Archive for September, 2010

When I left my home and my family

I was no more than a boy,

in the company of strangers

in the quiet of the railway station running scared.

Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters

where the ragged people go,

looking for the places only they would know.

The Boxer, by Paul Simon

It’s a bright sunny day and I’m sitting on my bench, sipping my coffee, not fully realizing how fortunate I am.  If I want, I can walk down the street and get a double dip of chocolate chip in a sugar cone.  Or maybe go browse the bookstore.  Later that evening I’ll probably go out to eat dinner with my wife, maybe take in the Friday evening concert at the levee.  Much later, I’ll be home, maybe watching tv or cruising the internet.  When we’ve finally exhausted all that the day has to offer, a comfortable bed awaits.

The bench I sat on hours ago is now a bed for one of the ragged people, whose name is known only to other ragged people.  He’ll rest for a couple of hours before a cop taps the soles of his shoes and tells him to move on.  The next morning he’s back for a few more hours.  The cops won’t run him off until the city once again populates with people not so different from me.

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking to the Kanawha Garden Club, who have taken a special interest in Charleston’s Davis Park.  Davis Park is a fundamentally good public space in need of a little refreshing after thirty years of public life.  In discussing some of the needs of the park with the garden club, someone asked the question:  “What can we do about the smokers?”

I’m not a smoker and like most non-smokers, I don’t really want to be around those who do smoke.  We recognize the dangers of second-hand smoke and marginalize people who choose to engage in that particular behavior, while not (yet) completely depriving them of their right to smoke.   So we have to figure out how to accommodate smokers while protecting the fresh air of non-smokers.  One solution is to create special areas where smokers can congregate.  Keep them among their own kind.

I joined the club for lunch after my presentation and the conversation moved from accommodating smokers to accommodating the itinerant, the indigent, and the homeless.  Do those who seek out the poorer quarters have a lesser right to public spaces than the rest of us?

One means of keeping public spaces safe is by keeping out undesirables.  We can all agree that people who want to engage in illegal activities shouldn’t be allowed in our public spaces, but beyond that, it will be difficult to find agreement about whom we deem as undesirable.

A more effective means of maintaining safe places is inclusion.  The more different people we can include, the more inviting the space is for everyone.

But what of the ragged people?  Do we acknowledge their presence?  Do we analyze their needs?  Do we recognize that, like smokers, most people don’t want to be around them?  Or do we keeping tapping on their soles?

It’s not a question simply for the designer, it’s a question for our civic leaders.  It’s a question for everyone who uses public spaces.  It’s a question for all of us.  And there’s not an easy answer.

Everyone loves a little mystery.

We sit through a two-hour movie not only because we want to see how it ends, but we want to what happens from scene to scene.  We flip through the pages of a bestseller for the same reason. Memorable art has some beguiling mystery.  Why is the Mona Lisa smiling?  Is she really even smiling?

Drives on winding country roads are more enjoyable because we never know what lies beyond the next curve or crest of the hill.  We are intrigued by the unknown.  We crave to discover.

Saturday I was driving down Virginia Street in Charleston when I saw in my peripheral vision a fountain I had never noticed before.  Traffic was light and I was able to slow down enough to see a vertical sheet of water flowing from a structure about six feet tall.  How had I not seen it before?

Determined to get another look, I made a quick left on Leon Sullivan Way, not realizing at first that such a turn was illegal.   I quickly made a u-turn and pulled in alongside the courtyard that was home to the fountain.  From my new vantage point I saw there was much more to the courtyard than just the fountain.

It was the unusual water shape that first caught my eye.

By now some of you may have guessed where I was.

The courtyard itself is fairly large but is comprised of smaller separate and distinct spaces.  Because I entered from a side entrance close to the fountain that originally caught my attention, I was drawn to that particular space.  The fountain was fascinating as water flowed in tiny streams from the stone lintel above into a pool at its base.  On the base were inscriptions.  The words  looked familiar yet their meaning escaped me.  They were Latin, I believe.  A nearby stone bench was also inscribed.

As I walked across the courtyard, I saw lots of vegetation, most of which looked somewhat familiar, but there was a unique ground cover which I have never seen before.  It looked like it might be in the creeping thyme family but I’m not sure.  I couldn’t resist running my hand lightly over its leaves.

Across the courtyard was another fountain area.  Instead of a wall of water, this fountain produced low, arching streams.  There were more Latin inscriptions.

In between the two fountain areas is the main entrance to the courtyard, and to the Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral.  It’s a well done and inviting entrance that leaves no doubt where the visitor should go.

From the street you get a glimpse of the garden inside.  Once inside, your senses are treated as you might expect in a public space – the trees, the benches, the water features.  But like a good mystery, it leaves you wondering.  Back at home, I looked up the Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral on the internet.  I learned that the plants of the garden are indigenous to the Holy Land.  I learned that the fountains are meant as a reminder of Christ’s promise of “living water”.  I still don’t know exactly what the interesting ground cover is.  And I wonder about the significance of the two different types of water features.

The Outer Garden of the Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral is not a public space in the sense that it’s a cool place to hang out with friends (although all the gates were open at about seven o’clock on a Saturday evening).  I can see parishioners meeting for a quick conversation before mass, but its real value is as a contemplative space.  In the shadow of the massive stone cathedral; surrounded by trees, shrubs and ground covers that feel familiar, but are somehow a little different; soothed by the trickle of water that seems to wash away the busyness of the outside world, there is much to contemplate.

Inside the garden are spaces for contemplation.

Landscaping helps define the spaces of the garden.

What do the different water shapes represent?

Is there a hint in the Latin inscriptions?

The ground cover is interesting and irresistible. Anyone know what it is?