Because of the generous travel research grant I received last fall, throughout my semester abroad I had the chance to research and experience historic and modern versions of the public sphere. The concept of the public sphere, an area in which individuals can come together freely and interact, is something I have been interested in for a couple of years now. Grace Adams ‘20 and I completed our FYS with Dr. Juraj Kittler in 2017. The topic of the class was London Coffeehouses and Modernity, and we spent that semester discussing the way in which these seventeenth- and eighteenth-century coffeehouses acted as the mechanism of the public sphere. We studied the various impacts that coffeehouses had on shaping new ideas and theories, bringing more diverse groups of people into political and social conversations, and revolutionary thoughts and actions. Thus, when Grace and I were accepted into our abroad programs, we decided to apply for a research grant to dive further into the locations we discussed in our FYS, along with discovering some new and modern examples of the public sphere.
While Grace explains more of the historic examples of the public sphere that we looked into and experienced, here I’ll share a couple of the new examples of the public sphere I encountered while studying abroad. The first was in Copenhagen at an innovative food spot on an island in the city. Reffen is a massive, open-air food court that spruced up old abandoned shipping containers and completely transformed the area. Locals and tourists all drive or take city buses over to the island, and there are huge communal tables where people are constantly engaging in conversations and meeting new people. Many of the Danes I met there asked me about American politics, and as the Danish general election was coming up soon, many of our conversations turned into debates about different Danish candidates and parties. There is a diverse range of ages and nationalities there, and it is inclusive of everyone, which is very different from some of the coffeehouses we studied.
I experienced the second and third examples in Italy, Milan and Modena respectively. In Milan, I went to an old farmhouse called Cascina Cuccagna located in the heart of the city that had also been transformed into a hub for sustainable food and community engagement. People can attend casual dinners by the firepit, or dine in the Michelin star-rated restaurant on the site. There are local artists selling goods and crafts on a rotating basis, various art exhibits open, garden shares for people to grow fresh vegetables and herbs, and different games and activities planned each night for people to have fun. The entire experience was so engaging and everyone was very welcoming. Sitting around the fire pit and playing games, we talked to some of the local attendees who were prominent sustainability advocates in the city and we debated the best agricultural practices. At Cascina Cuccagna people have the chance to connect to other people in their community and participate in plenty of different conversations.
Finally, I discovered the third location of the public sphere that I want to share in Modena. Chef Massimo Bottura and his wife Lara Gilmore founded a non-profit organization called Food for Soul, which aims to tackle Italy’s food waste challenges and promote social inclusion. They renovated an old church in Modena and turned it into a place for food-insecure people to receive meals with perfectly good food that would have otherwise been thrown away. The organization encourages a multitude of stakeholders to create and sustain these community kitchens that tackle food waste and food insecurity at the same time. It is a community-building project that brings together artists, chefs, designers, food suppliers, and local community members all to the dinner table together.
I am incredibly grateful to have had the chance to experience these opportunities and see how the public sphere today is both similar to and different from the coffeehouses I have studied. From visiting London, Vienna, and Venice and having the chance to bring those to life, to uncovering modern stages for the public sphere, I learned a lot about how people socialize and how socialization effects change. What I have found is that food is actually a very powerful uniting force. In a world where social media and online forms of communication are the prominent platforms for establishing public opinion, the public sphere can still be found in places that bring a variety of people together over a shared meal.