A public space trying to serve the public during COVID-19

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s book Palaces for the People features public libraries as important public spaces. But, during COVID-19 libraries cannot be these spaces in the same way:

Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago – Google Street View

Libraries, especially during times of crisis, have long been far more than just places where people can check out books and DVDs. With their high-speed internet connections, meeting rooms and massive depositories of information, print and otherwise, they are a beacon to those needing assistance or companionship.

That has changed during the pandemic. Libraries across the state closed for months after Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued his stay-at-home order in March, and though many reopened during the summer, some services remain diminished or unavailable for fear of transmitting the virus.

But libraries have made creative adjustments in these strange times, boosting their Wi-Fi signals so patrons can use the internet in their cars, expanding their curbside pickup services and offering all manner of virtual programming…

The libraries that are staying open typically have large buildings and relatively few patrons coming inside, leaving plenty of social distance. But as winter approaches, they must decide whether they can accommodate those who depend on the buildings as warming centers.

During COVID-19, spaces cannot accommodate the same amount of people or any people at all. They cannot be public spaces in the typical sense of the phrase: the public cannot congregate there.

Before this, public space was often at a premium for a number of reasons: preferences for private homes, limited funds for public spaces, declining trust in institutions. The number of spaces, public or private, that do regularly have a mix of people is limited.

As Klinenberg notes, online community cannot match community developed in spaces and proximity. In this moment, it is as not as if those who used to go to the library can easily find other public spaces. Where is there physical space to be had? What are people doing for alternatives?

And after COVID-19, will libraries and other public spaces be the same? Will they garner more public support or less? Even as some will want just to return to a typical library trip, the public library present in many communities and neighborhoods can continue to provide for the good of many people.

Fighting over the fate of Scabby the Rat

Reportedly, the National Relations Labor Board (NRLB) is working to trap Scabby for good:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inflatable_rat

Scabby is a giant inflatable rodent, up to 25 feet tall, with angry red eyes, exceptionally prominent front teeth and sharp claws. Created some 30 years ago in Chicago, it’s a favorite device of unions trying to draw attention to their grievances, and it works. “Before, you could drive by and see six guys with picket signs and probably never notice them,” James Allen, president of District Council 1 of the International Union of Bricklayers, told the Tribune last year. Scabby is harder to miss…

But the NLRB’s general counsel, appointed by Donald Trump, is not smiling. Peter Robb, previously a management lawyer, “hates the rat,” one unidentified senior NRLB official told Bloomberg Law. At his direction, the agency is trying to eradicate Scabby.

The effort isn’t likely to succeed. Under Barack Obama, the NLRB ruled that putting this huge air-filled mascot outside the entrance of a hospital, accompanied by a union member holding a leaflet, was a form of free expression protected by the First Amendment…

“The rat balloon itself was symbolic speech,” said the board. “It certainly drew attention to the union’s grievance and cast aspersions on (the nonunion employer), but we perceive nothing in the location, size or features of the balloon that were likely to frighten those entering the hospital, disturb patients or their families, or otherwise interfere with the business of the hospital.”

Read a little more on how Scabby was developed in the Chicago area in this 2018 blog post.

Having seen Scabby in action several times, there at least three reasons the symbol works:

  1. No one wants to be associated with a rat. Even if there are people who like rats as pets, they are not viewed as cuddly or likeable creatures in the same way that many others animals are. A rat is a negative symbol, a reminder of urban squalor or dishonorable behavior.
  2. The size of Scabby and the particular look is not pleasant. This is not just a rat on a sign that is a cartoonish figure; this is a large inflatable that towers over the sidewalk. The eyes are red, teeth are showing, front legs are out. This is not a pleasant figure to look at.
  3. Putting #1 and #2 together, organizations or employers would not like the connotation of the inflatable rat nor the presence of it in front of what they hope to present as a welcoming or pleasant place of business or activity.

This means Scabby could help attract attention to a labor cause. As noted in the story above, it is a visceral image that grabs the attention of people passing by. Without such a large symbol, it could take a lot more work to garner attention including larger pickets or significant media attention. Whether the prolonged presence of Scabby leads to a better outcome for the union or employees is another matter.

Addressing COVID-19 and public noise issues at the same time with “library rules for America”

While Derek Thompson suggests less or no talking in public would help limit the spread of COVID-19, his solution would also address concerns people have about noise in public:

Photo by Inga Seliverstova on Pexels.com

Here’s one solution: Library rules for America. Every time you walked into a school, a medical clinic, a drug store, a barbershop, an office, an airplane, a train, or a government building, you should see a sign that read: Hush for Your Health; or Make Good Choices, Lower Your Voices!; or Keep Quiet and Carry On. “In terms of the science, I am convinced that something like this library rule would reduce all modes of viral transmission,” Jimenez told me.

