Public vs. Private Space

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The line separating public space from the private sphere is drawn in sand and modern realities are redefining the two in dramatic ways.

Photographs of an American city taken in the middle of the previous century show us how much life has changed.

Things look different: the clothing is more formal, there are more hats, bigger cars.

Closer inspection reveals other differences. On streets like Market in San Francisco grand movie theaters dominated the landscape. But now most of them are gone. Movies, once exclusively a communal and public experience, are now part of the vast entertainment menu that we can enjoy at home. Similarly the throngs of shoppers outside the department stores may not have disappeared, but their grandchildren do a lot of their shopping online.

These photos illustrate how activities that were once part of the public realm have migrated—at least in part—to the private sphere.


But the tide runs in the opposite direction as well. The cars, bikes or scooters in those photos were the property of the people using them; they were not part of a sharing economy. Nobody is walking around having a phone conversation in public. And in those crowds were people hiding a sexual identity that they would be free to proclaim today.

This shifting boundary between private and public also defines some of our most challenging problems. There are many indignities to being homeless, but among the most fundamental is a loss of privacy. To live on the streets is, by definition, to live in public. But this, in turn, means that the rest of us are exposed to things that usually happen in private. There is a reason toilets were once called privies.

As for the shoppers in those photos, they could stroll through stores perusing the merchandise and no one would ever know which items drew their attention. Now each click we make on a website is another datapoint in our online profile, a version of ourselves comprised of private actions that is scrutinized for its commercial potential.

So, from day to day we may think of the boundary between public and private as something fixed and set by law and custom. But if we go back in time we see how fluid that boundary really is.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.