How Do We Find Connection in the Public Square?

On Forming Bonds Over Bars, Benches, Books, and Breakfast

What Should Your Local Public Square Look Like? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Illustration by Samantha Duran. 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.

Here, our contributors consider the rich building blocks of the public square: personal connections. In our segmented, often lonely world, they are shaking off the blues on the dance floor, telling tall tales over breakfast, and forming friendships through a seven-and-a-half-year-long book club.

They help us answer: How do we find connection in the public square?

Andy Field

By talking to strangers

Here we all are then. A disparate assortment of people speckling the bare concrete of this beautiful city center plaza. A man sitting on a bench. A woman listening to a podcast about bees. Three teenagers. A road sweeper. Seven pigeons. A single carrier bag. An almost-gathering. An assembly unassembled. A network of possible connections all waiting quietly to be realized, like a song that will never be sung.

What is it that forestalls these connections? Fear, perhaps, of embarrassment or rejection. And immersion in the comforting interior worlds conjured for us by our smart devices. The psychologist Juliana Schroeder argues that we have simply forgotten that we enjoy talking to strangers and that strangers enjoy talking to us. And so we hold back, we carry on with what we were doing. Even here, in a space specifically designed for congregation, we keep ourselves to ourselves.

Reticence has settled on the public square like a fog, making our encounters with other people tricky to navigate. Suspicion and uncertainty swirl around our interactions, especially those with people very different from ourselves. If we cannot be together in even these most open and gregarious of shared spaces then where are we to practice the empathy and mutuality that will allow us to think of ourselves as belonging to the same community? What is left to bind us to one another?

What we need is a little help. It could be almost anything. Weather can often do the trick. The thunderstorm that sends us dashing for the temporary respite of a café awning. Or a passing dog, out for a walk with its owner, can impose her lack of inhibition on us, thrusting us into unexpected but welcome conversations with strangers. Even a split shopping bag or a careening toddler can inspire us to reach out and connect.

Such spontaneous events are interruptions of the patterns of use and movement to which we have grown accustomed. They can dispel our collective inertia and give us permission to reconnect with one another. The challenge, in public squares both real and conceptual, is to design not for frictionless efficiency, but rather to encourage such interruptions. Divert us from our intended path, put just enough obstacles in our way and just enough distractions around us, make us wait, encourage us to linger, and in those moments of uncertainty, who knows what new encounters might be initiated.

Andy Field is an artist, curator, and author of Encounterism: The Neglected Joy of Being in Person.

Olive Kimoto

Dancing in unison on a crowded stage

Imagine yourself as you enter the crowded bar, anticipating another typical Friday night. Instead, you’ve stumbled upon a room filled wall to wall with people dressed in ruffles and lace, languidly swaying to sounds seemingly transmitted from the ether. A woman is singing in a high register in some sort of gibberish that you can’t understand, enveloped in echoing guitars. You have no idea what is going on, or why your friends are perched up on a crowded stage with dozens of others, twirling.

You are at what we call “Heaven or Los Angeles.”

Since 2017, Paige Emery and I have been hosting the most unlikely of dance parties: A Cocteau Twins dance party, around L.A. With music so pure, slow, and abstract, it is rarely seen as danceable music, nonetheless “dance music.” Between a realm of divine beauty and purity, and a city driven by indulgence and excess, is a liminal dance floor dedicated to the sounds and imaginations of a world beyond.

What started as a simple desire to play our favorite band has turned into something much larger. Each time I get behind the decks, I smile in a buzzing disbelief that I get to witness two strangers fall in love under the shimmer of a lazy disco ball. That I get to sculpt sound into a collective energy felt across the dance floor, as I watch someone and their ethereal limbs dance from a seemingly infinite energy source. That I get the privilege of co-creating a healing space like no other.

This is a space where your truest self transmutes into a playful energy shared across the room, creating a feeling of unity rarely seen in a world built to divide. You and everyone around you, across backgrounds and generations, find yourselves dancing in new ways you never thought would leave the privacy of your own home. Twirling, swaying, contorting your body in unison, as if possessed by magic. It’s not the beat of the drum that’s moving you, it’s the heaven you’ve found within.

The catharsis found at “HoLA” reverberates, espousing the tenderness of our most authentic selves to one another and our broader community as we imagine new futures—a soft reminder of what it’s like to dream and connect to the world if pared down to our purest essence.

Olive Kimoto is a Los Angeles-born-and-based musician and DJ.

David LeBarron

At the gay oasis

It’s 8:30 a.m., and I am silently sitting in Akbar, the bar I co-own—a small gay oasis in Los Angeles where Sunset meets Fountain meets Hoover. I play a favorite track on the jukebox and this sometimes crazy public space where community is daily forged starts to come to life. I can almost hear last night’s laughter lingering. A mirage of some young fabulously fashioned would-be diva ghosts by. I sense a pair of for-the-night lovers were just here kissing awkwardly, desperately. Wafts of spilled martinis and well-deserved sweat make me smile wider. In this stillness of way-too-early, I feel all the connections that spark when there’s a place to play—freely.

There’s something many queer people have in common: We can all tell you about our first gay bar. The first time we left the exhausting and often hateful world behind and felt safe, possibly for the first time ever in our lives. By owning that we are “queer” or “not typical” we become united. Bound in connections spoken and silent we are better and safer together. And the gay bar creates a space informed by that bond, that honors it like a banner of pride.

