We end our year in Europe where we began, in Madrid. As I say good-bye to Madrid, I feel like I am saying good-bye to life on the plaza, a central feature of most European cities, but the lifeblood of Madrid: those bustling public spaces where the full spectrum of human social activity and cultural ingenuity is on display. Often times these plazas are breathtaking, framed by the dramatic façade of a cathedral or a majestic fountain, but just as often, especially in Madrid, they are simply spaces between buildings, where a few café tables and chairs are pulled together for friends to gather and an open space becomes welcome ground for a game of football (soccer). In the cities I’ve lived in and visited this year—Madrid and Copenhagen, and cities in Italy, Portugal, France and Sweden—I’ve spent some time observing what makes these spaces thrive and wondering how they impact the lives of the people who inhabit them. While I’ve always enjoyed spending time in plazas when visiting European cities in the past, this time they took on special meaning because of their importance to the people I worked with: immigrant youth and women. So the reflections I offer here are not those of a tourist, but some ethnographic observations of public space with an eye for their implications for democratic life in diverse societies.
The variety of activity that takes place in the plaza is stunning, but all plazas here have some central features in common: they are safe, they are inter-generational, and, with the exception of a few highly touristed plazas in major European cities, they are socioeconomically mixed, attracting equally people of means and people of no means. And while generalization is risky, these features invite comparison with American cities for what is so often missing there. The fact of their safety would be unremarkable if I were not coming from the vantage point of American cities where safe urban public space is usually lacking. Plazas in Madrid and many other European cities are free from crime at virtually all hours (again with the exception of pickpockets in highly touristed areas) and also safe for pedestrians. Often the plazas are flanked by pedestrian streets—streets closed to traffic for all or part of the time—and the plazas themselves are free from cars, dominated by pedestrians (and bikes in Copenhagen). If you have grown up in cities of the Americas with high rates of crime and violence, the experience of being able to walk and sit in public space without fear of crime or cars is revolutionary. The safety of plazas is interrelated to their liveliness and inter-generational aspect. Plazas are hangouts for teenagers, families, the elderly, and everyone in between. When do youth share space with the elderly in the United States? And finally, they are not dominated by any single social class, but are truly mixed spaces where people from all walks of life rub shoulders. Of course, these spaces are also contested and not without police intervention and clashes, and I will return to that shortly. But I want to highlight what makes these places collectively distinct: they are not abandoned, relegated to the poor and downtrodden, nor are they exclusive, like San Salvador’s Gran Via, a high-rent shopping promenade patrolled by armed security guards. European plazas are open, desirable, vibrant spaces. La vida en la calle for Madrileños is a source of pride, akin to ‘the life of the party,’ or ‘where it’s at’. “Life on the street” in English, by contrast, has clearly negative connotations, referencing the homeless and destitute, gangs, or other abandoned groups. In much of the Americas, “the streets” are a place of violence and neglect, something to avoid or escape from. But in European cities, “the street” is life. I think this indexes significant value differences around public and private space in Europe and America.
What activities take place in desirable public space? I place them into five categories: eating and drinking, play, political and civic activism, the arts, and grassroots commerce. I observed all of these activities in major plazas of many European cities, but here I will focus my comments on Madrid. Eating and drinking on the street, at a terraza, is a cherished pastime in Madrid, whether for a leisurely lunch (2-5pm), dinner (10pm-1am) or tapas, drinks or coffee at any hour. When you sit at a table it is expected that you will stay there a long time, even if you only order cañas (beers). So plazas are full of people eating and drinking, smoking, and talking at all hours. Madrileños have mastered the art of convivencia, living together and enjoying each other’s company. Play goes along with this because while parents are eating and talking, their children are playing in the plaza: racing on scooters or playing in one of the many children’s play areas the city provides. Madrid has more playgrounds per capita than any city I know, and our favorite plazas (Plaza Dos de Mayo and Plaza Santa Ana) have multiple playgrounds next to terrazas. My daughter, who turned six this year, has played her little heart out. As I contemplate returning to the U.S., where schools are eliminating recess and first-graders are expected to sit still for long periods of time doing math and reading, I am grateful that she had this time here, a full year of sanctioned, unstructured play, both in school and out. (Schooldays in both Madrid and Copenhagen are short, ending at 1:00 or 2:00, leaving plenty of time for play). Play also means socializing and meeting new friends, and the plaza provides the space for both. Recently as we rounded the corner into Plaza Santa Ana after not having been there for a while, my daughter exclaimed, “This is where I make the best friends!” Then she added, “But Plaza Dos de Mayo is where I see my friends,” referring to her friends from school. While our neighborhood plazas were places to run into her friends from school and neighborhood, Plaza Santa Ana and Plaza de Oriente were larger public spaces where she met friends visiting from other countries and other parts of Madrid. The neighborhood plaza affirms one’s place in a community, while the larger city plazas expose children to the wider world, to new and different people from those in daily life.
