What Should Your Local Public Square Look Like?

People With Deep Community Ties Share What Keeps Them—And Their Neighbors—Rooted to Place and One Another

Illustration by Ruby Alvarado. Courtesy of artworxLA.

The public square is the meeting ground where people make society happen. In these spaces, physical or metaphorical or digital, we work through our shared dramas and map our collective hopes. Ideally, the public square provides room to solve the problems we face. It is also where new, thorny issues often arise.

This “Up for Discussion” is part of Zócalo’s editorial and events series spotlighting the ideas, places, and questions that have shaped the public square Zócalo has created over the past 20 years.

Close to the ground, our contributors here take us from a mountainside greenspace in Los Angeles to a fishing village in Peru. From their respective corners of the public square, they show us how we might foster—and preserve—local community.

Miya Iwataki

If we don’t own Little Tokyo, we don’t control it

In 1884, Hamanosuke Shigeta, a seaman from Japan, jumped ship in Los Angeles and opened the first Japanese-owned business, Kame Restaurant, planting the roots of a community. This blossomed into a unique neighborhood of churches, temples, businesses, and social institutions. Little Tokyo became a place our people could call home.

Japanese Americans have drawn upon the fighting spirit of the Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans) to protect their community through the years. They were dogged by federal laws denying citizenship, California’s Alien Land Laws and anti-miscegenation acts, and anti-Japanese racism. Then World War II’s Executive Order 9066 ordered the forced removal and mass incarceration of more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps. Little Tokyo became a ghost town.

After the war, Japanese Americans began rebuilding. Urban renewal threatened Little Tokyo. The City of Los Angeles’ 1953 Civic Center expansion plan displaced hundreds of Japanese Americans, history repeating itself. In the 1970s, plans to extend Civic Center deeper into Little Tokyo were now met with resistance, resulting in a proposed Redevelopment Plan which included housing and a community center. Broad coalitions such as Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization challenged evictions and fought to make the city honor its commitments. 

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic tested Little Tokyo’s resilience. By 2021, over 20 legacy restaurants and businesses had shuttered, each closure a piece of our history buried. Little Tokyo’s tested community infrastructure and partnerships became a model of cooperation powering our survival.

Today, the new Regional Connector Metro Station will create the busiest hub in L.A. outside Union Station, running through Little Tokyo and sparking newfound interest. Developers and building owners eager to capitalize on increasing land values are imposing soaring rent increases, and once again our stores and community meeting spaces are in danger. 2024 marks the 140th anniversary of Little Tokyo. But until we can secure the real estate where we live, work, and play, the future of Little Tokyo will always be uncertain.

The Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund (LTCIF) grew out of conversations between community members concerned about sneaker stores, Starbucks, and cannabis dispensaries taking over the neighborhood. What if, these activists wondered, we invested collaboratively, creating a socially responsible fund to support legacy businesses, and maintain the cultural and historical integrity of the community?

LTCIF’s three objectives are: to purchase real estate in Little Tokyo to guarantee community-based control of properties and a greater say in the neighborhood’s future; to provide affordable rents to culturally aligned entities; and to ensure a Little Tokyo for future generations.

If you don’t own it, you don’t control it. Little Tokyo is the soul of the Japanese American community—a public square for opportunity, where partnerships harness people power and create platforms for discussion, mobilizing around issues and ideas growing and shaping our future.

Miya Iwataki is an executive board member of the Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund, the vice president of Little Tokyo Historical Society, and an organizer with Nikkei Progressives/NCRR Reparations Coalition.

Meadow Carder-Vindel

Greenspaces where community grows

It is a basic human need to be able to gather and find a place amongst others, to know where one is welcome to come as they are and be their authentic self. To have a place like this nearby, that draws on local community and the land, is essential for the well-being of a thriving people, especially those living such busy, urban lives.

Greenstone Farm & Sanctuary sits on a mountainside in a hidden nook of Mount Washington in Tongva Land (Los Angeles), and has been owned and tended to by the same Afro Indigenous family for over 50 years—my family. It is a place of healing, community engagement, and urban relational agriculture. We open our gates because we know we are meant to share the beauty and serenity found here. We welcome people seeking nourishment, peace, and refuge from the hustle and bustle of our concrete city. We welcome our neighbors and communities who don’t have access to safe greenspace, a flourishing public square for the many happenings of life to unfold.

We think of ourselves as a bridge, bringing together people of different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, and gender expressions—allowing organic interaction and dialogue to occur. Through relational land tending and reconciliation with ancestral practices, we weave together the past and the present. On any given day, one can find children learning about medicinal herbs they can grow to take care of themselves and their family, their parents learning how to compost in the city, an elder sharing their wisdom, a baby discovering the beauty of soil, or a wedding, celebration, musical offering, healing circle, or community discussion about current events. So much life happens here, above and beneath the soil.

