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January, 2007


Time To Rebuild Our Social Commons
By Jonathan Rowe

There is an ecology to social spaces, just as there is to natural ones. I was reminded of this a while back when I fixed up an old garden bench and put it on the lot next to Viewpoints in Point Reyes Station. I put it back from the sidewalk under a tree, which struck me as more bucolic somehow. Within a week someone had moved it right up next to the sidewalk; and that's pretty much where it has stayed.

Some time after that I was reading a book called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte. Whyte spent years studying how people actually use such spaces; and he discovered, among many other things, that people like to sit near walkways. Benches that are off under the trees somewhere generally do not get used; which is exactly what happened here in Point Reyes Station.

We humans after all are social beings. We like to be around other people, connected to the flow of life. Even reclusive types such as myself like the spontaneous sociability of main streets, the way we run into neighbors at the post office and grocery store without the need for formal arrangements. What we call today "the market" actually had its roots in this - i.e. in social affinity rather than the quest for gain. The first ones sprang forth in the plazas that surrounded churches.

People came first; markets glommed on later. Then, after centuries, came the religion of financial accumulation.

Today, justified by that religion, the corporate economy has cannibalized the commons that spawned it -- sucked out the social core, and left a giant feedlot and financial casino in its place. That's what happens when Wal-Mart decimates main streets, and, to a lesser extent, when Starbucks drives out the local coffee shop. They are like economic neutron bombs: the community goes, but the stuff remains

Development patterns have shifted in a similar way. Not that long ago sociability was built into daily life - the front stoop or porch, the corner store, the older folks on benches outside of town hall. What makes the suburbs so creepy, often, is how they strip all this away. There is no place to walk to, no life on the street, no place at all.

Between malls and suburbs it is no accident that we Americans feel so isolated and lonely in this most wired of ages. (USA Today reported that some 25% of Americans feel they have no one they can confide in.) Nor is it an accident that the use of anti-depressant drugs is soaring. These first took root in American culture in the form of Valium, among the first generation of women consigned to the new suburbs after World War II.

Anti-depressant drugs flourish in a world in which people spend their days in the private enclosures of cars and iPods, and with the ersatz sociability of cell phones and the Web. My wife, who is from the rural Philippines, looked up from the paper one evening and asked, "What is this thing I keep reading about --- depression? What does that feel like?" Pharmaceutical companies blame our biochemistry. I wonder if sick social arrangements are not equally involved.

How interesting and revealing, that depression should be so prevalent in a nation that considers itself so prosperous.

* * *
Here in West Marin we have escaped these pathologies to some degree. We have natural beauty, yes; but also traditional main streets that make going to town a social occasion as much as a commercial one. We sit on the steps outside the Bovine (Whyte noted that people love to sit on steps and walls, for some reason) and on the chairs in Toby's barn. Some people go to the gym as much to chat as to sweat.

We also have a blessed lack of malls and franchises; our merchants are friends. We chat about the kids when we buy a scone or gallon of paint. This doesn't boost the Gross Domestic Product the way Prozac does. But it does make our lives better, and isn't that supposed to be the point?

Great effort has gone into preserving the natural ecology of this place, and rightly so. But there has not been a corresponding effort to maintain and expand our social commons. Possibly that's connected to the view of ecology that sees humans almost as intruders. Species matter; our job is to shut up and butt out. Or maybe it's just that we coast a little on what nature has given us.

But for whatever reason, while we have maintained fantastic natural places, we have been somewhat indifferent to our social ones. We have built great social institutions, such as the Dance Palace, KWMR-FM, and Papermill Creek Childrens' Corner. But our informal social spaces have pretty much been left to chance. We fight development, and assume that what's left will remain the same.

But it won't. New money keeps coming in (in case you hadn't noticed). The property owners who have kept our main streets as they are will not be here forever. The quirky structures and un-built lots that give our towns their serendipitous appeal, will become the apples of some developers' eyes if they have not already. We trust in septic issues to hold the line; but that's a bet against technology, which is not the safest bet these days.

This is why a number of us have come together to establish the West Marin Commons. Our goal, simply, is to create new common spaces and improve the ones we have, while there is still a chance. We want to build a thriving social ecology to match the natural kind with which we are blessed. We are going to look at the empty lots in town, and other latent common assets, and think about new uses for them. We will explore new foot and biking paths - between Inverness Park and Point Reyes Station, for example.

We are going to get behind Rhonda Kutter and her heroic efforts to get the county to build a toddler play park next to the new rest and parking area behind Toby's. We are going to revive an awareness of local history, and engage school (and home school) children in the process. Along with this we are going to look at ways to share resources. Most of us drive over the hill continually. Couldn't we create a kind of ride board, so we could double up and save some gas?

There is no shortage of projects. The more you look the more come to mind.

Last month we had a meeting at the Dance Palace with Mark Lakeman, a founder of the City Repair project in Portland, Oregon. Mark showed slides of how neighbors in that city have reclaimed traffic intersections and turned them into plazas where people meet and children play. The room was packed. People were thinking, "Hmmm. I wonder if...?

The moment seems right. The idea of reviving our commons seems to answer to an unspoken need. The dogma of the age is to privatize everything. But the word "private" comes from the same root as the words "privation" and "deprive". We need a commons as well as a private - a "we" as well as a bunch of little "me's."

On February 10, at 9:00 AM at the Dance Palace, we will hold a community design charrette, at which we will look at local land use maps and ask "What ifÉ?" All are welcome. For more information, contact Elizabeth Barnet at [email protected]

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