Orlando: Shrines in the Urban Space

Downtown at city hall.jpg

Orlando is now a place where suffering may finally catalyze a response to social violence. The spontaneous outpouring of grief and reconciliation by its people shows that public space lives, and has a useful function in our digital age. In multiple places around the city remembrances of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, and of musician and Voice contestant Christina Grimmie who was shot the previous day, are poignant, tangible evidence of the human spirit that one cannot ignore.

In the aftermath of the cascading tragedies of early June, the city had lain grieving and stunned under merciless heat and a tropical storm. But vigils and public gatherings ignored the weather to show solidarity with the victims and their families and loved ones. Last week's cool, dry, spring-like weather broke the city’s sickened fever. Gatherings at multiple sites gained momentum and size.

Since ancient times, the plaza in front of a city’s political seat has held civic importance, and Orlando is no exception. The plaza at City Hall is sculpted into a multilevel maze with fountains and public art, so Orlando’s community adopted the much more open city block across South Orange Avenue as a gathering place — it's a blank slate more adaptable to self-expression. In a synchronicity of events, its owner had recently demolished the 1960s architecture on this block to make way for future development. It is here that President Obama and Vice President Biden laid flowers for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

South of downtown, Pulse nightclub itself had been quickly fenced off in black fabric, but beyond the fence and at nearby Orlando Regional Medical Center additional shrines spontaneously blossomed. By a week later, groups were still using them to stage vigils and gather to grieve, to struggle to understand, and to cleanse together in public. This function is so powerful, and so overriding, that the normally rigid traffic and parking regime has been adapted to allow people the space that they need.

Throughout the twentieth century, public property in cities shrank while private property grew. Malls replaced Main Street. Large condominium complexes, primarily accessed from off-street garages, replaced brownstones that fronted sidewalks. In modern urban patterns, little remains of the old village green, the Italian piazza, or Greek agora. These spaces seemed to be relics, even burdens on the public realm that required upkeep and worry. Orlando’s open space is emblematic of this transition.

Many think the death knell of these spaces has been the internet, with social media replacing the sidewalk as a forum for casual contact. Social media is all privately owned, so if this were true, it would mean that even more of life was spent on someone else’s private property. Photos of people lounging on sidewalks while staring at tiny screens seem to illustrate this point. Public space, some have claimed, is truly dead to the world, with little function other than as the pathway to private real estate development.

Much has been written about this so-called collapse of the public realm, tying it to the extinction of civility and the twilight of civilization. It is fashionable to favor greedy selfishness to the exclusion of the common good, and private interests have little use for garbage-strewn plazas, broken-down town squares, or creaky old Main Streets. Private space is where it’s at, and the public is drowned out by amoral monologues of personal righteousness.

Yet the urge to gather publicly continues, and in Orlando it happened on a scale large enough to be noticed. People still need their open space. Orlando’s famously tolerant and progressive community has come together in a heartbeat of vigils, religious ceremonies, speeches, spiritual gatherings, and memorial services, and it has done so out in the open.

These are not orchestrated or premeditated gatherings. For those, people are renting halls or churches. Instead, these spontaneous gatherings are express an effort to right the wrongs suffered in our city. Ignoring the public/private boundaries, Orlandoans are using their open space for its most important function of all. Privatization of open space, it turns out, is little help in the face of the destruction that happened here.

In the most personal of such shrines, the Plaza Theater, where young singer Christina Grimmie was senselessly shot, has received masses of flowers, candles, and testimonials. A steady stream of visitors spend a few moments in quiet prayer before moving on. At the theater’s narrow sidewalk the singer’s life was taken away, but her memory remains with us all.

The block across from City Hall has five separate memorials constructed of flowers, posters, and banners, and is visited in steady, large numbers. Families, friends, and children pass by, moving quietly and slowly with few words to say. The tropical rains that come and go do not diminish the crowd: umbrellas come up and go down, but the elegiac procession continues.

If Orlando has multiple hearts, the more formal of them is the regular rectangle between City Hall and the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center. The city's other public space of any size is Lake Eola Park, a 16-block rectangle on downtown Orlando’s eastern edge, filled mostly with, well, Lake Eola. On the park’s western edge, facing downtown’s denser core, stands the Lake Eola amphitheater, the site of Orlando’s larger public gatherings.

The amphitheater’s 200-odd seats were insufficient to hold the Sunday night crowd of 50,000 strong that gathered despite rain. People spilled onto nearby Rosalind Avenue, enlarging the public space of this corner of the park, to city-sized proportions. In this huge outpouring of grief, with chants of “One Orlando United” and “We Remember,” the names of the dead rang through the city streets and gave voice to our citizens’ grief as an actual rainbow emerged from the cloudy sky just at sunset.

In times when the polarization of our country feels unbridgeable, and the dialectic seems to be reaching a crescendo, Orlando’s voice has said “one love.” LGBTWQ acceptance has always been available here, and replacing the acronym with “one love” in the face of violence has been Orlando’s mantra, both before and after our darkest weekend. More broadly, the unhealthy, antisocial violence that sparked two shooters to destroy so many lives has met with a startling voice of solidarity and purpose in Orlando. The blackness of our worst week is behind us, and the city’s emergence as a voice of tolerance is now just beginning.

Richard Reep is an architect with VOA Associates, Inc. who has designed award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects. His work has been featured domestically and internationally for the last thirty years. An Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, he teaches urban design and sustainable development; he is also president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. Reep resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.

Photo by the author: Downtown Orlando at City Hall