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A park built for protest

Cleveland’s Public Square was designed with free speech in mind. So far, it’s working.

By Erick Trickey

Dread filled Cleveland on the eve of the 2016 Republican National Convention. The GOP was poised to nominate Donald Trump for president, and press coverage voiced concerns about violence, like the street fights outside the Democrats’ 1968 convention in Chicago. Trump himself had stoked those fears. If a brokered convention denied him the nomination, “I think you’d have riots,” he’d predicted.

But when demonstrators gathered in Public Square — a park that had reopened, after a massive renovation, just two weeks before the convention — none of that happened.

Other host cities of major-party conventions had created so-called “free speech zones” that penned protesters into fenced and forlorn spaces. Cleveland, instead, invited speech into Public Square. The city set up a stage and sound system on the Speakers’ Terrace, a curved platform built into the square’s south end. Protesters took that as a cue to congregate all across the park’s six acres: Marchers paraded through, activists performed street theater, and policemen on bicycles wedged their front tires between arguers to deescalate their debates. The 220-year-old town common managed to absorb the rage of protesters and Trump supporters alike.

“Having spaces where the adrenaline and stress of the event could play out,” says landscape architect Veronica Rivera, “allowed for people who might have very different views to discuss them without any major confrontations.” That was no accident: She and her colleagues had redesigned the park with huge crowds and public speeches in mind.

Today, when public discourse is at its coarsest and many people seek community in the virtual world, the reshaping of the six-acre Public Square is a fascinating case study in landscape as destiny. Two years earlier, Rivera notes, the park “was basically just used for transit — a huge bus stop.” The goals of the $57 million renovation project were manifold, from encouraging pedestrian use to turning Cleveland’s often-quiet downtown into more of a neighborhood.

But central to the plans, and to Cleveland’s image of itself, was a revival of Public Square’s dormant tradition as a civic space devoted to public expression.

“I always feel like it’s an open space,” says Nora Romanoff, associate director of LAND studio, a Cleveland nonprofit that managed the square’s renovation. “And I always feel like it’s a space where people can say what they think.”

Cleveland has one of the best historic public discourse traditions of any American city. It dates back to city founder Moses Cleaveland, who plotted out Public Square in 1796 as a New England-style town common — and to Tom L. Johnson, mayor from 1901 to 1909, who encouraged Public Square’s free speech tradition and held his own rallies and speeches there.

After Johnson’s 1911 death, a statue of him was erected in Public Square’s northwest quadrant. For decades, Clevelanders rallied in front of it: for Depression-era protests supporting the unemployed and steelworker strikes, for 1960s protests against the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race. But by the 2000s, Public Square’s identity as Cleveland’s common ground had faded.

A big part of the problem was geography. Two wide thoroughfares, Superior Avenue and Ontario Street, crossed through the square, dividing it into four one-acre parks. Each quadrant felt disconnected, surrounded by car and bus traffic. At a public forum about the square in 2003, residents complained that it wasn’t pedestrian-friendly and didn’t feel welcoming. Few wanted to hold events there.

Slowly, support for a massive redesign began to build. In 2009, two local nonprofits hired the firm James Corner Field Operations — which had just reshaped a former elevated railroad into New York City’s High Line park — to rethink Cleveland’s oldest public space.

The firm came up with a bold proposal: to turn the divided park into what Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson called “one big square.” They would eliminate the crossroads at the park’s center, closing Ontario Street and allowing only buses, not cars, on Superior Avenue.

The resulting open space, they believed, could help revive Cleveland’s free-speech tradition. Planners did spatial studies on how many people could gather there and how they’d circulate in and out. “We could fit tens of thousands of people in this square,” says Romanoff.

After the Republican National Committee accepted Cleveland’s bid for the 2016 convention — which included the promise of a renovated Public Square — donations from local foundations came in, and construction started in earnest. Rivera, Field Operations’ designer for Public Square, moved to downtown Cleveland for a year to work on the project.

“People are like water: They take the easiest path.”

She and her colleagues, working with LAND studio, took inspiration from recent trends in urban public spaces. They wanted to reclaim a neglected city center, creating an activity-filled oasis at the foot of skyscrapers, as Detroit had with its Campus Martius Park in 2004.

They planned to return the square to pedestrians instead of cars, a strategy that former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan implemented in Times Square and champions in her 2016 book “Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.”

And they wanted to embrace the square’s unique landscape, as New York did with the High Line. To do that, they studied shadows and sunlight. Skyscrapers, especially the landmark Terminal Tower on the square’s southwest end, blocked more sunlight in the square’s south half. So Rivera designed a green landscape for the north half and a “hardscaped” south half with concrete and cobblestones.

They also studied people’s walking routes. “People are like water: They take the easiest path,” says Romanoff. “So we wanted to understand: what are those paths?”

A lot of Clevelanders crossed the square diagonally, northwest to southeast or southwest to northeast. Rivera replaced the blocky quadrants with diagonal walking paths that formed a butterfly shape, hugging the hills, uniting the terraces, and embracing an 1890s-era Civil War memorial in the square’s southeast corner.

