This is a love letter to many places, among them:
- Smyrna, and Cobb County public libraries and parks,
- Sopo Bicycle Co-op and the Austin Yellow Bike Project,
- and Atlanta Critical Mass.
I’m writing to you from my favorite window ledge in the Smyrna Public Library. From my seat in the window I can see a public park with an outdoor amphitheater, a small pond, and the sidewalk across the plaza to the shops in the main town square. Parents with strollers are meandering around the pond while a young couple, obviously on a date, are walking towards the park from a coffee shop in the square. A bicyclist breezes by on the multi-use trail. If you were to follow the cyclist just a little past my line of site, you would encounter a bike trail that, were you to follow it from here to its terminus, would take you all the way to Alabama without you ever having to venture out into automobile traffic.
All of the organizations and groups addressed in this letter share something in common with this tableau, and even with the library window ledge where I’m sitting to write this letter. You all provide an important function in my life, one that I have far too little of: a place to go.
Nathan J. Robinson in his book Why You Should be a Socialist says:
People of my generation often feel very alone. We are isolated and depressed, and we want a world where people don’t just sit alone in their apartments watching Netflix, but have places to go. Places that are free and welcoming, where you don’t have to worry about whether you can afford to stay.
He’s not just talking about physical places, of course. What he’s saying is that we want community and that we want it as a matter of right, not only if we’re wealthy enough. The way we accomplish this is through social infrastructure, and more importantly, free social infrastructure. That’s what you all provide to me and others: social infrastructure; a place to go.
I can hear the criticisms already, “but Sam, free isn’t ever really free; someone has to pay for it at some point!” For the sake of brevity I’ll elide over the taxes, the labor, the co-ops, the non-profits, the donors, the governments, and the laborers who make a thing possible. The important part of what I’m calling “free” is that it’s free at the point of use for those who can least afford it, and that the burden for it is not shouldered by them. Free in this sense means an act of solidarity that allows everyone to benefit from the labor (or dollars) of others.
In a few hours I will head out the door to attend a pay-what-you-can dance. This will be my only regularly-scheduled free social interaction for the week, meaning that many weeks this will be my only social interaction for the week. Without places like this, my life would consist almost entirely of work and sleep: a somewhat dismal existence—though the “sleep” part has its merits.
In the world of software development it’s common to talk about software that’s “free as in beer” (gratis) vs. “free as in freedom” (libre). My definition of “free” above appears at first glance to simply be gratis, ie. “does not cost money”. Places to go, however, must also have a different kind of freedom that’s similar to libre, or the anarchist or communist concepts of free association. The first cooperative principal summarizes it well (although we’re not talking exclusively about co-ops here):
Voluntary and Open Membership
Cooperatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.
That is to say that free social infrastructure must not only not require money at the point of use, but it must also be a welcoming place for all people: open by default.
Finally, Though most of you, my social infrastructure, are public or not-for-profit organizations, free in this context doesn’t necessarily even mean non-commercial. A good example of commercial social infrastructure that I rather detest, but which none-the-less still meets my definition of “free” is the Mall. I think that it was Eric Klinenberg in his book Palaces for the People (“how social infrastructure can help fight inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life”) who introduced me to the idea that malls, those great monuments to American Consumerism, can also be free social infrastructure.
If you grew up in the United States, you’re likely familiar with the trope of teenagers hanging out at malls, something that ostensibly keeps them off the streets and out of trouble. In the small town I grew up in, this was indeed a popular past time the moment you were old enough to drive after dark. The mall was a place you could go without being expected to spend any money (though they’d happily take some if you had it), a place you could just exist, a place to go.
On the other end of the age spectrum it’s not uncommon to find the elderly walking the mall as a way to get away from home and get some exercise, or the houseless passing through to get out of the heat or cold for a few minutes. It’s a place to get out and be among people where all are welcome (in theory, anyways; there are plenty of individual malls that go overboard on security guards and gate keeping).
This then is what I mean when I say that you are “free”. Both a place of freedom, and a place where I don’t have to count how many hours I was able to work last week to decide if I can attend. You are a place without a constant stream of transactions, judgements, or borders. You help provide what Robinson calls a “decommodified life”.
My current financial situation and definitions of “free” aside, having places to go is important not for the physical place itself, but for the community building that the place encourages.
In his forward to Creating Cohousing by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, Bill McKibben writes:
For fifty years, our economic mission in America, at its core, has been to build bigger houses farther apart from each other. And boy have we succeeded: a nation of starter castles for entry-level monarchs, built at such remove one from the next that the car is unavoidable.
We live in a nation where “knowing our neighbors” means we say hi on occasion if we happen to walk out the door towards our cars at the same time, and where our living spaces isolate us instead of encouraging communities to form. This poor use of space and of the built environment is one of the reasons for the loneliness that Robinson mentions in the quotation at the beginning of this letter. Unlike our neighborhoods and cities, you are built to encourage community, and this is why you are so important. When you can’t walk out your door and feel part of a community, you need to find that elsewhere.
With that rather lengthy explanation out of the way, let me finally get to the purpose of this letter: to say “thank you” and express my love for what you do. When I’m having a bad day, the thought that I’ll be able to attend a Swing Dance later, or a group bike ride, isn’t actually what perks me back up: It’s the thought of doing that with other people. Others who help each other even when they hardly know each other. Others who begin their relationship sharing no more in common than one day a week on the same activity, but who may grow in time to be close friends.
Whether it’s in a park, a bar, a library, or a dance hall it’s a recognition of our shared humanity and the bringing together of vastly different people through a meal, a cause, or a love of the outdoors that bridges divides and creates community. I thank you for doing that for me, and for being there for me on the bad days. I only hope that I can do the same for you.
In Cooperation and Solidarity,
Update 2023-04-07: Sadly one of the organizations I mentioned in this post has recently stopped being pay-what-you-can. They do still have a tiered structure, and I can’t blame them since I’m sure it was hard to pay the rent, but unfortunately it can’t be a regular weekly event for me anymore so I have updated this post to not mention them by name so as to not advertise incorrect prices. I still whole heartedly endorse them and wish them success, and hope that one day I’ll be able to afford to attend regularly again.