I find that Daley Plaza is Chicago’s “realest” public space in the city. Real in the tradition of public spaces in cities around the world where history is made in the form of speeches and protests and where people are not afraid to occupy the space to relax, be idle, chat, and eat. Also real in that the legally space is owned by the city, and by extension its citizens, but never its corporations. Real in that commercial interests for that space are maintained. Real in that people have adopted the space as a natural, close, and unblocked meeting point.
Where Daley Plaza isn’t a real public space is that it is surrounded by roaring machines on three sides (the fourth doesn’t function as part of the plaza). It becomes less peaceful because of the metal boxes hurtling through space at every edge and vertex of the granite.
Millennium Park fails as a public space because it has rules. Because private security enforces these rules and bothers guests for the most normal of activities. The space is managed by contract from the city to a corporation. It has hours of use. You surely can’t protest, let alone ride a bike. Half of it was paid for by the names that adorn its features.
In Millennium Park, and many other corporate “plazas”, you can be told to leave.
Panorama of Daley Plaza during Critical Mass in March 2013.
It would be disingenuous of me to only compare Millennium Park as an example of real public space in Chicago. It’s the extreme opposite of Daley Plaza in the spectrum of public spaces here. Grant Park is closer to Daley Plaza, but lacks the closeness, the tight feeling that you are in a community of other humans. There are smaller spaces that would be in the same vein as Daley Plaza, like Giddings Plaza in Lincoln Square, and Federal Plaza just down the street at Adams. There are plenty of smaller examples, like the sidewalks and tiny plazas at Blue Island, Loomis, and 18th Street.
Daley Plaza’s water fountain near the southwest corner does a good job of masking the rumbling automobile engines and tires rubbing on the pavement. It provides stimulation for other senses, including vision (the water seems infinite!) and tactile perception (the water has a temperature and a texture against the skin).
I wrote this on June 18, 2013. I have a tendency to draft articles and then not publish for a long time. I have a draft about Berlin, Germany, from September 2012.