“We played a lot with topography,” Rivera says. “The square is very, very flat. So we make sure that as you’re walking places, you don’t necessarily see everything.”

And, mindful of the square’s history, Rivera designed a curved paving-stone path near the southern edge to double as the Speakers’ Terrace, overlooking a vast southern plaza.

After decades of seeing Public Square as a half-dead space, some Clevelanders — including the project’s construction workers — were skeptical that the transformation would work. “Throughout construction, the guys in the field [said], ‘Why are you so stressed out about this? No one’s going to use this,’” Rivera recalls. “It wasn’t until the end of the construction, when they saw all the pieces come together, that they also became excited about the potential.”

At 5 a.m. on the last day of June 2016, the new Public Square opened. Within 30 minutes, says Rivera, she saw a man running, a lady walking her dog, a guy eating a sandwich in the park. “Within the first day, you saw all the activities we envisioned take place,” she says. And Clevelanders quickly became comfortable going to the square at night — something almost no one did before it was redesigned.

To Rivera, it was proof she’d designed the square at a human scale, not an automobile scale. “People are innately attracted to other people,” she says. “We like to sit and people watch.”

Rivera stayed in Cleveland through the Republican National Convention, where she saw the success of the design’s deeper goal of encouraging democracy.

“An open, calm environment with the noise of the water feature and the historic monuments around you — it brought down the tensions of the whole event,” she says. That’s the promise of the park, she adds: “It should be the place where everyone feels free to come and share their perspective in a democratic and respectful way.”

Today, new generations of Clevelanders have embraced Public Square as their reborn town common, the city’s sacred ground for free speech and public discourse. Since the Republican Convention, major protests have returned to Public Square, including the 2017 Women’s March after Trump’s inauguration, the pro-gun-control March for Our Lives in March 2018, and a festival at the end of Cleveland’s 2018 Pride parade.

“I think the redesign of the square has promoted more protests, as it should,” says Kerry McCormack, downtown Cleveland’s city councilman. “It’s more open. It makes more sense for large gatherings.”

Still, Public Square’s transformation is unfinished: Despite the best intentions of planners, it’s still hard for Cleveland to put pedestrians first. The city, pleased with the new park, considered keeping Superior Avenue closed to bus traffic, but local and federal transit officials said Cleveland would have to pay back federal grants worth millions if buses couldn’t come through the square.

Then the Department of Homeland Security, concerned about increased terrorist use of car bombs on crowds in public spaces, insisted on lining a reopened Superior with barriers. So the city has blocked the park’s diagonal pathways — and added a stoplight in the center to regulate pedestrian and bus traffic.

“This is a great unfinished work of art that we’re sitting in the middle of, that has never gotten a chance to fully function as designed,” says Dan Moulthrop, CEO of the City Club of Cleveland, sitting in the square’s terraced south end near a statue of Moses Cleaveland — and staring at the traffic light.

Despite its uncorrected flaw, Public Square’s redesign has accomplished most of its mission. Moulthrop’s organization, a free speech forum founded in 1912, has hosted several civic dialogues since the park’s renovation — including a series on “the power of place,” with Public Square as a prime example. Like other civic groups, the City Club tends to use the shaded lawn, rather than the Speakers’ Terrace, for events. Moulthrop says he doesn’t want to turn off the water feature near the terrace and deprive kids of a chance to play.

“The stage on the lawn over there: That’s a place that we’ve used a lot, and it’s perfect,” Moulthrop says.

Meanwhile, the ongoing management of the park has accelerated downtown’s conversion into a neighborhood. The Group Plan Commission spends about $2 million a year on operations, maintenance, and programming, from yoga and “goat yoga” classes to kid-friendly activities near the wading pool. In winter, the pool becomes an ice-skating rink. Green-shirted “ambassadors” hired by the nonprofit Downtown Cleveland Alliance patrol the square to keep it safe and clean.

Benné Christian, 63, who has lived in Cleveland all her life, marveled at the park on a summer Sunday evening, when 2,000 people mingled for a 2018 Black Business Expo and Taste of Black Cleveland event. Around her, people grabbed burgers and Polish sausages, custom fruit arrangements, and fliers announcing an African-American playhouse’s new season.

“I love Public Square,” Christian says. “I’m truly thrilled to see the renovation. It’s got more green spaces, more spaces where people can commune.”

Across the square sat Tom L. Johnson’s statue, gazing south at the festival, as a little boy in a sky-blue shirt climbed his pedestal to stand at his knee. Johnson looked calm, curious, and satisfied — as if he knew that a new generation had revived his promise to the city. An inscription on the back of his pedestal notes that Johnson’s statue is “located on the spot he dedicated to the freedom of speech.”

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Erick Trickey is a writer based in Boston and a former staffer at Cleveland Magazine.

Top image of a protester walking across the fountain at Public Square during the 2016 Republican National Convention by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images.


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