Protect our public social infrastructure

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on June 7, 2019. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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If you ever want to feel good about being alive, go visit Grand Central Terminal in New York City. The evening rush especially reveals the unique importance of social infrastructure in a world that desperately needs a way out of a loneliness crisis.

Grand Central is breathtaking. I recently visited and was so overwhelmed I had to sit down on some stairs (only to be asked by one of New York’s finest to move along). People zip around at every speed in every direction, like hundreds of games of billiards played all at once. Many others stand like statues with heads frozen and fixed upward on the 100-foot-high arched ceiling, decorated by constellation patterns in gold set on a blue-green canvas.

Every color, creed, language. Tourists and commuters. Swearing and hugging. Bow-ties and barely-there shorts.

At this great crossroads a person feels connected to all of humanity all at once. Grand Central is a pit stop we seem to all make at some point in our lives. With 750,000 visitors each day, it stands as one of the most visited places in the U.S., and serves as the second largest rail hub in America (only trailing its crosstown New York nemesis, Penn Station). It’s fun to imagine that most of the people you’ll ever meet or know will stand in Grand Central Terminal at some point in their lives.

What makes Grand Central Terminal such a magnet for humanity? It helps to be located in New York, one of the world’s most dynamic cities. It’s also an elegant, regal building with such scale that gives it a palace-feel.

But it’s also critical social infrastructure. Social infrastructure includes the “physical places and organizations that shape the way we interact,” as the scholar Eric Klinenberg has said, and “when it’s robust, we are much more likely to engage one another and build relationships. When it’s degraded and neglected, we’re much more likely to hunker down and be on our own.”

The important part is that social infrastructure welcomes all. A place that draws people in. A cathedral for the most positive kind of public collisions.

This matters because we’re in the midst of a loneliness crisis, as David Brooks has pointed out in “The Second Mountain,” over one-third of Americans over forty-five are chronically lonely. 8 percent of Americans say they’ve had an important conversation with their neighbor in the past year. Today, 30 percent of households are single-person, which was only 10 percent in 1950. The fastest growing political and religious groups are “unaffiliated.” And Brooks quotes former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy as reflecting, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”

So what can we do about that problem here in the Pikes Peak region? How can we use social infrastructure to bring us together after social media’s been so busy tearing us apart?

We can start by protecting our own vital social infrastructure. That means libraries. Playgrounds. Parks. Especially the pocket-sized ones. Public parties. Museums, like the gem known as the Pioneers Museum and all the rest in the area that bring us all together to learn something about this special place we live. Particularly the ones that encourage free and ‘local’ days whenever possible.

And let’s never forget Uncle Wilbur.

Yes, Uncle Wilbur Fountain, that strange-singing, water-shucking piece of art downtown at Acacia Park may very well be the most endearing piece of public social infrastructure in the entire Pikes Peak region.

It opened for the summer recently. Sponsored and built by the Smokebrush Foundation, Wilbur includes 52 vertical jets, over 200 streams of water, and he’s rained down water on the giggling children of our community for nearly twenty years. It’s a spectacle that naturally gathers us together in a public space where we can all talk and enjoy the camaraderie of watching kids be kids. That matters.

And if you haven’t been, do yourself a favor. On a hot day, go grab an ice cream and sit yourself down on a bench and watch what happens. It’s a kaleidoscope of humanity, not quite the scale, but in equal measure, to that giant railroad stop in New York. To me at least, Uncle Wilbur is our Grand Central, long may he rain.

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