On a recent stroll down the Mall in Washington, D.C., Elaine Tyler May flashed on a conversation she'd had almost two decades ago inside the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. Her son Daniel, ten at the time, had been gazing, mouth agape, at the planes suspended from the ceiling.
Elaine Tyler May
Photo: Everett Ayoubzadeh
"Who do you think owns this place?" she asked.
"I sure wish I knew!" he said, wide-eyed.
"You do," she told him. "You and every other American citizen own this place."
It may have been a bit corny, admits May, a historian in the University's Department of American Studies. But she wanted her son to stake a claim in public spaces and, in so doing, be part of a generation that sees public space in ways that her own hadn't.
In the years following World War II, when May was growing up in Southern California, spaces in the United States were being transformed in response to a shifting cultural climate that emphasized nuclear families and individualism. After the war, many who had lived densely in cities, stacked on top of one another in walk-up apartments, migrated to the suburbs and lived spaciously in subdivisions and cul-de-sacs. They shopped in privately owned shopping centers rather than downtowns. They took Pontiacs rather than public transportation to work. And they lived in houses whose design reflected a kind of detachment from public life.
"A lot of the suburban homes that are built after the war have a sheltered look," May says. "There'll be hedges. There'll be low-hanging roofs. They'll be set back with fences. It's really an architecture that speaks of separation rather than engagement with the world." Even front porches and stoops, gathering places that had traditionally connected private homes to the outside world, were nearly nonexistent in these suburbs, she notes.
May's current work examines the legacy of this Cold War turn away from public life. It's a trend that's been amplified, in some ways, by recent events. After September 11, public spaces have become further marked as sites of danger by the elaborate security protocols put in place to prevent terrorist attacks.
May points to her recent trip to D.C. as an example. "One of the most shocking and troubling symbolic changes is restricted access to public sites of national power," she says. "You can't get near the White House; there are those big barricades, and there's not even street access anymore. Everywhere there are security gates. You can't even go into a museum without being screened."
That lockdown atmosphere, she fears, will make it even more difficult to convince our youngest citizens that they have both the privilege and the duty of shaping their nation's public spaces--and public life.
"When the first thing you encounter when you go to the Smithsonian is security rather than welcoming, that changes your relationship to that space," she says. It fosters a sense of alienation and distance from those we have elected to represent us.
May hopes her work ultimately helps to reverse the long-term trend she's spent much of her career exploring. "I want to help open up and reclaim that public space that is ours, that, in a sense, we have all participated in closing ourselves off from."
By Danny LaChance