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Pedestrian Mall democracy

BY SHAWN GUDE | APRIL 22, 2010 7:30 AM

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It was a bit ironic, really.

Last week, we saw antigovernment Tea Partiers rally in a public space local government created: the Pedestrian Mall.

The observation isn’t meant to broadly impugn Tea Party activists. Indeed, the advent of the Tea Party movement is just a more extreme manifestation of a decades-long trend of antigovernment sentiment.

But that political ethos shift, paired with the continued expansion of suburbia and shopping malls, has led to a democratic society with fewer and fewer public spaces. Consequently, remaining public spaces such as the Ped Mall have become increasingly important.

In our time, government — and politics in general — is often seen as an insuperable enemy to fend off. Conceptions of freedom have been misconstrued to simply mean limiting government power, rather than empowering the citizens that actually compose democratic governments.

In this regard, political theorist Hannah Arendt had it right. Arendt viewed true freedom in active, participatory terms. She extolled the “public realm,” a pluralistic ideal where equal citizens acted politically.

At its best, the Ped Mall is a paragon of this participatory framework, as last week’s protests highlighted. Protesters and counterprotesters duking it out — and democracy prevailing because of this benevolent antagonism.

Granted, the Ped Mall had arguably inauspicious beginnings. In the late-1970s, the city’s urban-renewal project — which included constructing the Ped Mall — prompted lawsuits, public outcry, and claims of favoritism.

But after decades of dwindling public spaces, the Ped Mall has held up pretty well.

Nationwide, suburbanization and privatization hasn’t just led to a more homogenized — and more energy-intensive — country. The pervasive spread of suburbia and implacable consumer habits have had a devastating effect on the country’s public spaces. Gargantuan shopping centers and strip malls now splatter the landscape, crowding out public spaces amenable to our noncommercial needs.

Iowa City has the Pentacrest and the Ped Mall. Other college towns, including Madison, Wis., have similar democratic spaces. New York City has Central Park. But for many cities and towns, shopping malls now pass for a “public space.”

Personally, I find the hyper-consumption and squeaky-clean milieu of mega-malls nauseating. But more important to consider are these spaces’ insidious effect on political speech and democracy.

In public spaces, political speech is subject to few restrictions. It’s why Brother Jed can spew his vile (and constitutionally protected) diatribes on the Pentacrest. And it’s why single-payer health-care advocates can stand alongside libertarians, debating the merits of their preferred policies and attempting to sway other citizens.

It’s quite the opposite on private property.

You wouldn’t just feel ridiculous protesting at a local mall; a mall cop would likely escort you out.

And therein lies the antigovernment paradox — while it intends to maximize autonomy, it often undercuts the very avenues that guarantee citizens’ political-speech rights.

We can pay lip service to the notion of free speech and democratic discourse. But if the nation’s philosophical leanings — and, when aggregated, our shopping habits — pillory those very principles, we have a problem.

As political-scientist Margaret Kohn wrote in her 2004 book Brave New Neighborhoods, “[Public] places are not banned by authoritarian legislatures. The public is not dispersed by the police. Their disappearance is more benign but no less troubling.”

So we should be thankful for the Ped Mall. Beyond the pleasing, community-oriented aesthetics of the place, it embodies the pluralistic, democratic society that makes our country great.

We just have to make a priority to fight for public spaces like it.

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