Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mount Vernon-Washington Monument Plaza

I find that the area in Mount Vernon near the Washington Monument is a space which represents some of the ideals of “the open city.” This area is on North Charles St. approximately inbetween Madison St. and Centre St. It is easily accessible from many directions, including the light rail and Penn Station.

This plaza physically opens up because of the park-type area in the middle of the street. This extended median breaks up the street and allows for more pedestrian traffic, which in turn leads to more interaction between people. Now instead of just narrow sidewalks to walk on with building-fronts in our faces, pedestrians are given this large space to enjoy, whether they are just passing through or had the park as their intended destination. The park seems well designed, with large areas of grass which are kept well-manicured and inviting. There are also benches, which encourage people to sit down, take their time, and therefore possibly have more interactions with the other people and environment around them.

The groups of people walking through this area varies widely. Mount Vernon is a good transitional area where there are residences and businesses, and even other institutions such as churches. And, is it situated in this “midtown” area of the city in which people often walk (or drive) through it to get to and from the Inner Harbor area. The Inner Harbor is full of a lot of business people, as well as tourists and other various groups of people, all of whom are likely to walk through Mount Vernon as they head towards and away from the Harbor. This Washington Monument plaza is a very high-traffic area, so by encouraging pedestrians to stop and enjoy this park, and this beautiful monument to George Washington, it increases the interaction between the different groups of people traveling through that space. This element of the space exhibits the idea of “the city person and groups interact[ing] within spaces and institutions they all experience themselves belonging to, but without those interactions dissolving into unity or commonness” (Marion Young, 237).

Another reason this space has so much pedestrian traffic is because of the variety of businesses and establishments in this area. There are many restaurants and bars (Donna’s Café, Akbar, Ixia, Sotto Sopra, Owl Bar, Hippo, Grand Central) in the immediate vicinity, as well as many more just a few blocks away. There are also institutions like the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, the Walters Art Museum, The Peabody Library, and of course the tall and proud Washington Monument itself which keep this space alive, busy, and well-used. And as Jane Jacobs said, “A well-used street is apt to be a safe street.” I personally have walked around this area at night by myself and felt safe; at least safer than in Bolton Hill which is strongly residential. Additionally, this variety of buildings brings together a variety of people. There is a strong “gay community” in this area with a few gay bars within a few blocks of each other, which in a sense may be a tool in an arsenal of exclusion; but I feel like that particular community is very open to having all types of people be involved in it, they are not exclusionary or “dissolving into unity or commonness” (Young, 237). They don’t close themselves off to other kinds of people who share this part of the city with them. In fact the gay community very strongly appeals to the idea of being accepting, open and undiscriminating towards others, spatially and morally. They often work hard to fight for equality among all groups of people, so I think having a prominent gay population in this area can help contribute to its openness. As Marion Young says, “In such public spaces people encounter other people [in this case the gay population], meanings, expressions, issues which they may not understand or with which they do not identify.” So people passing through this area of Mount Vernon who may not understand or identify with the gay community are forced to try, or at least acknowledge it’s existence; which echoes Young’s ideal of having different groups of people simply interact and acknowledge each other in a peaceable open space.

The Washington Monument area is definitely an enjoyable space which encourages interaction between different groups of people, utilizes the street in a variety of ways through residences, businesses and institutions, which I feel is a great example of an “open city” space.

-Michelle Alpert

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