Loneliness can be a predator, too, especially in the queer community. The journalist Michael Hobbes, in an article that was getting passed around a few years back, called it the “epidemic of gay loneliness.” The gay bar makes sure there is somewhere we can go; somewhere we can be ourselves, relax and breathe easier in this space that is here for us. Especially during the sometimes difficult holidays, when everyone’s asking why you don’t do this or that?

Connection is an antidote then. At the queer bar, middle-aged old-timers gather for happy hour and chat idly. A bit later, post-work and pre-evening-plans patrons conspire and laugh in ways they do not and cannot at work. Friendships are reforged, alliances acquired as the volume rises with the moon. Soon, heads are bumping and toes are tapping as winks get shared to the beat. On the dance floor, everyone is finally free. They dance like everyone is watching.

It’s almost 9 a.m. now, and someone has to put this place back together so we can do it again.

David LeBarron is a writer and co-owner of Akbar.

Ethan J. Leib

Face-to-face, with Talmud

On January 5, 2020, the 14th cycle of the Daf Yomi got started—a huge book club that takes seven and a half years to complete. For each day of the cycle, tens of thousands of Jews focus on one of the Talmud’s 2711 pages, acquainting themselves with this foundational text of modern rabbinic Judaism. Although the study of these post-Second Temple Period legal debates and narratives can, in theory, be done in solitude, much of what renders the ancient material legible is reading—and analyzing, interpreting, and discussing—it together.

For some, no doubt, joining this book club is baked-in peer pressure to do one’s homework. But it is also a way to nourish community with an infrastructure supplied by a public square of rabbis, laypeople, scholars, and casual readers who use the internet, listservs, and in-person and Zoom discussion groups to engage the question-and-answer format of the books.

As I reflect on my own commitment to the Daf Yomi—the daily podcasts about particular pages I listen to on my runs, the occasional writings and lectures it inspires in my day job as a law professor—one particular part of it feels the most rewarding, and the most instructive about a life well-lived.  On a weekly basis, I get together with my chavruta (learning partners) face-to-face, to explore something that struck us as particularly resonant in the last week’s readings. The text is reinforced and rendered more intimately relevant when friends come together in person to digest ideas and debates ventilated in public.

Right now we’re reading about finding lost objects and the rules about bailees and those who borrow objects that get lost or stolen, so it is easy for me to geek out as a law professor, comparing rabbinical civil law and the Anglo American common law.  But having recently completed tractates on marriage, divorce, celebrating holidays or committing to fasting within communities, conversations with chavruta rarely stay academic.

Reading about some of the most intimate spheres of communal life together in a structured way opens a door to a new kind of friendship—one that transcends what so many other friendships are built upon: working at the same office, neighborly proximity, kids in the same schools, drinking, poker. Emmanuel Levinas—the French philosopher famous in part for his Nine Talmudic Readings—was assuredly right that face-to-face encounters matter tremendously for ethics. I would say this is true for friendship, too. People who study the chavruta method itself have shown its benefits for educational purposes. But reading Talmud together in person—ballasted and supported by a public square that renders the material accessible to all, keeping us on the same page when we can’t be together in the same room—has created a special bond. Drawing on all the insights we have collected from the public square, we are able to connect at a profound level in a joint intellectual enterprise. To the extent this form of study can be spiritual, it comes from within the friendships it makes possible.

Ethan J. Leib is the John D. Calamari Distinguished Professor of Law at Fordham Law School and the author of Friend v. Friend: The Transformation of Friendship—and What the Law Has to Do With It.

Rachel Skytt

Over breakfast (preferably weekly)

Do you think it’s hard to make friends in Los Angeles? I used to. Most of my friends were people I’d met at school or work. Then many of those friends moved away, and I found my circle shrinking. There were millions of people in this city, there had to be more people out there who I could hang out with, right?

I’d go to events all the time, lectures, museums, movie screenings, book signings. But it was rare that I struck up a conversation with a stranger in these spaces. People talked to friends they already knew, or if they were by themselves, focused on their phones. I would leave wondering, where were the spaces to meet new friends?

It took me a while to find it, but it exists and it’s been around since 1925. For 99 years, Angelenos (and visitors) have met every week at the Los Angeles Breakfast Club to eat breakfast, listen to a presentation (from magicians, poets, Disney Imagineers, even Wienermobile drivers) and participate in a lot of very silly, old-timey traditions (secret handshakes, singing songs, calisthenics).

One of the club’s sayings is “We never have breakfast with strangers.” Truly, it is one of the few places I’ve ever gone where speaking to someone you don’t know is encouraged. Learning about someone new is delightful every time. Someone who wrestled a bear, another who was born in a volcano, someone who was once choking and ended up being saved by Dr. Heimlich himself. Breakfast Club is an excellent example of a “third place,” a community space outside of work or home where one can foster connections with people that they otherwise would never have the opportunity to interact with.

I’ve found that the meetings’ regularity creates a kind of friendship momentum. In contrast to the scheduling limbo I’ve often faced, the get-together that is repeatedly rescheduled for another week, another month – at the Breakfast Club, you never have to worry about calendars. You’ll see friends old and new every Wednesday morning. You just have to show up.

Rachel Skytt is club historian for the Los Angeles Breakfast Club.