In early January, I went to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. It was supposed to be to celebrate my retirement. Right.
Before that part of the trip, we toured around Quito and surrounding areas in the Andean highlands. Quito is the capital of Ecuador, with more than 2 million people, stuffed with monumental churches, museums and public buildings.
We had several excursions to locations nearby, including centers of handicrafts, natural reserves, and three — count ‘em, three — monuments on the Equator, each one the real and only location — where we could learn about astronomy, or view the official natural history and ethnology of Ecuador, or experience the pseudo-scientific effects of standing with a foot in each hemisphere.
It was all a fascinating experience of a new culture and geography. We rode in a van and spent a good deal of time just looking out the windows. After a couple of days, I realized something.
Here’s a typical scene. We’re going to a special hacienda for lunch, and we get off the highway and descend through a series of walled streets with houses looking awful on the outside to a little decrepit-looking town with pot-holed streets strewn with garbage and shredded plastic bags and maybe with a few chickens running around, and through some more walled streets in massive disrepair.
We turn in through a gate in the wall and all of a sudden it’s heaven. There are extensive, beautiful gardens with many flowers, pet llamas, fish ponds, eye-catching vistas across the valley or through the mountains, and a lovely setting for a meal.
The same thing happened over and over. A hotel, a restaurant, an artisan’s shop, even a nature reserve: walls and gates on the outside along the neglected street. Inside, courtyards, peacocks, fountains, art works.
You go from public spaces that nobody takes care of to private spaces where you’re surrounded by beautiful things and the people who care about making them.
This is why I like to travel. When everything is different, you go into hyper-learning mode, constantly asking yourself, what’s going on here? What are these people thinking? What am I expecting that isn’t here? You can become conscious of presuppositions that you didn’t even know you had.
In this case, my presupposition was that public space is an important part of cultural life. In Ecuador, the balance is clearly weighted much more toward the private aspect. Not that they don’t invest in public works such as highways, a new airport or public health measures. Being only a short-term tourist, I am not commenting about Ecuadorean policies at all. I’m just reflecting on our own culture.
In America, we care a lot about public space. Whether it’s Washington, D.C., or the local public library with the columns, or the brick sidewalk with the little boutiques, period streetlamps and park benches, or our small town with the common and the churches and the trees, or our private houses with the neat yard and the welcoming driveway from the street — all these landscapes are part of American cultural life. They express the high value we place on public spaces and public life.
When these conditions were not there, I noticed.
And so the public space/private space balance is the moral of the story.
Valuing the public space is a basic American assumption about the way life should be. This value has shaped our built environment, whether we live in a small town, a suburb or a big city. This value has shaped the tax policies we use to support our public life.
So let’s not kid ourselves that we will be made into a stronger country in the long run if we continually starve the public sector so that the roads are bad, the cultural amenities are neglected, public health is not preserved, education is not strong, and the public welfare is not high on our list.
Relying on the private sector for public goods, or thinking we don’t need them, or that somehow they’ll survive even if we don’t work to keep them, is just kidding ourselves.
A town or city with all the action going on behind private walls, while the public exterior is full of potholes and garbage and human beings who can’t get to the inside, is not part of an American life.
It may not even be the one we pick, but it may be the one we get by accident.
Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at email@example.com