The past few years have seen the concept of “community” become nearly enveloped by the pockets of big business. Indeed, with the dominant structures of “community” being mediated through the Internet – by its very nature a commercial channel – it only seems natural that commercial spaces are becoming the locales of community empowerment and community building. Or are they? Traditional (i.e., non-commercial) community centers and community gathering spaces are being increasingly replaced by places of commerce—places that do not necessarily hold the value of common spaces, democracy, civic engagement, and community building. After all, the intention of the commercial spaces are to generate revenue, not necessarily ideas, connections, friendships, and community empowerment.
Fast food restaurants are one of these places, where church groups meet to get coffee, friends gather to grab lunch and discuss their personal problems, and for many experiencing poverty, homelessness, addiction, and abuse, these spaces are integral components to their everyday lives. It’s not a bad gig when you have cheap, high-calorie food to eat, free WiFi, outlets to charge devices, and clean bathrooms to use. Especially when some restaurants allow unusually long sitting times. In many ways these are not only new community centers, but centers of refuge for many struggling in their everyday lives.
Given the decline in the existence of community centers and their use, now replaced by strip malls and fast food restaurants, it calls into question what can be done to reverse this trend. The obvious answer would be to throw more government funding at building community centers, however, this might be the reason we see trends such as these in the first place. Who wants to go to an overrun, understaffed, building with no food and WiFi when one can go to nearly any fast food joint and get the aforementioned amenities? Particularly if its provided by the state, a notoriously poor conduit for community empowerment. The answer to reversing this trend is through the act of community building itself.
Commercial spaces are taking place of our traditional community centers not only because they offer amenities such as free WiFi and clean restrooms but because they are safe and familiar. You can expect to get the same experience at one restaurant compared to another, and people like familiarity. However, this familiarity is overshadowed for a need of local color. A local color that provides a true sense of community because it comes from non-commercial, non-homogenized roots, but from a community—it’s organic.
We must have a resurgence in the organic community center movement, a movement that began in the 1890s through settlement houses and other functional communities of interest. Of course, a community may choose to utilize a commercial space as a functional community space in which to meet, however these spaces do not offer opportunities for the fostering of civic engagement, democracy, and true community empowerment, which only comes from the grassroots. This is something that commercial spaces cannot provide despite free refills, ketchup packets, and clean restrooms. What successes of commercial spaces as community centers tell us that we are doing wrong is that we are not listening to what people want in a gathering space, and whether that is a place of refuge with free WiFi, well, then we have some routers to set up.
August 3, 2016