Friday, April 11, 2008

The Commons and Hospitality

Last week, we had a meeting of our whole Building Movement team in Detroit. These meetings are always intense, interesting, fun, stimulating and exhausting in equal portions. We often meet all day and then do something fun together at night. A giant snowstorm meant that the fun had to be found in our hotel, but that was easy because the restaurant/bar was having their every-other-week karaoke night. So, we all settled in, ordered fattening food and cold drinks and took turns singing.

I had never actually gotten up and sung at a karaoke bar and was amazed at how fun it was. I actually did three numbers before the evening was out, although always with a more highly skilled member of the team (i.e. someone who can actually carry a tune.) What struck me most about this evening was how, in the bar of a corporate for-profit chain hotel, we all had an amazing experience of an important and often overlooked element of the commons, which is hospitality.

First of all, anyone could come into the bar and participate. Although most of us ordered food and drinks, there was no minimum and several tables were full of people where only one or two were drinking. The DJ radiated enjoyment of the whole scene. As he called each name to come up and sing, you felt you could be going out on a grand stage in front of thousands of adoring fans. People cheered your entrance and your exit, and cheered all the way through your song.

Second, we could choose among hundreds of songs which we personally did not pay a royalty in order to sing. (The restaurant or possibly the hotel hopefully has a license from ASCAP—the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers to use the works that are in the karaoke catalog).

Third, there was no talent required to get up and sing, although, in fact, many of the singers were quite talented. It being a slow night, the kitchen staff came out and sang, as did the bartender in addition to the customers. But talent didn’t seem to matter—we all rooted for each other and slapped each other’s backs and high-fived each performer. Being the least talented of the entire bar scene, I appreciated the genuine encouragement I felt from all the patrons.

Is a bi-weekly karaoke bar really an important part of the commons? Compared to clean water and air, or protecting wilderness, or keeping the human genome from being patented, probably not. But for understanding what the commons is supposed to do for the people, it is.

I contrast this experience with a visit I made some time ago to a public park with my dog. Both of us looked very scruffy—I had been gardening and was hot and sweaty and my dog had been rolling in dirt and needed a haircut. I saw one very coiffed and well dressed woman with her equally coiffed purebred corgi pull her dog in close to her as we passed, so my dog wouldn’t get dirt on her dog. My dog, a mutt, didn’t notice, but I was suddenly aware that everyone in that park on that day was well dressed and groomed. I felt out of place in my neighborhood public park.

As I watched the singers that night in Detroit, I thought that all of us need more of this kind of experience: the experience that you are welcome in this space, and a feeling that who you are and what you can do is enough. That people around you are proud of you and glad to be in your company, and that you feel the same way about them. Our commons needs these spaces, and these are the spaces people will work hard to protect.

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