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New Book Explores How Public Spaces Can Fight Polarization

 October 24, 2019 at 10:18 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 From the Agora in ancient Greece to the meeting halls of the American settlers. Having a place where people can get together. And mingle has been as an essential part of civic life and the support that we seem to have forgotten about as we insulate ourselves inside our homes and within our social media bestselling author and sociologist, Eric Klinenberg explores the value of public spaces in his book, palaces for the people, how social infrastructures can help fight inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life. He's speaking about the book tonight in San Diego in a perfect location for the topic. San Diego central library. Eric Klinenberg joins me now and Eric, welcome to the program. Speaker 2: 00:44 Oh, it's so nice to be here. Thank you. Speaker 1: 00:46 Where does the title of your book come from? Did civic buildings used to be called palaces for the people? Speaker 2: 00:52 I don't know that everyone called them palaces for the people, but Andrew Carnegie did a, it's a phrase I got from him. He was, you know, kind of the bill Gates of his time a century ago. And among other things, he was the great philanthropists who contributed to the construction of libraries, more than 2,500 libraries around the world and more than 1700 in the U S and his idea was that libraries should be palaces for all of us. They should be places that lift us out of our daily lives. And our factories are small apartments. They would be especially open to people who are struggling, including immigrants. He was an immigrant himself. Uh, and they would be places that would allow people to become the best version of themselves. And, uh, because of, of, of his work. And also because so many of our government, uh, agencies supported libraries through our history. Uh, we now have in the U S a tremendous public library system kind of unrivaled in the world. Speaker 1: 01:54 Besides these great libraries, what are the kinds of ways these meeting places have been used in the past? Speaker 2: 02:00 Well, gathering places are essential to all good societies. Think, for instance, about what it's like to have children and not live near up a good playground or a park or a school, that public spaces have the capacity, uh, to help us build relationships with people who live around us, uh, develop a kind of trust in the community. We're in a, and they can even build bridges during times of social division and polarization if we don't have physical places where we can actually encounter another live human face. Uh, you know, these days we're just left to screaming at each other on social media and things fall apart fast. Speaker 1: 02:39 Now, when did the decline in this kind of social infrastructure begin do you think? Speaker 2: 02:44 Well, we made a big decision in this country around the 1970s that we would stop investing in the big public programs, uh, that we thought would be the bedrock of a good society before then. So, uh, instead of letting local governments support parks and robust public library systems, uh, and terrific public schools, we started to cut back. And that's true in California for sure. Uh, we depended more and more on the marketplace. Uh, the government's ran through austerity. We cut taxes, uh, in the name of individuals getting to keep more of their income, but at the cost of the common good. And frankly, I think we're living in a world right now that is beset by problems that come from not making the kinds of investments in each other that we need to do well. Speaker 1: 03:34 Now your book palaces for the people takes us to civic structures. What you define as social infrastructure, public places all around the world. Can you tell us about some of them? Speaker 2: 03:45 Yeah, I mean, every society has its gathering place and certainly every healthy society does. Uh, so I encountered all kinds of places. I mean, I, I wrote a little bit in the book about living in Buenos Iris for a time with my young children. I, I have a son who's a, uh, passionate soccer player and I'll tell you at the end of every day in Buenos RAs, uh, everybody just kind of goes out into a playground that gets converted into a soccer pitch and you find kids of all ages. Uh, just having fun together, not really playing structured games, but, um, you know, playing, uh, creatively and they, and their parents come and it turns into a social center. And, you know, at the end of the day, if you want to be part of a collective life, you know, that's, that's where you go in, in Iceland, a lot of, of collective life is organized around, you know, what they call hotpots or swimming pools in public pools. Uh, you know, where, uh, people stripped down and get very close to each other in ways that would probably make Americans uncomfortable. Maybe not everyone in San Diego who's used to the beach. Uh, but, but a lot of conversations about politics, about culture, about things happening locally happen around the swimming pool. Speaker 1: 04:55 And is that the way that you, you're claiming in your book that this social infrastructure can fight inequality and, and the kind of political plot polarization we have in America today? Speaker 2: 05:07 Well, listen, I'm, I'm not so naive as to think that if we just build some more public pools in libraries, we're going to get over the problems that we have right now. You know, I think we're, we're, we're pretty divided but at the same time I think we find in, you know, in the branch library in the, in the great public libraries of our cities especially and also in our, in our parks and schools, we find, uh, physical places that have some capacity to bring us together into social environments where we can begin to rebuild. Uh, I think we've, we've had such a low level now that we have to get back to the basics and think about what it means to recognize our common humanity, uh, to be part of a shared project that's, that's generous, uh, to each other and I just don't think we are going to get there and repair our, our wounds if we spend all of our time on, on Facebook, in Twitter, screaming at each other. I really think the only chance we have is to invest in social infrastructure, places like the library where we can be reminded of our shared humanity and try to rebuild something that we desperately need to be a good open society again. Speaker 1: 06:13 Now you are speaking tonight at one of San Diego's proudest public places, the central library downtown before it was built. I remember there was a lot of discussion about whether or not San Diego even needed a library, how libraries were outdated. What do you think that a beautiful public place like our library brings to a city? Speaker 2: 06:32 Well, think about how many places you have in San Diego where everyone is welcome regardless of, uh, how old they are, what their ethnic background is, their race, theirs, their social class. Uh, whether or not they're even a citizen. Think about places that uh, are not just welcoming, but, uh, show people a sense of dignity, give them respect, um, and are generous with them. You know, give them access to our shared cultural heritage by virtue of, of their humanity. And, and by the way, think of a place that does all of that for free. The libraries, a treasured and unique institution in our culture. And we're very lucky to have it. You know, if the library didn't exist today, if we didn't already have one, imagine our society inventing it and investing in it. And building things like the central library in San Diego or all the branch libraries in San Diego from scratch. Speaker 2: 07:26 We are, we are so lucky to have institutions like this. And, and it's really up to us now to take care of these, this institution that we've inherited. They are, uh, as lively and active and, uh, essential to social life as they have always been. If you haven't spent time in a local library or the central library recently, I urge you to go. They really give you some sense of the, of the best of what we're capable of. You will find all kinds of people there, and I hope to see all kinds of people there. Tonight. Speaker 1: 07:54 I've been speaking with Eric Klein and Burg. He's the author of palaces for the people, how social infrastructures can help fight inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life. He will be speaking tonight at a free public lecture at the San Diego central library downtown. Eric, thank you so much. Speaker 2: 08:11 Oh, thank you.

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Bestselling author and sociologist Eric Klinenberg explores the value of public spaces in his book "Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructures Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life." He's speaking at the Central Library Thursday night.
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