Thompson also hints at a persistent noise issue:

If Americans imported Japan’s subway rules to our public life, we might be able to accelerate our return to a more muted form of normalcy. Several times in the past few weeks, I’ve heard people talking loudly on their cellphones in grocery stores and pharmacies, sometimes with their masks pushed aside from their mouths to improve the clarity of their diction. Such behavior displays a total failure to understand how the disease spreads.

These loud conversations in public, whether the user is on speakerphone or talking loudly to someone nearby, are an annoyance to many. Some noise in public is to be expected: vehicles go by, people are around, airplanes fly overhead, etc. But, having people around you who are carrying on loud, conversations can be frustrating.

On the user end, it can be easy to end up yelling into your phone without being aware of it. You get caught up in talking, there is noise around, the phone call audio quality may not be great, and you sound like a lunatic to passerby even though you think you are just having a normal conversation. Or, a regular social interaction could be fun or maddening, leading to increased volume.

I wonder if this solitude attributed to libraries would match what they aspire to be these days. When people need public spaces and resources, libraries can be gathering places. The days of hushed shelves of books may be gone and replaced by tool and gadget rentals, computer labs, meeting rooms, and interactive areas.

More broadly, Americans are known for their loud conversations and convivial spirit. The friendliness or public conversation plus the volume can rankle some. Asking Americans to act like they are in a library might be a lot to ask. Imagine: “If I want to talk loud in public, that is my right!” A quiet American soundscape, particularly in certain settings, might be jarring.

Perhaps the bigger question is how far Americans would go to slow or eliminate COVID-19. Is not having loud conversations in public too much to ask? Now, if COVID-19 and noise guidelines could speak to the loud playing of music…

Leisure differences by race and class in time of COVID-19

What people do and can do for recreation differs across racial/ethnic groups as well as social class:

people standing on beach during sunset

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The fireworks encapsulate the cramped, complex reality of urban leisure amid both a pandemic and a reckoning over policing. The pandemic has canceled summer travel plans en masse; many beaches and parks have capped capacity and closed facilities; air-conditioned spots outside the home—malls, movie theaters, restaurants—remain largely off-limits. For many, especially the immunocompromised, outdoor fun may seem like an unthinkably risky indulgence. But the fear of infection and the lack of options for things to do aren’t keeping everyone inside. To a greater extent than ever, city summer entertainment involves local public and semipublic spaces: sidewalks, stoops, parks, and, in the case of fireworks, the shared sky. The summer of social distancing will also be one of social closeness between neighbors, illuminating divides of class, ethnicity, and place—as leisure has always done…

The history of urban policing, leisure, and class is instructive. Cities implemented open-container laws only in the late 20th century, after courts struck down vagrancy laws, whose expansive definitions had been used to effectively criminalize homelessness and harass people of color. In a 2013 history of open-container bans, the journalist Joe Satran reported that “patterns of police enforcement of public drinking laws do suggest their origin as a replacement for unacceptably vague and discriminatory status offenses. Though national data on public drinking infractions are hard to come by (or nonexistent), the few studies of police enforcement indicate that poor, black people are arrested at rates many times higher than affluent white people.” A similar story—of hazily defined ordinances being used to discriminatorily regulate who can hang out where—applies to the loitering laws tested today whenever friends in masks congregate on sidewalks or street corners.

“Everything we think of in terms of race in the United States, recreation and leisure had a hand in influencing it,” Rasul Mowatt, an Indiana University professor who studies leisure and race, told me earlier this week. I’d called him to talk through the sociology of stoop hangs and pavement barbecues: classic inner-city rituals that would seem to be more important than ever this summer. He emphasized that such gatherings have always been shaped by structural oppression. Low wages and unemployment keep many city dwellers from traveling or otherwise engaging in pricier forms of recreation. Urban planning has often sought to contain poor populations where they are (Robert Moses allegedly designed the overpasses to Long Island’s Jones Beach to be too low for public buses to pass under them). Green spaces have been sites of racist harassment, a fact illustrated by the recent stories of Ahmaud Arbery (the black man killed while out on a run in Georgia) and Christian Cooper (the black bird-watcher accosted by a white woman in Central Park).

