Traveling in European cities will eventually make you realize the Europeans’ love for plazas. You want to visit that church? Then go to this plaza. You want to see that palace? Oh, you need to find this plaza. You want to kick back and enjoy a cup of coffee, then definitely you need to find the closest plaza, pay a bit more than usual for the coffee and enjoy some serious people-watching.
The idea that has dominated the European city planning for over two thousand years is that a place has to be created in the city where people of your city has a place to find each other, talk to each other, argue with each other, trade with each other and celebrate with each other. That is all there is to it for the plaza. Poor, rich, the officer, the farmer, the healer, the barber get together. If there is a protest, come to the plaza. If there is an announcement, come to the plaza. If there is a festival, set it up at the plaza.
Today’s plazas of Europe reflects, in a sense, what the urban planners are pushing in the American downtowns as “the new type of living space”: A restaurant here, a shop there, put some city hall offices and a bank and some private residencies, farmer’s market and you have a mixed use space. Just like Plaza Mayor of Salamanca is operating now or like many other have operated for centuries.
A bit of digging into the history of the city and its worldwide famous plaza taught me something new. When the Spaniards came to the New World, they brought their plaza ideals with them as well. When plazas were established in the Americas by them, they meant to provide the same pressure release valve for the cities they were creating. However, once the time moved on, and the social class differences became more prominent, the wealthy did not want the lower class in the same places. They turned the bustling centers into serene parks, put a fence around it and excluded a portion of the population from entering it so that they can enjoy the plazas in peace (and without being in contact with that certain population).
Apparently Plaza Mayor in Salamanca suffered from this abuse while many European’s plazas stayed intact. According to this source, in 1890, a park was built and a fence was erected around it in the Plaza. And it stayed that way until 1954. Afterwards, it was asphalted and used as a car parking lot for 30 years. A Car Parking Lot! Good grief! Then finally in 1985, it was returned to what it should have been, the social center of the city.
Today, its duty is the same as three centuries ago. The students shout, sing, eat, dance or just lay under the sun in the square. Old people hang out on the benches, take a break, talk to each other or take a stroll with their grandkids. Tourists and locals enjoy a cup of something. People go in and out of the shops, enjoy an impromptu icecream break or hastily walk from one end to the other. Or you see two females, arm in arm, walking slowly, talking so fast that I would never be able to understand even if I stay here for a year. Then I know some serious gossiping or drama recounting going on.
That is what is missing in the US. A pressure release valve is needed in each city. Europeans believed its necessity and its crucial role so much that they put several plazas in some cities. When I go under an arched walkway and suddenly enter into a vast space full of noise and people, it lightens my heart and I immediately say “Ahh that is where all the people are!”. That is where all the life is.