[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

The annual Prairie Festival at The Land Institute just outside Salina, KS, was held two months ago, but it’s been much on my mind for the past week or so–mostly because of Mead’s Corner, a coffee shop and urban outreach ministry here in Wichita that closed this past summer. What’s the connection? Let me explain.

As always, there were many fine presentations during the Prairie Festival (which I and other Front Porchers have praised before). I was particularly captivated by two I heard. The rural sociologist Loka Ashwood walked us through the results of her years of patient listening and careful research in rural Georgia, all of which emphasized something that every honest localist, probably already knows: namely, that rural America’s politics is driven by, more than anything else, the fear of and frustration over economic dispossession, meaning the capturing of land–the very thing that most crucially defines a person’s choice to live and stick with a rural life–by both state and corporate actors. That fear and frustration entrenches an attitude which can be easily appropriated by anti-state and conservative movements, but is more properly understood as an agrarian version of anarchism, a desire for statelessness, a wish to preserve that which should be a local resources and be subject to local stewardship, rather than distant ownership.

Ashwood’s presentation was a fine complement to the keynote speech given by David Bollier, a long-time activist on behalf of reminding us creatures of late capitalism about a once-common way of organizing our affairs: through “the commons.” By commons, Bollier simply means–as he puts it in his book, Think Like A Commoner–“a resource + a community + a set of social protocols” (p. 15). Which means everything from the park where you walk your dog to open-source software, from an abandoned city block to open-mic night at a school board meeting. All of that, and more, is threatened by what Bollier called a “second major enclosure movement.” To extend upon his argument in Salina and that presented in his wonderful book, the collapse of regulatory regimes, the rise of debt-driven financing, the proliferation of private covenants, the emergence of the gig economy, the maximizing of outsourcing, and much more: all have tended to open up once common resources and practices to capitalist predation (frequently with government assistance), thus revealing the profound atrophy in our ability to collectively affirm and protect the res communes.

Bollier isn’t a political economist like Nobel-prize winner Elinor Ostrom, carefully delineating all the ways in which communities throughout history really have, despite the doubters who wave the “tragedy of the commons” at them, successfully managed their common resources collectively, without recourse to boundaries and enclosures. Nor is he a radical sociologist like Erik Olin Wright, working out the many different social arrangements by which public resources and personal wealth can be subject to and put to work for egalitarian ends. Though inspired by such thinkers and many others, he repeatedly insists that one probably shouldn’t work too hard to legally or politically define the parameters of those places, events, and processes which constitute a community’s common resources, wealth, and opportunities; in fact there should be, he writes in his book, no “unified field theory” of the commons, nor a “fixed body of canonical knowledge” about how a commons should be defined or managed (pp. 155, 169). The one overriding principle is simply to recognize that, in all of our lives, there is an always evolving, always shifting range of things and places, of tools and opportunities, which are best managed together. Bicyclists working together to maintain a preferred path, volunteers nit-picking a new Wikipedia entry into shape together, churches opening their property to dentists who decide together to provide their services at a discount–all of those reflect, in Bollier’s view, a “stewardship” perspective rather than an “ownership” one, because they necessarily involve a “richer ongoing set of ethical and cultural relationships than private property normally entails” (pp. 102-103). He explains:

Private property rights are not necessarily hostile to a functioning commons….The problem is the dominant market-based forms of law usually privilege individual rights and ignore collective rights and needs…That’s why protecting commons from enclosures has generally required legal ingenuity, at least within the context of the modern liberal state: the commons exists within a lexical void, rendering it unnamed and inscrutable….The commons asks us to consider a different paradigm of social and moral order. It asks us to embrace social rules that are compatible with a more cooperative, civic-minded and inclusive set of values, norms and practices….It asks us to entertain the idea that certain [social] rights should be inalienable–that is, not for sale–and to elevate certain social values over private property rights (pp. 102, 104).

How does this relate to Mead’s Corner? Because Mead’s Corner, a coffee shop run by First United Methodist Church, located in a central junction of old Wichita and the newer downtown, was for a decade a (very minimally) profitable business…but also a commons. The sad reactions to the news last summer that rising rents would force the church to end its ministry there make it pretty clear that for a great many Wichita residents, particularly younger people, less conventional people, and those people searching for a new spiritual home, the space that Mead’s provided was embraced as much more than simply a place to order fair-trade coffee: it was, rather, a site of comfort, fellowship, insight, discovery, organization, and fun. The same, obviously, could be said about any number of commercial establishments that we human beings, in our embodied ways, become attached to and form enriching memories and valuable relationships in conjunction with. (Local bookstores or pubs, anyone?) And no, I am not insisting that the logic of commons-thinking should have mandated that the Wichita city government swoop in and, on behalf of this commons-empowering nexus, purchase the building that housed Mead’s Corner and let First United remain there in perpetuity. (Though I’m not denouncing that logical conclusion either.) But the struggle over Mead’s is not happening in isolation, and thus the need, in my view, to consider what kinds of “legal ingenuity” might be needed to protect the decreasing number of places in this city from which a true commons-mentality historically has arisen.

