A Public Space Inspiring Larger Ideas about Community

Charlottesville's pedestrian mall, early on a cold winter morning, before the day's activities heat it up.

Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall, early on a cold weekend morning, before the day’s activities heat it up.

Charlottesville, VA

I didn’t think that I’d still be in Charlottesville a month after Christmas, but there I was last Sunday, rather than in Brooklyn, hobbling along with my brother. I had been delayed not only by bad weather and a sprained ankle, but by a certain gravitational pull about my hometown that always keeps me here too long. This pull is hard to escape from because of how absent it can seem in larger cities. It is Charlottesville’s sense of community.

This community was evident even that brisk morning while on Main Street. Of all the locals we know, having grown up here, we saw about a half-dozen within an hour, including a UVA coach, a musician, and an architect who informed us of a design competition up the block. We also ran into one of Charlottesville’s more infamous salonnieres, who is one of several that dictate the city’s nightlife. He was then performing a type of stroll, with his two dogs, that locals use not when wishing to arrive somewhere, but when just wishing to be seen. The French knew about this stroll well enough to invent a nickname for it: “flaneuring.”

Charlottesville residents use their Main Street this way because of the type of public space that it was made into. It used to be a workaday one for hardware stores and repair shops, but in 1976 was converted into a pedestrian mall by architect Lawrence Halprin. Wishing to reflect the work of Thomas Jefferson, who built nearby Monticello and the Rotunda, Halprin layered the mall with red bricks across downtown, weaving them around trees and down alleyways.

The original brick pattern has since been renovated to handle the mall's ever-increasing foot traffic.

The original brick pattern has since been renovated to handle the mall’s ever-increasing foot traffic.

While the mall struggled the first two decades because of accessibility problems, these were improved, and it is now the center of a vital neighborhood. It has helped not only with the city’s economy, but its quality of life and social climate, which consistently ranks among the nation’s best. The random encounters that occur there may appear trivial, but generate the social capital that Jane Jacobs called “the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”

Although Charlottesville would have this anyway because of its size, it wouldn’t exist to such a degree without the mall. There’s an indoor one several miles away, but it is poorly-attended because of its sparse surroundings. Another shopping center is more diverse since it’s nearer to UVA, but is consumed by an enormous parking lot that discourages interaction. The downtown mall, meanwhile, is the type of place that locals cannot walk end-to-end from without seeing someone they know.

I didn’t realize how unique this was until trotting the rest of the country. Over that time I found there were generally three types of communities, none of which are necessarily satisfying to the people who live in them. One is urban communities that provide dynamic social opportunities, but feel tenuous and overwhelming because of the transitory natures of their populations. Another is in small towns, where relationships are too tightknit—and the creation of new ones too rare—to preserve one’s autonomy. And a third is suburban communities that are isolating because they have no public center. Charlottesville differs from all three, by somehow managing to feel both cosmopolitism, and personally intimate.

Two other local brothers, Rob and Whit Douglas, moved here precisely for this intimacy, after spending their twenties wandering the nation. They did so because they wanted friendships that would be more meaningful than those found in the big cities where they lived before. Such friendships materialize here, explained Rob, “because people bump into each other, and start to feel a common connection. This creates a sense of accountability to each other, and to one’s community, rather than the feeling that you’re just a random urban figure that no one knows or cares about.”

But another woman, who plans on moving to Portland, found this problematic in a place where “people just go around sleeping with one another, then encounter their partners unexpectedly the next day.” Another friend, who’s since left for New York, called Charlottesville’s unwanted run-ins, and its generally sunny atmosphere, “tedious” and “awkward.”

This type of community is not something I’d enjoy year-round either. But for those who do, Charlottesville is perfect, not necessarily because of its historic assets—UVA is still as isolated as any other college campus—but because of its mall. The mall demonstrates how notions about “public realms” and “senses of place” are not just theories to be regurgitated by urban planners. They can, like in this city, tangibly affect how real people interact, and how their communities operate.


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