the importance of public space

I recently watch The Last Blockbuster on Netflix, which was both magnificent and a little bit sad. But more than anything, it made me think a lot about Jenny Odell’s reflections on public spaces in her book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.

Odell writes, “True public spaces, the most obvious examples being parks and libraries, of places for–and thus spacial underpinnings of–‘what we will.'”

“[The video store] is like a library,” says comedian Paul Scheer in The Last Blockbuster. “People are there, they all want to be entertained, they all want to see what you’re renting and talking about…there’s a real dialogue going on and I think having a physical media allows you to have to interact with the public.”

Case in point: the scene from Scream

“What’s that werewolf movie with ET’s mom in it?”

While it’s obvious that the last Blockbuster is a commercial space, to a certain degree it transcends this.

Throughout the documentary, Blockbuster manager Sandi Harding uses language time and time again to refer to her employees and customers as “family.” Even former Blockbuster CFO Tom Casey says of the last remaining Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon, “They’re offering something else…an experience and probably something more than just DVDs. It’s more of a relationship.”

Engaging in these kinds of relationships is vital to the building of communities. Without spaces to share taste and preference, we cocoon ourselves in digital echo chambers, which very quickly devolve into toxicity. As filmmaker Kevin Smith says, “By not being face-to-face with people, left to their own devices and the veil of anonymity that [the internet] affords, it’s a shittier world, let’s be honest.”

“Streaming services are not as much of a physical, emotional experience,” says writer Kate Hagan. “And when we start taking those physical, emotional experiences away, what are we going to be left with but a black screen?”

It’s fascinating to think about these things in the midst of the current conversation about pandemic-era public spaces. If the last year has proven anything, it’s that people truly need other people and having space to engage in relationship with one another is vital to the personal and societal health.

All this to say, public space is important, be it a park, a library–or even the local video store.