Four quick thoughts:

  1. That race and class matter for recreation is not a surprise. At the same time, how it continues to influence different aspects of American life – including what people do with their free time or to relax or for fun – and evolve over time is still worth considering.
  2. The article briefly mentions public spaces and I think it is worth paying attention to. Most of the activities discussed here are viewable by others. As sociologist Elijah Anderson argued, it can be difficult to find public spaces where Americans of different backgrounds regularly mix. Or, as sociologist Eric Klinenberg suggests, the United States could strengthen local public spaces and institutions with positive outcomes for all.
  3. The majority of the examples in the article come from cities. Does this play out similarly or differently in suburbs where private homes are emphasized and moral minimalism governs interactions?
  4. What is the flip side of this: what the wealthy doing for leisure during COVID-19? How possible is conspicuous consumption is an era of anxiety and pain for many?

When America’s unofficial third place closes 400 locations

If Starbucks is an important third place for Americans to gather and interact, what happens when the company closes 400 stores because of COVID-19 and to focus more on drive-through and carry-out business?

business cafe coffee dark

Photo by Abhinav Goswami on Pexels.com

Starbucks announced on Wednesday that it will close 400 of its roughly 10,000 locations in the U.S. and Canada over the next 18 months as the company projects to lose up to $3.2 billion in sales this quarter due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It’s not exactly a retrenchment. The company plans to end this year with 300 more stores than when it started, even accounting for the closures—but that’s half of what the chain had originally been planning. About 40 to 50 of the new locations will only offer pickup or drive-through.

Starbucks typically closes about 100 stores every year due to leases expiring and market conditions. The decision to up that number signals that Starbucks expects the recovery from the current recession to extend far into the new year. The company did not list which locations it plans to shutter, though it did say that they would be in “high-social gathering locations” like campuses and malls. Shares for the company fell by 4 percent in midday trading as the news broke. “As we navigate through the COVID-19 crisis, we are accelerating our store transformation plans to address the realities of the current situation, while still providing a safe, familiar and convenient experience for our customers,” Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said in a press release.

While nearly all of the company’s cafés have reopened in limited capacities without in-store seating, the twin health and economic crises continue to discourage consumers from spending and venturing out to public spaces. The shock to Starbuck’s business model has reportedly accelerated its shift to focusing on takeaway service, which it had already been planning to do before the pandemic. In November, the company opened its first Starbucks Pickup store at Penn Plaza in New York City, where customers order and pay through their phones. While Starbucks locations have long served as a “third place” where people could meet and relax, customers in recent years have been placing more and more orders for takeout, perhaps due to the company’s recent focus on mobile ordering. The company estimates that 80 percent of its orders at company-owned stores in the U.S. are to-go. Now that the virus has made people even less likely to dawdle at cafés for an extended period of time, Starbucks expects that percentage to rise.

The new stores will emphasize the use of Starbucks’ ordering app, Uber Eats, walk-up windows, and curbside pickup to facilitate social distancing. Some store layouts will also begin including pickup counters that exclusively cater to mobile orders and food delivery services. The company hopes that large U.S. cities will eventually host a mix of cafés and pickup locations that are located within walking distance of one another in order to reduce crowding.

For a long time, the presence of a Starbucks has denoted a particular status for an area or community. Will the loss of a Starbucks or even the shift from a place one can sit and gather to one that sends food and drinks out the doors and windows harm communities?

Even without COVID-19, this hints at the limited public realm Americans have where fast-food places are some of the popular places people can or will gather. Starbucks presented this possibility though as a private business they still aim to make money and will restrict certain behavior. As the article notes, this shift may have already been underway; I noted the busy Starbucks drive-through early this year on a rare work session at a local store.

Paper suggesting Americans adopt sufficiency limits for the size of homes

A new study looks at what amount of space might be sufficient for American single-family homes:

Social scientists have extensively documented the strategies used over the past century to purposefully upsize the preferences of consumers in high-income countries (Collins 2000; Nickles 2002; Cohen 2003; Horowitz 2004; Clarke 2007; Jacobs 2015). These practices became increasingly prevalent during the years following World War II and have been revamped and augmented to encompass an ever-expanding array of products. The most notable example of this phenomenon – abetted by builders, architects, realtors, mortgage bankers, public-policy makers, and numerous others is housing which in particular has in the United States, Canada, and Australia approximately tripled in size in just a half-century. This process of residential upsizing is understandable as individuals and organizations were for the most part responding to prevalent social and economic incentives and investing a portion of the gains accruing from increasing productivity and rising incomes into more spacious accommodation. While the trend contributed to unambiguous improvements in standards of living, evidence is now emerging that the process of residential upsizing is not contributing to gains in “house satisfaction” (Bellet 2019).

