In Defense of “Hanging Out”

I never ran the Boston Marathon, but when I moved there years ago to lead the Boston Center for the Arts, I went to every one of them. Marathon Mondays, First Nights on New Years Eve and the concerts on the Commons. These events (and the Red Sox) were the Boston way of life. So when the news of the bombing came last week, I, like many others saw it not just as a tragedy, but as an assault on our way of life. Those of us who work in the arts and recreation understand and appreciate “gathering” as a human need. While sports and arts may provide a rationale for a festival, outdoor concert, sports meet or street fair, the “getting together,” the “hanging out,” and the socialization is the public benefit of these occasions.

Our current exhibition is about “placemaking,” which is the trend for cities and towns to use the arts and entertainment to make places more livable, more inviting, more conducive to blending life, work and play in one location. According to the NEA, “creative placemaking” is when public, private, not-for-profit, and community sectors partner to strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.

This phenomenon has reclaimed many a city since the suburbanization of the 60s. A concerted effort on the part of downtown planners has given a whole new future to cities like Pittsburgh and San Antonio, which have created cultural districts offering an abundance of cultural venues and activities. These are, in other words, places for people to gather. What I wonder about is whether the bombings in Boston can potentially put “creative placemaking” at risk. Are we as a society prepared to protect and preserve “gathering”?

I began to think about all the trips I haven’t taken since 9/11 and the sheer unpleasantness and exhaustion of airport security. What if more and more of the places we want to go require the same screening as in an airport? As it is now, we open our bags and backpacks at museums and theaters. Why not at festivals and fairs? Will the hassle so outweigh the fun that we won’t want to go to a jazz fest or a crafts fair? And what does freedom in America mean if our choices become so narrow that we all have only the freedom to stay home? I am prepared to stand up for “hanging out” until no one joins me. I, for one, will keep on planning cultural events until no one shows up.

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