A Place Profile with Brian Tomaino
Memorable urban public spaces cater to two basic human aspirations:
First is a need to act in a communal setting. We are social beings with an innate desire to observe, interact with and learn from our fellow humans. Spaces that facilitate this interplay effortlessly are resilient and thrive for generations.
Second is our great affinity for freedom of self expression. We want to interact with others, but at the same time express our uniqueness and display our beliefs. Great public spaces are simple by design. They welcome diverse groups and allow users to comfortably project their identity onto the public realm.
The U Street Corridor in DC is such a space. Walking along its shops, restaurants and churches, we see what Jane Jacobs called the urban ballet, unfold.
U Street as a spatial typology is not contained within a specific neighborhood, but acts as a link between various ethnically and culturally diverse pockets. The very fact that such diverse neighborhoods are interlinked through U Street makes for a diverse set of actors throughout day and night. Its history and location makes U Street appealing to a broad group of users.
U Street is not “fancy”; there is a certain grit to it, and its physical design is mostly utilitarian with a sprinkling of a few architecturally significant landmarks. Although it may sound counter intuitive, this grittiness is in fact a good thing. It makes the street a stage free of connotations and expectations. It allows YOU, the user to project yourself onto the public realm. It makes you feel comfortable and confident. This is apparent if one takes an evening stroll along U Street, for there are people of all ages, race, income levels and sexual orientation enjoying the shops and restaurants, without inhibition.
Its simplicity also allows new businesses to fit in without trying too hard. As we walk along it, we see many small objects: stickers, murals, graffiti’s, door surrounds, signage, posters and even bikes that are not exuberant or lavish. Instead they express a certain handmade aesthetic that points back to an individual maker, a personal statement of design. These pieces along with the diverse users that frequent U Street creates a beautiful mosaic, a thriving urban public spaces that continues to evolve.