However, the contemporary era, characterized by climate change, economic inequality, and deep social divisions, requires new priorities. Rather than looking to enlargement as a panacea for all manner of problems, the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development require high-income countries to pursue a sustainable consumption transition. The downscaling of home size, because of the substantial volumes of resources required to meet residential needs, will be a critical part of this undertaking. While the methodology to formulate a minimum social floor and a maximum biophysical ceiling is necessarily provisional, it provides a place from which to begin to consider this important issue.

And from a summary of the article:

In the U.S., average floor space per person would need to be reduced from 754 square feet to 215 square feet, which perhaps surprisingly, is roughly comparable to the amount of space available during the baby boom of the 1950s.

While Cohen acknowledges the myriad political, commercial and cultural challenges of imparting such a sufficiency ceiling on current housing practices, he highlights five examples that he asserts point to shifting sensibilities: the tiny-house movement in the United States; the niche market for substantially smaller houses and apartments in the Nordic countries; the construction of accessory dwelling units in west coast cities of North America; the growing popularity of micro-apartments in New York City and San Francisco; and the emergence of co-living/co-working facilities in Europe.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. There are a lot of factors pushing Americans toward bigger houses in recent decades. Pushing against these factors would require a lot of time and energy. For example, reducing consumption might help people think about smaller spaces.
  2. Given the local nature of building and real estate, I have a hard time imagining this happening top-down. On the other hand, I could imagine some locales adopting such guidelines and then it spreading to similar locations or even the whole country. At the least, it could be popular in expensive real estate markets – think Bay Area or Seattle – though it would be interesting to see how wealthier homeowners deal with such guidelines. Perhaps if it was instituted for a housing units going forward, there would still be a supply of big homes for those that want them.
  3. Related to #2, I would guess more Americans would be motivated to pursue smaller homes because of cost and lifestyle preferences, not because of environmentalism and realizing that single-family homes make significant contributions to carbon emissions and require a lot of resources.
  4. How much of this is dependent on building a better public realm? People might be more willing to give up private space if they saw attractive alternatives like coffee shops, libraries, and other public settings where they could live their lives. Americans do not have developed public living spaces or many do not have regular patterns of spending important hours away from their private homes.

Questions arising from “Hidden networks of [Democratic] suburban women”

Continuing the attention paid to suburban voters in the upcoming 2020 election, one article examines groups of suburban women with political goals:

Ohio, a former swing state, has moved swiftly to the right since President Donald Trump won by 8 percentage points in 2016; Republicans have dominated, save for Democrat Sherrod Brown’s 300,000-vote Senate win in 2018. Yet, brewing in these red counties, from Geauga in the north to Warren in the south, is a contrasting rally cry: Ohio is a swing state, and suburban women who were often previously politically inert will be the ones to make it such in 2020. This is not the same crowd as the women’s marches or Indivisible groups that sprouted in 2017, and their rhetoric doesn’t have the sharp edge of Trump’s fiercest critics. Many have kept their nascent activities hidden on private Facebook groups and invite-only events, only to emerge for 2020 as a new network — unconnected to any campaign or party, but designed to boost Ohio Democrats’ flagging fortunes here.

These groups range from the Organized Progressives Standing United (OPSU) and the Bay Village Nasty Women to the Progressive Women in Westerville and Positively Blue in Dublin. The OPSU had 20 members when Julie Womack, 51, of Mason, Ohio, joined it in November 2018. Now, it has 500. In September 2019, a few months after leaving a left-leaning media job in Washington, D.C., Paris launched Red, Wine & Blue, a statewide network of blue-leaning women (and some men) pushing for higher political involvement in 12 suburban Ohio counties. A dozen groups have since joined her network…

The women often worry about drawing too much heat in communities where they have felt politically isolated. “Democrat is a dirty word down here,” says Womack, whose group was “secret” when she joined it but is now public. She sees OPSU’s rapid growth as a mirror of her own need for political outspokenness — especially in Warren County, which went for Republican Gov. Mike DeWine by 36 percentage points in 2018. “I’m at the point in my life now that I just don’t care. To label yourself a Democrat or a progressive [here], you’re going to feel ganged-up upon. You’ll stand out.”…

It might not be enough, suggests Richard Perloff, a professor of political media and communication at Cleveland State University who believes that the narrative of suburban women turning Ohio blue in 2020 may be “overly optimistic.”

