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Public space takes center stage at Obama inauguration

January 19, 2009 | 11:45 am

Crowds_pack_the_opening_celebrati_4When it comes to describing the lives of cities, big crowds can be unreliable narrators. They come together, after all, only in moments that are by definition out of the ordinary. Measuring the character of an American city -- or, trickier yet, the character of American urbanism -- by the size or behavior of a popular mass is a bit like making up your mind about a person based entirely on how he conducts himself at weddings, funerals and high school reunions.

And yet I found myself drawn this week to Washington, joining at least 1 million other Americans making a midwinter, mid-recession pilgrimage, precisely by the idea that the masses of people filling the capital this week say something meaningful about how cities and our conception of public space might change during Barack Obama's presidency. The combination of the broadly populist themes of Obama’s campaign, his administration's early emphasis on urban policy and a growing consensus among economists that infrastructure spending will be necessary to help jump-start the economy means that the idea of public-ness in American cities is suddenly ascendant.

Just when Rem Koolhaas, Mike Davis and other urban scholars had convinced a generation of planners, architects and critics that public initiative was gone for good in this country, and that only in shopping malls and virtual gathering spaces could the character of contemporary urban life be understood, the city -- the real city, made of pixels and servers, yes, but also of steel, glass and open space -- is back at the center of the political conversation, not to mention in the center of the inaugural spotlight.

It certainly seemed that way Sunday afternoon, when a crowd estimated at between 300,000 and 750,000 (pinning down these figures can be an inexact science) gathered along the Mall for a pre-inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Given that this was in part a mere test run for Tuesday's events -- albeit a test run with Beyonce -- the turnout was remarkable.

Gatherers_watch_obama_on_huge_mon_2 From where I stood for much of the afternoon, just east of the World War II Memorial, the performers on the broad steps of architect Henry Bacon's 1922 Lincoln Memorial barely qualified as distant specks. A series of huge Jumbotrons set up at key points along the Mall brought the performances -- and Obama's subdued, even somber remarks -- to life way back there, but the draw in the equivalent of the cheap seats seemed very clearly to be not the concert but the gathering itself. The crowd continued well behind the Washington Monument -– more than a mile from the stage -- where not even a theoretical, binocular-enhanced view of the stage was possible.

To be sure, there was an odd contrast between the conspicuously public character of the event, which drew more spectators than many inaugurals have, and the way it was tightly produced and packaged by HBO for consumption on couches and recliners. The huge screens made the contradiction stranger and more explicit, because many of us both attended the live event and watched the televised version, glimpsing some jostled half-version of each. But while the Hollywood stars on the program played to the cameras and emerged somehow diminished as a result, Obama seemed to grasp and take advantage of the event's split personality. He didn't preen or even raise his voice, but appeared entirely conscious of carrying himself onto a public -- and an urban -- stage.

That hardly came as a surprise. Obama has used the anonymity and energy of cities -- where he has spent all of his adult life, first in college in Los Angeles and New York and then in Chicago’s Hyde Park -- to forge his public persona and ready himself for the exposure of a political career. And he ran for president without apology as an urban candidate. In one video clip widely shared online, he can be seen telling a crowd that when he was young he wanted to be an architect. In another, he explains during a summer campaign stop that he is a fan of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," Jane Jacobs' landmark 1961 study of fine-grained, up-close urbanism.

Just as in the inherently optimistic twist of that book's title -- not life before death but the reverse -- a sense of urbanism and public space reborn, or even brought back from the dead, seems guaranteed to glimmer through Obama's first 100 days. How long it can manage to hold a place in what promises to be an uncomfortably crowded policy spotlight, though, is very much an open question. When the first details of his proposed stimulus package emerged last week, it became clear that we fans of cities, visions of train tunnels designed by Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel filling our heads, had maybe allowed our dreams to drift too high. In a spending package that totals at least $825 billion, only $90 billion is earmarked for infrastructure. Just $10 billion -- less than 1% of the total -- is pegged for public transit. Nearly 30 times that number is being reserved for tax cuts.

How many of us remarked to each other, in conversations over the holidays, that Obama couldn't possibly handle all of the expectations we keep piling on his shoulders? Hopes are being dashed all over these days, some of them by Obama himself.

The inauguration pageant is piled high with such contradictions. Nearly giddy crowds – and Sunday I saw more than a few people crying happily in a kind of disbelief -- are coming together in a time of sharp anxiety about the economy. And just as much of Washington is now ringed by anti-blast walls, some fixed and architectural and others temporary, Tuesday’s ceremony on the Mall will be circumscribed, literally and symbolically, by security precautions.

At the same time, the mass public gathered here seems determined not only to embrace but actively to practice optimism as a bulwark against the panicky atmosphere that has been so pervasive lately in the financial markets and elsewhere. In that sense, the new collectivity that marks the current moment in American history is more than merely political or related to cities. It began with the massive federal bailout of Wall Street, which made the words "government" and "public" safe to use again in polite conversation. It continued when the news emerged that we have nearly nationalized our banking system, and gained more steam as even dedicated neo-cons began sounding near-desperate Keynesian notes about the importance of spending billions of dollars, as quickly as possible, on infrastructure.

Faith in Obama has turned collective since the election, with his approval ratings hovering above 80%. But as Wall Street analysts and Detroit autoworkers lose jobs with equal speed, worry is collective too. The much-debated difference between a recession and a depression might be not depth but breadth.

Maybe that's why the crowded scene on the Mall on Sunday, and the more sprawling one set to unfold Tuesday, share a power beyond mere newsworthiness or photogenic appeal. They convey an unmistakable sense that for the foreseeable future we are all in this together –- to use a well-worn but fully appropriate phrase -- packed shoulder to shoulder in a ship of state staring down some waves of fairly intimidating size.

--Christopher Hawthorne

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Credits: Top, center photos: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times. Bottom photo: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times

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