Bo Diddley Plaza has been renovated.

But at what expense, and for whom?

 

After a year-long renovation that added — among other things — a color-changing water wall, a green room for performers and space for a soon-to-come cupcake shop, the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency has, as they told me, “accomplished amazing things” for Bo Diddley Plaza.

But while the $1.8 million renovation appears mostly cosmetic, it’s much more than that.

For example, the CRA hired a local artist to paint the utility transformer boxes with geometric guitar shapes. They look great, adding a pop of color to the ugly green boxes. But just a few feet away from the new “street art,” I came across an addition not promoted by the CRA: padlocks that make the electrical outlets on the new lampposts off-limits.

And looking more closely at the plaza, you start to notice small tweaks like these everywhere. Concrete slabs intended for seating, furnished with wooden accent pieces, compliment the water wall on the north side, but the fleet of benches that were once scattered in the shade around the perimeter of the plaza have been removed. The new marquee provides information on upcoming events, but a “plaza ambassador” is stationed in the kiosk below, tasked with calling the Gainesville Police Department if they see anything suspicious. The “static and dilapidated” tables in the southeast corner of the plaza, as described to me by a CRA project manager, have been removed to increase the space’s flexibility. Now, that square can be used for art installations and as a VIP station during events. Meanwhile, the dominoes players who once used the space daily have vanished from the spot.

Each individual change may seem insignificant; but together, they really do accomplish an amazing thing: Bo Diddley Plaza is no longer a public space.

“Public space” is a term used by sociologists to designate an area where social interactions and public activities among all members of the public occur. The idea of an urban public space goes back as far as the Greek agora, which functioned not only as a place where public affairs and legal disputes were conducted, but also as a marketplace, where judgements, decisions and bargains were made and traded among the people.

In a public space, as political theorist Iris Marion Young writes, “one should expect to encounter and hear from those who are different, whose social perspectives, experience and affiliations are different.” These spaces should be fairly unregulated, to allow for unmediated interactions among individuals.

According to Don Mitchell, an American Sociologist who studies public spaces, these ideals are especially important to groups that must struggle to gain membership into a white, male-dominated society. “The admittance of women, the propertyless and people of color into the formal ranks of ‘the public’ has been startlingly recent (and not yet really complete),” he writes in his book “The Right to the City.” These spaces are a necessary platform through which marginalized communities may “argue for their rights as part of the active public.”

Prior to the renovations, Bo Diddley had its faults, and it wasn’t always the most aesthetically pleasing space. Trash was sometimes strewn about; the bathrooms needed an overhaul. But the excluded and overlooked had a right to the space, and by extension a right to the city. Before the renovations, an active community of dominoes players clustered around the picnic tables at the southeast corner of the plaza; homeless folks would take naps on the benches. Everyone in the city had access to the space, as long as they were willing to coexist with people whose looks and behavior didn’t necessarily align with middle-class consumer norms. Those made uncomfortable by the “undesirable activity” had their private property to retreat to.

By stripping Bo Diddley of its benches, the city of Gainesville forcibly displaced all propertyless people from what the city and the CRA are calling “the heart of downtown.” By removing the four picnic tables, the dominoes players, who came to the space daily, were made unwelcome. And the changes don’t just affect the propertyless, but any person who is tired or not physically able to lay down, or who has bad knees and wants to get out of the hot, Florida sun. Without benches, they have lost their right to this so-called “public-space.”

Sarah-Vidal Finn, interim director of the CRA, suggested that people buy something at Steamer’s or Patticakes, the coming cupcakery, and use their shaded seating. And this is true; their seating is perfect for someone who is tired, who wants to escape the sun but stay on the plaza. But having that as the only option creates an admission fee to a supposedly public place. It should be obvious: People shouldn’t be forced to be consumers to stay on the plaza for more than 30 minutes.

The city has essentially made Bo Diddley usable to only two groups of people: students and young professionals. Students sprawl out under the trees, where the benches once were, able-bodied and ready to get down on the ground. Professionals in nicer clothing eat their lunch at Steamer’s or on the one concrete banister covered in shade. And a lot of the time, the plaza remains empty.

Not only that, the new renovations aim to regulate park behavior. Along with the security guards and cameras, colorful signs, reminiscent of ones at the entrance to a theme park, prohibit profanity: Even one’s language is controlled. Bo Diddley’s focus is now on discrete events — programs like concerts, farmers markets and Zumba classes — where crowds and interactions can be controlled, rather than random encounters between different classes of people.

Bo Diddley Plaza has become not only a way to promote consumption of goods, but also a symbol the city uses to sell itself.

But why does any of this really matter? You might really enjoy Bo Diddley’s new aesthetic; I was also thrilled to see Wednesday’s farmers market return to its old home.

But by using the rhetoric of an all-inclusive space, students and professionals, who fit largely under the banner of “predominantly white, middle-class consumers,” are exposed to an image of the public that excludes the people who have been purposefully shut out of the plaza. In doing so, the city is creating a public that is narrowly prescribed, encouraging others to stay unaware of the real problems of Gainesville’s homelessness and racialized poverty.

And you can expand the plaza’s renovations outward, where it exists as part of a larger pattern. As the city of Gainesville attempts to “revitalize” Downtown by attracting developers and businesses who, in turn, sell eco-conscious, high-tech, organic, urban lifestyles to predominantly white, middle-class consumers, Bo Diddley Plaza has become not only a way to promote consumption of goods, but also a symbol the city uses to sell itself. True public spaces, with all their discomfort and collapsing of the classes, don’t sell as well as sun-glistened astroturf.

The city of Gainesville, just like every other redeveloping city across the U.S., will continue to sell its downtown as a playground for middle-class work, play and consumption. Whole communities, such as the Porter’s neighborhood about five blocks from Bo Diddley, that were subject to the debilitating effects of structural racism and suburbanization as they developed, are now being ripped apart by these forces.

The public spaces where the people who most need to be seen and understood by society at large are being redesigned to promote pleasant and comfortable experiences for the middle class. The middle class, through all of this, gets to enjoy their Wednesday farmers markets and their bike rides to work, increasingly oblivious of their role in the displacement and oppression of other people in the budding theme park that is Downtown Gainesville.

So, here’s what I’m asking: Do we demand benches for Bo Diddley again? Or do we ignore it and enjoy Disneyland?