I met my husband on the street. So meeting strangers in public space is not foreign to me, even though I am shy by nature. I am counterphobic, I guess. And I am also in the business of helping people to meet.
I had the opportunity to attend a tremendously interesting conference at Harvard last week about public space: its design, its uses and its politics. It was called "Putting Public Space in its Place." It was organized and chaired by Professor Jerold Kayden, who has an organization that advocates for the Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) of New York City.
These spaces have largely been neglected and abandoned. As a result, the owners have either privatized them or let them languish in the majority of cases. I'm interested in the question of re-claiming public spaces for the public, and especially for the purpose of human connection.
Because I am in the matchmaking business, I think a lot about the way people meet their potential dates.
I always hear from clients, Where do I go to meet people? Is online dating the only option? I see people on the subway or at the park that I want to meet, but it seems too awkward -- what can I do? We get the term "ice breaker" from the fact that it can feel as cold as ice to break through the defenses that people have up, especially in a big scary place like New York City. A warm smile can be all you need if you dare. But because smiling at a girl or guy you like can be close to impossible, I'm thinking a warm matchmaker may be necessary. Industry experts say I'm getting warmer.
Public space needs a hotspot. I'm not talking about the Wi-Fi kind. Vast open public space can be a wonderful canvas for design-o-philes, but Fred Kent, founder and president of Project for Public Spaces, calls for creating smaller enclaves, a process that he coins "placemaking." This type of user-friendly design will encourage social use that is fun and engaging. (I am paraphrasing here so I hope Fred will forgive me.) This type of public space set-up has the capacity to spread the love naturally.
When it comes to meeting new people and facing rejection, especially in public, there is a missing ingredient that extends even beyond great design. At the conference they call it "stewardship." In my experience in the singles- scene, people need shepherding. They need handholding and a push in the right direction. Facing rejection can be scary. A middle person or a buffer sometimes does the trick. As a community, we need to help singles. In the small towns of old, there were "Yentas" (in Jewish culture) or busy-body moms in almost every other culture. Now all we have in the big lonely cities are iPhones! The technology replacements for meddling moms seem to have gotten the nagging down, but somehow they don't get the noodle kugel just right. Some things lose in translation.
When it comes to human connection and meeting, you can't replace serendipity with technology. There's no way that an online dating site can replicate the nervous feeling you get when you see someone live on the street that you want to meet. The longing, the attempt to get up the nerve, the sense of urgency tells you that you can lose your chance in a New York minute. And most of the time you do. But if you can get up the nerve, it can be the most rewarding thing you've ever done. Or the most humiliating.
The crazy thing is that you have no way of knowing which direction it will go until you try. Eye contact can give you a pretty good read. (We don't find enough of that either these days.) You may have to be humiliated 9 or 19 times before the 10th or 20th becomes the charm. It's rough out there, I know. I'll try to help where I can. If I can get permission from the city to put some Matchmaker Cafe hot spot kiosks around town, then I will be smiling and winking at you from the sidelines. In the meantime, keep pushing past your comfort zone, and don't flinch.
I found love in a public place. Rihanna found love in a hopeless place. Well, maybe let's not model after her love life. But let's put the public search for affection back in its place -- i.e. in public space. There are great people all around you. You just have to reach out to them and connect. You bring yourself out in public. I'll provide the hotspot if I can. We just need to add the chutzpah. Let me know how it goes!