The public square down through history has seen a lot of uses.
It has been a marketplace.
A meeting space.
A place for speeches, rallies and civic ceremonies.
It has hosted music, drama, dance and movies.
And when nothing organized is going on, it has been a place to sit, read, talk with friends or just hang out.
If you recognize Flagstaff's Heritage Square in most of those attributes, then its founders would be pleased. What was not long ago an empty building, then a dusty parking lot, has become in less than a decade the vital center of a revived downtown. In an era when many small cities have lost their urban identities to outlying malls and suburban sprawl, Flagstaff can be proud of a central business and entertainment district that is still worth visiting.
There are some things, however, that public squares are not. For safety reasons, they are not places for active recreation, such as playing ball, skateboarding or throwing Frisbees — they are simply too busy and crowded. That's what parks, with their lawns and wide, open spaces, are for.
Further, public squares are meant to be a neutral space for social interaction. Cities, by their nature, are dense, diverse and somewhat disorderly. Our private lives are focused on pursuing individual goals and values, whether through commerce, education, religion, family and many others. When we emerge into a square, we negotiate a common ground that allows people with very different private values to enjoy the same public space.
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Our behavior in such a setting needs to be attuned to the broadest acceptable standards. When one group's private code of conduct excludes others in the square from enjoying its benefits, then they have improperly appropriated a public space. It is selfishness bordering on intolerance, and it threatens the commitment to a diverse urban experience that is the essence of any vital downtown.
But how should tolerance and mutual civility be promoted, especially if users of a public square don't buy into the social contract outlined above? What if they are transients with no stake in local civic health? Or street preachers whose mission is to drown out with their own voice all other voices? Or young people who contend they have no other place to hang out and nothing better to do?
Those are excuses, not justifications, for the private misuse of a public space. Other users of the square can attempt to use peer pressure and verbal persuasion. But frankly, they shouldn't have to use precious time and energy in a place specifically meant to avoid those interactions that are all too common in our private lives. Those who don't abide voluntarily by informal rules of conduct unfortunately force civic leaders to set formal rules, and then enforce them.
Some of the rules seem obvious. No skateboarding, panhandling, sidewalk chalking and littering all make sense. No smoking in such a crowded space, even though open to the air, also is logical. High-volume street preaching is a clear disturbance of the peace, even when there isn't a scheduled concert or movie. In-your-face conversations with strangers, especially when laced with profanities, are harassment and should be ticketed as such.
To those young people who contend the rules above target them for their nonconformng dress or affinity for hacky sack, we don't buy it. Anyone of any age exhibiting the behavior above in a public square should be subject to penalties.
We are, however, sympathetic to the complaint by the post-high-school, under-21 crowd that there are few places for them to have fun in Flagstaff. Most of the concerts are in bars that require attendees to be of legal drinking age, and there is no formal teen club with its own schedule of concerts, car stereo competitions and place to hang out.
On the other hand, we don't think it is the government's sole responsibility to entertain any age group. The city parks and recreation department is a start, but schools, churches, and nonprofits should be involved, too. Young adults that age also need entry-level, part-time jobs and chances to volunteer. Some might lack strong family ties and even a permanent roof over their heads. We might not approve of their behavior at Heritage Square, but that doesn't mean we should dismiss their complaints.
Just like it is our square, they are our kids, and it's time all of us took responsibility for helping to raise a group going through one of life's most difficult periods.
Serving this week on the Daily Sun's Editorial Advisory Board are Publisher Don Rowley, Editor Randy Wilson, and citizen members Alan Orr, Judith Vandewater, Christina Mencuccini, Ryan Monson and Norma Russell and Rachel Steagall.