Three quick thoughts:

1. By virtue of being hidden, private, or less public with their activities, it is hard to know how many such groups exist. And how many groups are on the opposite side of the political aisle?

2. Another angle to this could be a need more Americans feel to keep their personal politics quieter or at a simmering level until an opportunity (like an election or a threat of war) comes. This approach could be more popular for a number of reasons: more divisive public rhetoric, animosity toward outspoken political comments, limited support for political minorities, a decrease in confidence in and participation in traditional voluntary associations. This could help contribute to increased difficulty in using public opinion polls to predict elections. (A possible flip side to this: each private group can operate more independently without being beholden to a larger organization. And suburbanites may care about national politics but they like local control.)

3. Where are there public spaces in Ohio and other states where people can gather to talk about politics and other matters relating to community life? The missing third places or public spaces featuring regular mixing of people mean more activity and conversation takes place in private spaces or by invitation and planning rather than through spontaneity or a regular presence in a particular location.

Palaces for the People, Part 4: Facebook community versus physical community

I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. Today, I highlight the last of four passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.

Returning to social media toward the end of the book and specifically discussing Facebook, Klinenberg suggests online interaction is not a good substitute for interaction in real space in real time:

But no matter how the site’s designers tweak Facebook content, the human connections we need to escape danger, establish trust, and rebuild society require recurrent social interaction in physical places, not pokes and likes with “friends” online. (212)

This is a regular theme in the book: social media interaction cannot match social interaction that takes place face-to-face in real places.

I would guess social media platforms will try really hard in the next few years to change their platforms to encourage more positive social interactions. Some users already work hard to avoid negative interactions. Facebook, for example, is pushing community groups more. Instagram is hiding likes. Twitter is allowing people to hide responses to their posts. Will this all work? Possibly. But, Klinenberg argues that all of these efforts can only go so far. Humans will still need physical places that encourage interaction, trust, and new ideas.

Imagine social media in ten years that is primarily made up of positive interactions. Perhaps then it will be criticized for largely hiding negative emotions or conflict. Perhaps it be dull in the way that endlessly cheery stories might be. Or perhaps it will be seen as a supplement to offline relationships rather than competition for them.

Another way to think about Klinenberg’s ideas: what do public spaces need to be in order to entice people away from social media? There are ingredients that make public spaces more interesting such as a regular flow of people, a variety of activity, a human scale, and perceived safety. Do we have enough of these to truly people people way from their smartphones and if not, how much work would it take to develop spaces like this all over the country?

Palaces for the People, Part 1: building relationships in physical proximity

I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. In the next few days, I will highlight a few short passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.

In a discussion of relationships and social media in Chapter One, Klinenberg concludes:

Building real connections requires a shared physical environment – a social infrastructure. (41)

Research on social media tends to back this up: meaningful or lasting relationships on social media are often grounded in offline interactions and relationships. Social media may be particularly good at helping people maintain connections over time but many social media relationships have roots in or also take place offline. These deeper connections take place in particular settings. Physical spaces can help foster social interaction and togetherness.

This reminds me of Herbert Gans’ conclusions about the lives of teenagers in an early Levittown: there was nowhere for them to go. If there are not tangible physical spaces for young adults to gather (a role formerly played by the shopping mall), then the smartphone and social media look more attractive. Communities may struggle to find places for teenagers to go and be welcome – for example, even shopping malls did not necessarily want them – but the alternative may be worse.

Cost and time overruns on public projects do not matter once the task is done

In a look at the troubled construction of the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco, one civil engineer puts the problems in perspective:

Paul Gribbon, a civil engineer who brought Portland, Oregon’s $800 million Big Pipe sewer project in on schedule and within budget, points out that, along with cost and time overruns, there’s another general law regarding megaprojects. “Once it’s up and running, once there’s a shining new bridge or light-rail station, people tend to forget about how much it cost, in all senses of the word.”

If the project eventually gets done and it all works, life moves on and the delays, frustrations, and extra monies fade into the past.

But, such challenges seem to be common in at least a few major American infrastructure projects in recent decades. What could help reduce these odds? Or, are these projects so complex that even a small issue – such as cracked steel beams in San Francisco – can create significant ripple effects and headaches?

My guess is that the civil engineer is correct: after delays and blown budgets, people just want something to work. The frustration during the process will dissipate as the public takes it as normal. They will feel relieved when the troubles are over. Yet, the long-term goal across all these projects should be to continue to seek timeliness and on-budget performance as the size of these projects can influence numerous other civic and municipal priorities as well as create inefficiencies for many.