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The Public Square

Clint Reilly

Red Square in the Kremlin and Tiananmen Square in China are mammoth public places which attract visitors from all over the world. To Westerners, these monumental squares symbolize the cold war power of the Red Army and the Chinese regime’s bloody suppression of the 1989 student demonstration. But to the Russian and Chinese people, these are sacred grounds where the history of their countries — the victories and the defeats — was made. Ancient Athens had the Agora, a central square where Athenians came together to debate, celebrate, eat and shop. The great public squares of Europe, like St. Mark’s Square in Venice or St. Peter’s Square in Rome, are world famous landmarks that date back to feudal days when kings and popes ruled supreme.

Last week I visited Portland, Oregon’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, called “Portland’s living room” which hosts over 300 events and attracts 9.5 million visitors a year. In May, my wife and I experienced the elegant squares of Savannah, Georgia which are famous throughout the South for injecting natural beauty into urban living. Practically every city in America has such a place today. In reality, the boundaries of the public square in our country extend far beyond the perimeters of a physical space where local citizens come to congregate. First, the public square is all the streets and sidewalks and parks in every city, town and neighborhood, not just an essential gathering place in the middle of a city like Cesar Chavez Park in downtown San Jose. Second, the public square is also a shared commitment to solve problems through rational debate rather than violence.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently exposed the overwhelming presence of hypodermic needles and homeless campers in one of the Bay Area’s most revered destinations: Golden Gate Park. In fact, too many streets, alleys, parks, parking lots, freeway entrances, and abandoned cars throughout the Bay Area have been taken over by the homeless, panhandlers, the mentally ill, inebriates or drug users. This is wrong. The public spaces of a city are for all the people. Our political leaders must insist that people in need get into programs that will help them solve their problems. There must be an adequate array of social programs to serve the needs of the homeless. As Chairman of the Board of Catholic Charities CYO for the Archdiocese of San Francisco from 2001 to 2006, I worked with many effective providers like St. Vincent de Paul Society in San Francisco, which provides 500 shelter beds a night.

Violence has also invaded the public square. The streets and public spaces of many Bay Area cities are becoming killing zones. The wanton murder of teenagers and young adults desecrates the streets. Innocent women and children are cut down. Living inside this climate of violence makes normal life impossible. Gang terrorism forces law abiding families to alter their daily habits, hide their children and fear for their lives. What good is freedom of speech without freedom of movement?

Keeping the public square safe and secure for all the citizens is the primary responsibility of local elected officials. In 1999 I met William Bratton, the retired Police Chief of New York City who is now the Police Chief of Los Angeles under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Confronting identical problems to those faced by the Bay Area on a larger scale, Bratton cleaned up New York in the 1990′s. Bratton pursued a strategy of Zero Tolerance for quality of life violations like sleeping on the streets, public drunkenness and drug use.

The public square is not just a place in the center of our cities. It is a key principle of American democracy that must be protected.

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