Covid-19 and the Renewed Meaning of Public Space
Most mornings lately, I wake up very early. My body is still adjusting to these new conditions we’re living in, and the sun is up and out most of the day, still, so there’s a great deal of energy present that wasn’t there before. Some mornings, I walk to Armour Square Park, located on 33rd St. in Chicago, between Shields Ave and the Dan Ryan Expressway.
The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. & John Charles Olmsted and Daniel Burham in 1905 as a respite from the hardships of tenement living. Its plan is truly a square, subdivided into four quadrants: the upper two contain a Beaux Arts field house and a playground, including a large, circular concrete fountain with a water spigot in the middle clearly meant for children to play in, or people of any age to cool off during the summer. The fountain isn’t running now; I am not sure if it has run other summers. The lower two quadrants are dedicated to a baseball field and some tennis courts, with a walking trail that encircles the baseball field. Grassy patches, lined with trees and bushes, tie these disparate pieces together, and are dotted with benches and a few tables.
In many ways, which I am sure are entirely accidental, this park is designed perfectly for social distancing. There is ample room between elements, plenty of seating with plenty of distance between, and the walking trail is wide. It is perhaps because of this accident of design that I have found myself there, as opposed to any of the other parks nearby, which are beautiful in and of themselves but not suited to the role of second living room that Armour Square Park currently holds in my life, in particular since the temperatures have risen, and it is easy to be outside. Just a few days ago, I sat on a bench and screamed with joy at a friend’s recent engagement. I’ve also cried there, told secrets, exercised, yelped as I watched a caterpillar crawl up my shoulder, eaten some carrots I packed in a plastic bag.
Sometimes it feels like this space is completely my own. I get there, and no one is there but me. It’s quiet, verdant, and the air smells fresh. When other people arrive, I don’t feel an imposition; I feel like the park makes more room for them. The park belongs to me, yes, but also to my neighbors, and their neighbors, and their children, and their friends. Sometimes, I get there, and there are already a handful of people, sitting on benches and watching the air, or doing tai-chi, or flying on swings.
Other times, on the streets that line the park, there have been busses full of police ready to break up Black Lives Matter protests downtown. There have been fleets of armored Jeeps staging to do the same. These times, I feel the intimacy of the park melt away, and I feel watched. I feel like I don’t belong there, like there are forces bigger than me, out to hurt me and the ones I love. I feel exposed.
Once there was some sort of festival, where no one was wearing masks. I approached from the west, ready to sit on a bench and listen to some music, and turned immediately back around when I saw the swarm of unmasked people. It’s a strange feeling, to sense the sudden shift in the quality of the space, from safe to dangerous.
The last several months have had a completely destabilizing effect on my relationship with public space. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Every day, places I have been to and streets I’ve walked a hundred times, are made unfamiliar to me. Night time, the most dangerous time to be outside alone before the pandemic, has become the time of the day when I feel most safe. Usually there’s no one on the street, something I’d fear before, except now that feels safe. There is a comfort in not passing by anyone.
There is also a sadness. When will we feel okay walking past each other again?
Sometimes, though, when people pass by, there is also a sense of solidarity, like we are going through the same thing, together, and we better check on each other. Just the other night, as I sat talking on the phone at the top of some steps at the field house at Armour Square Park, a woman, likely several years younger than me, stopped to ask me if I was okay. I don’t know what she thought might’ve happened to me, but I was grateful for the gesture, and for the sense that if something had happened, I would have had someone to turn to.
It is hard to know what will happen moving forward. Bars and restaurants, at least in Chicago, are starting to re-open, and people are coming back out, and I see more people gathering outside, but does that feel good? A few weeks ago, I went to a socially-distanced birthday party in a park. It was wonderful to see friends, but unsettling to not be able to hug them, or sit close, or see the bottom half of their faces. Maybe it felt like some of us had forgotten how to be with each other. When will we remember? And when we do, will we be able to do it how we used to?
Our public spaces, and our experience of them, are currently under the influence of things much larger than mere human will. I look at my own patterns of movement throughout the city, and they’re wholly unpredictable, even to myself, and instead completely determined by whatever happens to be going on that day, not just with me, but in the world. Going to a protest, even if I wear a mask, means I won’t be going back outside for the following two weeks. Meanwhile, COVID-19 means outside, public space, is really the only place I can easily go to “get out of the house,” and the easiest place to stay socially distanced and see other people.
The ways I need to use public space now are completely different. This is true for everyone, I think. I’m constantly making deals with myself about what I’ll do, and how I’ll do it, and where.
Still, the ways I need to use public space now are completely different. This is true for everyone, I think. I’m constantly making deals with myself about what I’ll do, and how I’ll do it, and where. The other day, during an early-evening walk, it started raining hard. There was nowhere I could go, so I stood under a house’s overhang for a few minutes; when I realized it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon, I just ran home in the rain. Maybe before this pandemic, I would’ve found a corner and waited for a bus. Maybe I wouldn’t have been out on a walk in the first place.
What will I do once it starts getting cold? I can more easily imagine the ways in which my world will shrink, but surely it will expand in others. Maybe I will start going on drives instead of walks. Maybe I will ride my bike until it gets so cold I can’t anymore, and then the drives will replace the rides. I own a car I use once a week at most and live in a city with tons of traffic. Night-time drives to nowhere are not in my current repertoire of activities, but maybe that’s what I’ll need, and maybe I’ll find a way to make it happen, even if the city isn’t designed for it.
Amidst all this real and potential improvisation, Armour Square Park stands out. There is a simplicity to its design that lets people just be there. Maybe the people who used it more than a hundred years ago were also trying to escape something. There’s nothing special about it, in the ways we might talk about public space now. It’s not attached to a business corridor; it doesn’t have tactile or interactive features, other than an old-fashioned jungle gym and some swings. But it orders space, and makes it accessible, and cuts through the density of the neighborhood to make some room for play, for nature, for quiet. Pandemic or not, we need more places like that.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.