All people deserve to step outdoors and into a place that provides mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness, while sharing in activities that bring about self-awareness and unity with each other and the world around them. Community care is key. It builds relationships between; to take the education and gifts they receive in our city oasis back to their own homes and communities, so they can fortify and strengthen them from within. Whether in the sanctuary with the plants, trees, and animals or with the other people in attendance, the green public square is a place of belonging that fosters a sense of local community. It is fundamental to growing alongside each other.

Meadow Carder-Vindel is one of the primary caretakers of Greenstone Farm & Sanctuary and co-founder of Healing Gardens Co.

Jesse Hardman

A place people trust for shared news and information

I’m in a fishing village in far northern Peru called Paita, where the desert meets the sea. It’s a Saturday morning, still cool before the inevitable afternoon heat, and everyone is passing through the zócalo to get to a market, to meet up with friends, and to get to their boats.

I set up a card table, a microphone that attaches to my laptop, and a banner that says “Relatos del Perú (Peruvian stories).”

People ask what I’m up to. I’m recording histories from small towns from the Amazon to the Andes.

After a few minutes, the first brave person steps up: This elderly man tells of his musical talents, and how his dream was always to be a well-known composer, and then he begins to sing a song he wrote about a famous shipwreck in Paita.

After that, we’re off and running—a line forms, and everyone has a story.

In small Peruvian towns the literal public square still unites people, although poverty and migration mean that these spaces likely splintered into digital diaspora channels on WhatsApp, Facebook, and YouTube a while ago. But a public square where people get and share trusted news and information is an important local need, a concept that’s as dynamic as it is rooted.

I’ve spent the past 15 years at Internews and its U.S.-facing Listening Post Collective mapping community information needs with an eye on strengthening local news ecosystems. I ask local residents about how they get and share key news and information, what kinds of issues they’d like to understand better, and whom they rely on as trusted messengers. That means listening deeply. In Nebraska’s historic Black community of North Omaha, hubs like the Malcolm X Center still provide a sort of town square with events, bulletin boards, and, for a time, a community radio station in the basement; yet Facebook groups centered around the summer homecoming event, Native Omaha Days, is how the extended Black community of Omaha stays connected to its history, identity, and each other. In Northern California, bilingual Facebook swap meets played a critical role in Spanish speakers getting emergency information during wildfires. And in New York City it’s figuring out how to make local news more accessible to and representational of Caribbean and Chinese immigrants.

Considering the fact that there are more cell phones in the world than humans, it’s no surprise that people feel lost in the sea of the internet, which seems like the antithesis of a public square—a roaring storm of content often without context. A local public square, whether it’s physical or digital, gives people context for their lives and makes them feel part of something bigger. It empowers them to want to represent and support a sense of community, whether they are staring at a bulletin board at their local library or seeing that same local information in a WhatsApp group.

Jesse Hardman is a public radio reporter, writer, media developer, videographer, and journalism educator.

Mary Willams

Full of bookstores that bind us together

Many bookstores function as meeting places for their communities. Bookstore author events bring writers from near and far to meet their fans and win some new ones. As general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles’s Los Feliz neighborhood, I’ve met some of my favorite authors within these four walls and felt the electricity in the room when a writer really connects with their audience.

Bookstores are also the “third places” of their communities, neither work nor home. Friends can meet up after work, first dates can get off on the right (or wrong) foot, or a person can enjoy a quiet hour strolling the aisles uninterrupted by life’s usual demands.

And books are full of gray areas. That’s one of my favorite things about them. A bookstore, then, makes for an appealing modern public square—a place for nuance, with room for difference, where your mind can encounter other minds, in person or in the millions of pages that line the shelves.

Every book represents its author’s take on the world around them, whether that book is sci-fi or history, memoir or economics, self-help or a children’s picture book. No matter the topic or genre, writers reveal themselves; they make a case for the way they think the world works and should be. And all these bound pages are the result of real thought. They’ve been drafted and re-drafted, edited, and designed.

In a world where an opinion, no matter how poorly considered, can be dashed off by a stranger and pop up on your phone in mere seconds, what a relief to spend an hour (or a lifetime) in this kind of deliberative, dutiful, reflective, ruminative public square.

And those gray areas! None of us are one-dimensional, and we deserve a public square that engages with our varied and occasionally competing thoughts and identities, in the company of others alike and different.

Mary Williams is the general manager of Skylight Books, an independent bookstore in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.