I met my husband on the street. So meeting strangers in public space is not foreign to me, even though I am shy by nature. I am counterphobic I guess. And I am also in the business of helping people to meet.
I had the opportunity to attend a tremendously interesting conference at Harvard this week about public space: its design, its uses and its politics. It was called Putting Public Space in its Place. It was organized and chaired by Professor Jerold Kayden, who has an organization that advocates for the Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) of New York City. These spaces have largely been neglected and abandoned. As a result, the owners have either privatized them or let them languish in the majority of cases. I’m interested in the question of re-claiming public spaces for the public, and especially for the purpose of human connection.
Because I am in the matchmaking business, I think a lot about the way people meet their potential dates. I always hear from clients; “Where do I go to meet people? Is online dating the only option? I see people on the subway or at the park that I want to meet, but it seems too awkward- what can I do?” We get the term “ice breaker” from the fact that it can feel as cold as ice to break through the defenses that people have up, especially in a big scary place like New York City. A warm smile can be all you need if you dare. But because smiling at a girl or guy you like can be close to impossible, I’m thinking a warm matchmaker may be necessary. Industry experts say I’m getting warmer.
Public space needs a hotspot. I’m not talking about the Wi-Fi kind. Vast open public space can be a wonderful canvas for design-o-philes, but Fred Kent, founder and president of Project for Public Spaces, calls for creating smaller enclaves, a process that he coins “placemaking.” This type of user-friendly design will encourage social use that is fun and engaging. (I am paraphrasing here so I hope Fred will forgive me.) This type of public space set-up has the capacity to spread the love naturally.
But when it comes to meeting new people and facing rejection, especially in public, there is a missing ingredient that extends even beyond great design. In my experience in the singles scene, people need shepherding. At the conference they call it stewardship. So I will just call myself the Stewardess of Love. That sounds sexy! Coffee, tea or a date? That’s what Matchmaker Café is.
The funny thing is that it’s not so easy, at least according to the experts in public space. There are all these rules and laws governing public space- like that it can’t be commercialized by a business, and it can’t be taken over by a subset of the public, as with Zuccotti Park. Then it would become a [counter]public space, meaning that it is inaccessible to the rest of the public who want to have a picnic in Zuccotti Park without protesting Wall Street. And the Central Park Conservancy is not always doing good when they get a $100 million private donation, because then the other parks are jealous that they don’t have the same wealthy neighbors to fund it. So complicated- it makes you want to just forget it and Tweet in the privacy of your own home. That little Twitter dove can’t go extinct from pollution as far as I know, so it seems pretty safe and eco-friendly to stay home. But somehow that takes all the fun out of it.
I got in trouble at overnight camp for PDA with my first boyfriend. I was a counselor and he was a CIT. I was a late bloomer. And, according to the camp director, I was also a cradle-robber with inappropriate boundaries. I think I still have inappropriate boundaries. I want to go into these public spaces, take charge and make people seek love and connection, whether they like it or not! I want to make it fun though. And I want it to work. They say; “if you build it, they will come.” But it depends on what you build and whom you want to come. There are over 500 Privately Owned Public Spaces in NYC and yet no one comes to a lot of them. Fred Kent’s philosophy on design encourages use. This is fascinating to me. That’s what I want my Matchmaker Café hotspot to be—a way of setting up a pick-up window for a date.
Of course I haven’t even figured out yet if this is legal to do in public. I may have to move the party to the private sphere. I am in talks with café chains and Whole Foods and Barnes and Noble, which can also be quite cool. But, to me, there is something kind of exciting about finding love in a public place. It reminds me of PDA at camp or making out in a parking lot. “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” laments Joni Mitchell. Can we plant the parking lot and make paradise? I’m hoping. Keep your eye out for whether the Matchmaker Café cart makes it to a public space near you.
I found love in a public place. Rihanna found love in a hopeless place. Well, maybe let’s not model after her lovelife. But let’s put the public search for affection back in its place—i.e. in public space. There are great people all around you. You just have to reach out to them and connect. You bring yourself out in public. I’ll provide the hotspot. And the cHutzpah.