Plazas are also sites of organized play and recreation. The neighborhood center where we worked with youth after school was a tiny two-room facility just off the Plaza Dos de Mayo. Since the building was clearly inadequate to serve the 17 teenagers and 30-some kids enrolled in the program, the staff made use of the plaza for their activities almost daily. Football, other organized games, art activities, photography, and festivities for special events and celebrations all took place on the plaza. We would often run into the youth on the plaza outside of program hours, even though another plaza was their preferred hangout. Public space thus compensates for the lack of recreational space in central Madrid, appropriated by neighborhood associations for both recreation and civic activism.
Children and youth who socialize in Madrid’s plazas are exposed to a wide range of political and civic activities, especially in la Puerta del Sol, the site of the indignados in 2011-2012 and home to a different protest nearly every day. My daughter has seen so many protests that when we saw a parade for Carnival in the university town of Lund, Sweden, she asked, “What are they protesting about?” During our time in Madrid we have come upon or participated in protests for public education (in the face of massive budget cuts and privatization), for reproductive rights in light of sweeping restrictions to abortion proposed by the PP Justice Minister, for healthcare, rights for workers and senior citizens, justice for the victims of Franquismo, and more. We have also seen meetings of 15-M chapters (the name for the social movement the indignados started), neighborhood associations and alternative political parties, all taking place in the plaza. Many of these protests, like life on the plaza in general, are intergenerational and culturally diverse, and offer participants yet another way to claim public space and express their citizenship. While U.S. cities have also been home to vibrant traditions of protest, the existence of well-used public space in everyday life in Madrid facilitates protests and places them squarely in the middle of pedestrian traffic, ensuring maximum visibility whether the media covers it or not.
Madrid’s plazas, like in other European cities, are also places of flourishing artistic expression. There you will find street musicians of all kinds, from soloists to trios to bands, playing all genres of music from all over the world, as well as staged concerts and choirs. Street musicians might wander from place to place, stopping beside crowded café tables and passing the hat around afterwards, or stay in a prominent place beside a fountain or statue for as long as they are able (street musicians without a license cannot legally perform in public and sometimes get harassed by the police). On festive occasions there will be marching bands and other concerts that are officially sanctioned. In addition to musicians are various street performers of all acts: jugglers, break dancers, mime actors, human statues, disembodied heads, clowns, men dressed as babies, and countless other feats intended to draw laughs from children and coins from parents. There are also artisans selling their craft: handmade jewelry, paintings, ceramics, and more, which leads to the final category of activity in the plaza: grassroots commerce.
Plazas are the site of numerous markets, both sanctioned and not. There are farmers’ markets, flea markets, artisan markets, and of course, the black market. By the black market I don’t mean drugs (such crowded spaces are inhospitable to illicit activity), but the variety of immigrant vendors selling goods and services in the informal economy. Different immigrant groups have their own niche: African immigrants sell knock-off Gucci and Prada handbags, laid out on tarps which can be whisked into a bundle at a moment’s notice if the police appear (it is illegal to sell these knock-off bags in Madrid). The sight of groups of these immigrant vendors running from the police with their bundles of merchandise over their shoulders is a prominent feature in the major plazas, and illustrates the contested nature of public space. Plazas are key spaces for immigrant vendors to make a living, but their presence is not officially tolerated. Other immigrant markets have been the target of police raids. And it is not only immigrants who are harassed by the police. At the beginning of the school year, after the Ministry of Education announced major cuts to the assistance funds for buying textbooks, groups of Spanish parents organized informally to exchange used books in the plaza. This would allow families who needed school books to get them from families who no longer needed them, and avoid paying the steep price of new textbooks. Unfortunately, the police raided and disbanded the book fair, telling parents they could not conduct this activity in public space. On this occasion as others, the police chose to be guardians of private enterprise rather than public space.
It is the constellation of all these activities that gives plazas their creative character, and makes them sites of vibrant public life. When I shared some of these observations with American travelers, they remarked that we have all these activities in city parks in the U.S. It is true that many of these activities take place in American city parks, and I am a fervent defender of urban green spaces. But parks do not serve the same purpose in daily life as plazas. Parks are places you go to escape the bustle and crowds of the city, while plazas are places you go to embrace the bustle, to be part of it. Plazas are meeting places whose function is first and foremost to allow people to be with others, to convivir. They are an affirmation that life together with others is better than life with only your own; that public space is a public good.
As I contemplate returning to the land of private backyard swing sets and private backyard barbeques, where increasingly anything public—public schools, transportation or parks—is seen as only for those who can’t afford better, I know I’ll miss these moments on the plaza, where the physical and social architecture express a faith in shared humanity and in the creative potential of human density. And I’ll remember wistfully when our Spanish friends asked us, after dinner in our apartment in Malasaña, “¿Nos vamos a la calle?” Are we going out? And after that the only question was, To what plaza?