Terry Fowler

No One Is Present

A young man across from me was eating his takeout supper on the subway the other day, stuffing it down. Now and then food fell off the fork. Well, there’s all kinds of people.

Then, a couple of days later, also on the subway, someone else took out her makeup bag and went through her whole routine right there in the crowded car. What – does she think she’s in her bedroom? I thought. This is a public space.

Not to her. I looked around. People texting, listening to their ipods, playing video games, and talking loudly on their cell phones. They may have been in public, but they were all in their own private worlds. They weren’t present. Their behaviour denied even the existence of public spaces, where for centuries people have gone about their business together, not to be buddy-buddy but to participate in urban life.

It has become a habit to shut out others when we are on the sidewalk or on the transit system, either with body language or with an electronic device. North American cities provide precious few opportunities to experience a vibrant street life – most of us are cocooned in cars – but when that opportunity presents itself, we withdraw. There are still bodies out there on the street, but they’ve retracted their antennae.

For a brief period, in a few places, the Occupy movement revived the idea of a lively public space, where people actually noticed each other. Once again, it was not to become close friends. Rather, it was to be open to the respectful give-and-take that is essential to a healthy political culture.

When the Iron Curtain lifted in the early 1990s across Eastern Europe, one of the first things accomplished was the restoration of cities’ central public squares, which the authorities had replaced with bus terminals and parking garages. Public squares had been seen as subversive to the totalitarian régimes.

Vibrant public spaces with alert citizens are subversive to the authoritarian rule of ipods and cell phones. When that public space is emptied of the body’s attention, it’s OK to talk loudly on the phone, eat your dinner, or make up your face. However sensitive or insensitive we may be in private, our lack of consciousness in public betrays a lack of public consciousness, and that lack says something extremely profound about our culture and our politics.

It says that it’s OK to shrug when we elect so many officials of doubtful morals and even more doubtful intelligence. The results, in everything from climate change to financial immorality, should be clear to everyone.

But out on the street, no one’s watching, or even interested.

Our awareness has to be drawn back to public space and its importance, or we will continue to sleepwalk our way to extinction.