Mead’s was located in a building right at the heart of Wichita’s East Douglas Historical District, near the now rapidly-being-rebuilt Naftzger Park, about which I’ve written before. Much of the argument over the fate of that city park was inextricably entwined with the degree to which its fate was determined not by popular demand (though the desire to improve the park’s design was genuinely present on the part of at least some downtown residents) but by a confluence of elite actors–some motivated by goals which they saw as aligned with public interests, others by goals obviously tied to their own business plans. It is unfortunately the case that as the redesign of Naftzger proceeds and expands, we’re seeing more of the latter than the former. A consortium of real estate developers and speculators see the area around the park as an attractive gateway for their planned retail construction–and, of course, it would be silly for them not to take financial advantage of the TIF (tax-increment financing) district subsidy which Wichita set up in the area, especially when other business interests are happy to contribute to the park’s renovation as well–with their name attached to their surprise (and unreported to the local Parks Commission) gift, of course. Across Douglas Avenue and further westward in the Historical District stood Mead’s Corner; a choice opportunity for further construction synergy and brand-expanding business activity (even if the evidence for any actual demand for new construction along this particular avenue is scant, at best).

In a series of events whose timeline is far from clear, after the rent was raised, and First United couldn’t afford to continue their just-barely-financially sustainable ministry, Mead’s Corner closed. When the news of this started to spread, a businesswoman approached the owners of the building about continuing the coffee shop–since Mead’s had been a big part of her life, and that as one who recognized it as having been a “cornerstone to the community downtown,” she felt the space was “calling her name.” But then, it turns out that one of the key players in the aforementioned development consortium had just become (or was in the process of immediately becoming) the new owner of the building, and the idea of continuing the building’s corner coffee commons tradition was promptly redirected (or, as later investigation revealed, simply shut down, as the developers who bought the building immediately proposed rents even higher the previous owner had raised them to). The businesswoman found a new location, and I wish her well (her coffeeshop is much closer to my house, as it turns out). But in place of what could have been a continuation of an important commons-resource in a central part of Wichita, we now have a proposal for a four-story mixed-use building…one whose frontage–and signage, no doubt–will nicely match that construction alongside the park, just a little over a block away.

As I wrote before, and as anyone who looks honestly at how cities (particularly cities caught up in, for reasons that they cannot entirely control, the place-making mentality, as a way to either jump-start, anticipate, or just create a simulacrum of growth) make decisions and fund the consequences of those decisions, none of this is surprising. What is surprising, perhaps, is the dedication of some to using whatever tools available to make their case against tearing down a once-vital city commons–or, to be fair, a privately owned building which, for a decade, housed a business which provided one part of the city, and one part of the city’s population, with a commons, and perhaps could do so again. Even as Wichita’s city council set up, once again, subsidies in the form of establishing a CID (community improvement district) to justify promised property and sales tax reductions, the city’s Historical Preservation Board–which can only make recommendations; not veto any proposed construction–voted to oppose the new development. Their reasoning has little to do with any of the issues I’ve expressed here…except in the sense that historical memory is particular, non-quantifiable, non-priceable thing–and, in that sense, is a commons too.

The fate of the former Mead’s Corner remains to be seen. What isn’t doubtful, unfortunately, is that even if the building is saved and the current owners sell it back to the former owner or someone else, depending upon private property to host and preserve the places and processes by which Wichitans and others can experience the kind of wealth which can only be known in common–what Bollier called in his presentation “relational” rather than “transactional” wealth–is, frankly, a risky bet. At present, though, however risky the bets may be, they are worth taking. Framing these ongoing urban struggles, these dilemmas over ownership and development and more, in terms of what Collier called “place-based stewardship” gives one an important understanding to argue for. No, I don’t anticipate convincing anyone, even myself, that the sale of a treasured building or the closing of a beloved service-provider, in the name of providing profits and opportunities to the owner, is necessarily always a form of economic dispossession. But it is like unto it, and perhaps that is enough.

