Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The city gave more than it got from hosting the RNC, and Public Square was the event’s MVP.
CLEVELAND—To the northwest, brightly colored characters dressed like monochrome dervishes twirled in silence. To the northeast, a row of five figures wearing black from head to toe engaged in slow-motion yoga.
It was a typical scene this week in Cleveland’s Public Square, the 10-acre park where demonstrators, media, and above all police congregated while delegates duked it out at the Republican National Convention. The only quirk to this particular moment was that the performers—or protesters? guerrilla artists?—were eerily quiet. Elsewhere, Public Square was an unruly hive of manic activity.
On the hardscape plaza part of the park’s south side, America embraced all the crazy contradictions that make it great. Day after day this week, Trump supporters squared off with Trump opponents, or whoever else, in sometimes heated exchanges. It was as if the guidelines that conduct city life (head down, make no eye contact, stand to the right, walk briskly) had all been suspended. Strangers stopped being polite and started getting real.
Another way to think of it might be to say that Public Square was designed to bring out the best, and weirdest, of Cleveland and her guests. As the absurdist reality show of the Republican National Convention unfolded inside Quicken Loans Arena, Public Square served as a release valve for the tensions building up in American politics. Unlike past conventions, most of which have taken place inside tightly controlled security “green zones” separated from their host cities, delegates and demonstrators spent the convention cheek to jowl with one another in downtown.
“The space is really meant to breathe,” says Nora Romanoff, senior project director for LAND studio, a Cleveland nonprofit art and landscape studio which, with the global landscape firm James Corner Field Operations, designed Public Square. The park just opened on June 1 of this year, giving the city very little time to smooth away any wrinkles with the build-out. “This is probably one of the biggest debut parties of any public space,” Romanoff says.
During normal park operations, which will resume after the Cleveland Host Committee’s star-spangled community “thank-you” party on July 29, the park is divided into “front of house” and “back of house.” The green side of the park, or front of house, culminates in two uplifted corners: one a hilltop, one a raised plinth with seating. Both are excellent for watching events like performances by the Cleveland Orchestra.
The six-acre hardscape half of Public Square (the back of house) features a reflecting pool and in-ground fountain (which will double as an ice-skating rink in the winter), a stellar cafe (designed by nARCHITECTS and Westlake Reed Leskosky), and a memorial to soldiers and sailors.
This week, that plaza was the part of the park where police lined up in double lines to surround Christians who shouted profanities through megaphones at Trump protesters. (They may have been Westboro Baptist Church members, although they lacked the group’s signature Boulder-typeface-and-tie-dye signage.) This was the space where white and black activists carried weapons openly—for entirely different reasons. This is where conspiracy-theorist-in-chief Alex Jones was whisked away by security after a tense interaction with leftist activists.
In other words, Public Square was a thing of beauty to behold. While the right and left may speak entirely different languages in the public conversation, advocates on both sides of the aisle can agree that it is necessary and valuable to dedicate tremendous resources to protect heinous speech—a priceless scene that played out over and over again. When police mobilized, it was often to cordon off the most offensive elements (especially the Christian hate groups) in order to protect their First Amendment rights.
Public Square made public demonstration effortless. Clear sight lines throughout the 10-acre park certainly contributed to the success of the Cleveland Police Department and other law-enforcement agencies in helping deliver a safe convention. (There were 23 arrests overall, according to the Cleveland Police Department, most of which occurred during an attempted flag-burning by Joey Johnson; burning anything in the street is illegal in Cleveland.) When tensions flared or when big protests arrived, police moved to separate or guide demonstrators—especially cops on bikes, who served as a roving security fence, shepherding demonstrations and marches throughout the proceedings.
Cleveland may not have gotten as much in return from hosting the RNC. Business was hopping at Flannery’s at East 4th Street and Prospect, right at the epicenter across from the Q, for example. But business fell off noticeably even just a little further out from the convention. Sales slumped for many reasons, but one may be that workers and locals avoided downtown for the lack of parking. Many downtown restaurants will see the return of normalcy as a return to profitability. That’s a shame: Cleveland deserved better.
In the wake of the RNC, Cleveland has some fresh questions to answer about its newly beautified downtown—and what changes it can make as a host to serve the city itself better in the future. While visitors had the chance to test out the nation’s only true bus-rapid transit system, the unparalleled Healthline, many may not have availed themselves of the opportunity. Downtown Cleveland still prioritizes parking over multi-modal transit. Which is another shame: Cleveland’s transit game is strong.
Cleveland hasn’t fully embraced Public Square as the transit hub that it is. Bus service will soon return to the streets that square the park. Those bus stops along the perimeter could be more fully embraced as part and parcel of the park itself. Adjacent to Public Square, there are at least three block-long, surface-level parking lots, plus a parking garage, which are all tells that Public Square is more of a destination than a service hub.
Public Square served the country well this week, making space for coarse and refined debate alike (not to mention art weirdos). Cleveland can do more, though, to lift up the space as essential for all comers—as a respite for suburbanites heading downtown on a Saturday night, but also as a hub for the underserved communities that depend on transit and services in Cleveland.
“We’re so happy to have folks here and to welcome them here,” Romanoff says. “The thing that was so important to us was that this is a park that was built and is functional and is beautiful for the city of Cleveland.”