I don't drive. I don't even have a driver's license. When I need to get around Hartford, I walk or take the bus, and on rare occasions I call a cab.
Traveling by foot or waiting for a bus may not be the most efficient way to travel, but these options often afford me plenty of time to think, read the newspaper or strike up a conversation with a stranger. On one of those bus trips, I realized how important and amazing something like a bus is. Not the vehicle itself, but what it represents, what it is a part of: the public sphere.
On weekdays, I pick up my 5-year-old son from day care. We walk down the sidewalk, paid for and maintained by the city. Every day on the way home, we stop by the local barber shop so that my son can tell his favorite barber about his day. We take the bus, and he often asks me where his favorite driver is, a kind woman named Ada who has seen my son grow up just as I have.
We go to Bushnell Park, maintained by the city of Hartford. There he makes new friends, running across the playscape right next to the carousel, climbing trees in the shadow of the state Capitol, or sneaking into the water fountain across from the pavilion for a cool-down on the hot summer days. I have received advice, learned of job prospects, caught flirtatious glances, run into old friends, learned about community events or simply enjoyed a beautiful day, all while standing in front of the Old State House on Main Street waiting for the No. 40 bus to ferry me home again.
Public space offers the kinds of social interactions that can enrich the lives of the city's residents, the kind my son and I experience every day. They are possible because the investment in public space and public goods were made years ago. For that space to endure, we must continue to invest in them. Many people take something as basic as sidewalks for granted. I spent a good deal of my life in Bloomfield, and I can tell you from firsthand experience that a lack of sidewalks is something you notice immediately when you have to get somewhere.
Of course, there's more to the public sphere than getting from Point A to B. Many of Greater Hartford's premiere events occur in public spaces, free of charge, from the Puerto Rican Day Parade to the Black-eyed and Blues Festival to Family Day in Keney Park. Thousands of people, from the city and the surrounding suburbs, flock to the riverfront for events, to First Night and Winterfest. Public resources have also been used to unify private enterprises with wonderful results, such as the Taste of Hartford.
In the current era of recession-induced budget-cutting and tea party politics, the public sphere, often derided as "Big Government" or some variant thereof, is cast as the enemy. However, I have a hard time recalling anyone saying they want dirtier parks, more potholes and fewer sidewalks. Public goods and events improve all of our lives in tangible and intangible ways, but these goods require public funding. There will always be the need to debate and define what constitutes good spending. We must not be so hasty in our zeal to tighten the government's belt that we cut off circulation to the public sphere that we all enjoy and rely upon.
Jamil R. Ragland lives in Hartford.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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