Like Wendell Berry, Collier sees commons-thinking as a push-back against “inevitability,” and as an invitation to hold fast to our ability, as human beings, to imagine an alternative to simple acceptance when we see, as he said in Salina, something “rooted in an ecosystem is redefined as a market commodity.” The patterns and possibilities of thousands of people conditioned by the resources made available by a private business in a historical building is not, perhaps, the kind “ecosystem” he had in mind. And obviously, with real money on the table, you can’t simply insist that the developers in question instantly recognize the properties on the market all around them as things that cannot be alienated from the civil society they are part of. But if there are ways, even in the midst of a typical urban economy, to slow things down, in the hope that such recognition may grow? Take them, says I. You’ll never know what all you’ll lose otherwise.

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  1. I want to like these sorts of “let’s save the (fill-in-the-blank) because it’s important” proposals, but it isn’t that simple. There are real competing interests (and social goods) in either path — build a new building vs. preserve the coffee shop. Will new loft housing be beneficial in this part of Wichita? Could a new employment base benefit the area? Do those offset the loss of a communal coffee shop? How do you balance the rights of a 10-year coffee shop vs. the someone who may have spent 20 years assembling property parcels because he has a cifferent vision for that part of town? Is his vision somehow inherently less valuable than the vision of United Methodist Church?

    It is these serious value judgments that make these proposals hard, but this author provides no hint of how to resolve them. The capitalist answer is: we resolve them based on of “ability to pay”. For all its faults, that standard at least has the benefit of efficiency. Challenging that standard requires not just vague assertions about the value of place-making (most of which I agree with); it requires a concrete alternative standard to evaluate these sorts of conflicts.

    The author himself admits that some “legal ingenuity” will be required, and I was hoping to find some of that ingenuity in this article.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Brian.

    I want to like these sorts of “let’s save the (fill-in-the-blank) because it’s important” proposals, but it isn’t that simple. There are real competing interests (and social goods) in either path

    I hope I didn’t give the idea that it is “simple” to stand in the way of private transactions for the sake of defending the commons. The commons itself is, as I wrote, instantiated in an “always evolving, always shifting range of things and places”–it really can’t ever be the case that any community could definitively state that place X, business Y, and undeveloped lot Z are and always will be commons as well as owned property; making the case for the commons is always going to involve a variety of arguments that would predictably change over time. Hence my rejection of the idea that threats to the commons can and should be solved by government swooping in; maybe that kind of public stewardship would work, but maybe it wouldn’t. Differing social goods and costs are going to have to be evaluated either way.

    It is these serious value judgments that make these proposals hard, but this author provides no hint of how to resolve them….Challenging [the capitalist] standard requires not just vague assertions about the value of place-making (most of which I agree with); it requires a concrete alternative standard to evaluate these sorts of conflicts.

    True, I did not provide in this short essay a rubric by which any give community could evaluate any given property’s or location’s “concrete alternative” values, in part because I recognize that doing so would have to incorporate a massive range of variables that would necessarily be particular to the community in question: environmental, familial, architectural, historical, popular, even utilitarian considerations won’t map out the same in two places. (For example: here in Wichita, where some folks are still desperately trying to raise money and a city councilman is still desperately trying to make deals, all with the goal of keeping open the Starlite Drive-In theater, the argument over its “commons” value cannot be extricated from 1) the fact that the drive-in is located in the poorer south end of the city, and thus had long served as an important low-budget entertainment option for the immediate neighborhoods, and 2) the fact that the drive-in’s digital projectors, which the owner who inherited the drive-in from the former long-time owner sold off abruptly to an undisclosed buyer for a fraction of their market value, had been purchased in the first place only after a community fund-raising campaign had raised tens of thousands of dollars to supplement the extensive make-over which the former owner had carried out.) If more people took the value and place of the commons seriously as a component of a well-functioning city, then no doubt you would see various planning and oversight boards emerge to develop much more concrete criteria for their considerations, because presumably, in such a situation, said boards would actually have real power–as opposed to being, as is the case in Wichita today, merely advisory–and hence other economic players would have an interest in seeing those powers specified. But for the moment, I would just like to see more people recognize that there is a language for talking about the social and legal position of the commons, because at present, the “capitalist answer” is taken as the automatic default…not, I think, so much because everyone agrees with its “efficiency,” but mostly just because so few people in the United States today have ever even contemplated anything else.

    • Russell, thank you for the response. I appreciate the word limits of an article like this.

      I agree that most Americans have likely never considered alternative economic systems, perhaps in part because they’re too distracted by the toys and gadgets that highly efficient capitalism has produced.

      Intentionally making an economy less efficient is a hard sell. For a developing nation, inefficiency literally kills people, and it’s a hard habit to abandon once a society moves up Maslowe’s hierarchy. However, the economy that so efficiently meets the physical needs at the bottom of that pyramid may undermine the self-actualization needs at the top. Perhaps that whole “you can not serve both God and Mammon” was right after all.

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