Travel Reports: On whose square a square is

Plaza Murillo

A few days ago I was in Plaza Murillo, the main square of La Paz. It attracts a lot of tourists both from abroad and within Boliva. It is the Bolivian equivalent of Trafalgar Square in London, but it had one big difference from Trafalgar Square. Plaza Murillo was interesting and Trafalgar Square is boring. Families sat around in the Plaza and a small horde of street vendors sold snacks, ice cream, children’s toys and souvenirs. Most interesting of all, people fed the pigeons.

I remember feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square when I was a child. It is, in fact, pretty much the only thing I remember about that family trip to London. Watching the children in Plaza Murillo reminded me that if you are four or five years old, throwing out grain to attract pigeons then chasing the pigeons away, then waiting for them to come back, then chasing them again, is about as much fun as it is possible to have. You can buy pure joy for the cost of a cup of grain.

As many readers will know, some years back the authorities determined that pigeon-feeding in Trafalgar Square would henceforth be forbidden. The reason given for this was that pigeons are unhygienic – a fact that I cannot dispute and that no-one could dispute. Yet I wonder exactly how many people fell ill or died due to that pigeon-feeding death trap through the years. It struck me as just another of those petty, undemocratic acts of control that characterise much of the professional classes in Britain. No doubt some bureaucrat or Councillor got a real kick from effecting change on the streets of London. Perhaps they lie awake at night hugging themselves with joy at the improvement they made to the capital. At last we are free from the menace of pigeon poo!

Meanwhile there is nothing to do in Trafalgar Square, particularly for a child. It is a blank space with a tall pole and some fountains. It is a poorer place in my eyes, but it is no doubt cleaner. The full meaning of cleanliness in public spaces is interesting however, as is the presence of street vendors in Plaza Murillo, and the absence of them in Trafalgar Square. A year or so before I got to Nairobi the authorities there had determined that street selling in a large area of central Nairobi was to be forbidden. Their reason, not hidden behind the obfuscations we are so used to in Britain, was that street vendors made Nairobi look poor. Now of course most of Nairobi is poor (and the former street vendors now even poorer) but now the streets of Nairobi don’t look so poor, which is what mattered to the rich of Nairobi.

Street vendors used to be much more common in Britain, presumably in Trafalgar Square but also beyond that. The main streets of New Cross are also very empty, except for the traffic. I would even call them sterile but for the general air of grubbiness that the Council doesn’t care enough to do anything about. A couple of years ago I met in the Amersham Arms an old man who had emigrated from the Caribbean to London some fifty years ago. He told me how when he arrived in New Cross not only were there many factories between there and the river, but the streets of New Cross were thronged with street vendors.

I don’t think the street vendors evaporated by themselves any more than the pigeon-feeding did. I suspect they were gradually illegalised across the country, except for in certain authorised and lucrative (for the local authorities) locations. No one remarks on it now. We just assume that streets should be empty spaces for walking through. They are minimal public spaces, used only for connecting bits of the city together, and the squares too have gradually been sterilised. They are kept public on the condition that the public do not do anything in them.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Trafalgar Square, where local byelaws prevent all unauthorised public gatherings, over and above the measures in the Criminal Justice Act and Serious Organised Crime and Policing Act that can already turn political demonstrations into criminal acts at the drop of a hat on the wrong side of a barrier. At a recent demonstration the police finally took the control of Trafalgar Square to its logical conclusion, erecting a great steel barrier designed for crowd control in major national crises around the Square to prevent demonstrators entering it. They confiscated banners from people entering the sterile zone so as to convert them from demonstrators into respectable citizens once more.

What many people have forgotten in Britain, perhaps because many people have been comfortable in their private spaces for so long, is that public spaces are public spaces not because the authorities determine they are public, but because the public determine they are public. They are made public spaces by the public taking control of them. The current Occupy movement is a great example of people making space public whether it was considered to be so or not. This is a particularly important lesson to re-learn in the face of actual privatisation of public space – something that has been creeping across the UK for some years now.

In Peru someone told me about another example of a battle over public space, and I think this one can be an example to us all. A few years ago an idiot Mayor of Cuzco decided that he wanted to get rid of the three-hundred-year-old trees in the main plaza of Cuzco. His reason was that they were blocking tourists’ shots of the famous cathedrals around the plaza. No matter that Cuzco was already probably the biggest tourist city in South America, he was going to make it better. The only problem was that the people of Cuzco loved their trees and didn’t want them cut down. So the Mayor sent in tractors in the middle of the night when no one was around and they pulled down every one of the great old trees in the plaza. The people of Cuzco, who were convinced that it was their plaza, spontaneously gathered and stormed around the city in such a rage that the Mayor was forced to escape the city in secret and fly off to Lima. He didn’t return to the city for three months and was never re-elected.

Now I’m not saying we should form an angry mob every time some bureaucrat or politician acts as though the public space is their space but…wait, no, I think I am saying that. I want pigeon-feeding back in Trafalgar Square, and street vendors making our streets look poor and messy again (if we have poor people then we shouldn’t hide them, and anyway the streets are theirs too) so if someone wants to get a mob going I’ll definitely join in. We might even get the right to protest back while we’re at it.