witnessed the traditional trial of the demon Caramentran (a 5 metre tall paper maché effigy), culminating in setting him ablaze, the ashes swirling and settling over the assembled crowds.
And although I do know my neighbors on all sides, I can’t claim to know every resident of the quartier, even if I am on friendly terms with almost all of them. We’ve been here five years now, and we are certainly known, if not by name, we are invariably ‘les Américains’. The other day, a knock on the door, the Algerian man who lives a few doors down with an abundance of strawberries because they were in season, and he thought the children might enjoy them. Walking home from school with the kids, I am stopped by the woman who runs the restaurant around the corner for help starting her stalled car. A while back, walking south on our street, child in tow, I was confronted with a shuffling, stern, formidable dame d’un certain âge heading north. “Monsieur,” she intoned, “vous m’accompagnerez dans la rue.” (You will accompany me in the street), it was not a question; and with that she hooked her arm through mine and explained she needed me to walk her to the épicerie on the corner. It bothered her not in the least that I had been in process of going the opposite direction with a child.
These are the people I see in the square. Along with the butcher, the baker, the lavender soap maker. We exchange, ‘bonjour’s, or ‘salut’s, or ‘cou-cou’s depending on how well we know each other. The mayor, striding to work, generally waves.
It’s good to know where the center is.
I like Yeats. Some of my favorite poetic images are out the mouth of Dublin’s son, but….the center can hold. If we want it to. If we make an effort. If we knock on the neighbor’s door with fresh strawberries…