Brown: Coffeehouses Aren't Commons

The U.S. needs a public revitalization, lest it risk communal death.

by Matthew Brown | 4/11/19 2:15am

The coffee shop is a privileged space. Since coffee was exported from Ethiopia to Mecca and Medina in the 10th century, coffeehouses have been a staple of cosmopolitan life around the world. People have used coffeehouses as local meeting places, cornerstones of an interconnected and reflective neighborhood. 

But when I look at the energy of a modern coffee shop, I’m not struck by the beauty of what it is — instead, I notice the tragedy of what it isn’t. The energy and discourse on display in coffeehouses is reminiscent of the commons: Spaces where people may exist and convene as a right, not as a service.  

To save American society, we must first save the commons. In the United States, there has been a concerted, decades-long effort to privatize and cordon off the commons: public lands being exploited for private oil and gas development; a decline of citizen engagement in local politics and media; a persistent policing of poor and minority communities, while whiter and more affluent communities increasingly opt for gates and guards.

Investment in public projects — such as playgrounds, community centers, public sports fields, schools and libraries — has declined precipitously over the years. Only now, as these institutions desperately fight to finance their existence, do many Americans realize how much of the commons has been lost to private hands. 

The dangers of lacking commons are manifold. Civic engagement begins with communal awareness, a prerequisite that becomes far more difficult to achieve without public spaces. Robust public institutions also often provide better and more accessible services to the public than market substitutes. Communal prosperity and social justice are things that should be left to the public space and funded accordingly with their importance in society.  

On April 15, 2018, when a video of two black men being arrested at a Starbucks went viral, the limits of the coffee shop as a commons were put on display for the entire country to see. The evident racism in the arrest was met with wide public discussion, yet comparatively little attention was given to the fact that it seemed suspicious for someone in a Starbucks to not order something. Implicit in the outrage was not only the exhaustion that black life cannot exist in any space in America, but also the assumption that Starbucks is a public space. To be clear, it is not. 

Public libraries, by contrast, are places free to enter, where no one is expected to provide compensation for their presence. It is no surprise, then, that in many cities around the country, public libraries have become occupied by the homeless. In a country that polices the park benches, they have nowhere else to go. 

Where they remain intact, the commons are often segregated along racial and socioeconomic lines. While parks on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City are generally maintained and rightfully accessible to the entire community, several blocks to the north, children and teenagers are policed in the parks of Harlem and the Bronx on the mere suspicion of criminal activity. “Gang databases,” in cities including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, have been used to police common spaces and profile individuals in common spaces. 

Freedom of association and free movement are frequently denied to citizens simply because of the color of their skin or the neighborhood in which they live. For the good of all, shared space should not become a luxury item for the affluent to enjoy in secluded environments.  

The threat of a lacking commons is likely to only increase in the coming years. The coffeeshop is an echo of the commons, but not a replacement. As social creatures, humans will suffer if they do not engage with one another. The country must rekindle its public life or risk communal death.