I’ve been thinking about how and where community is found and the spontaneous spaces in the city where people meet and gather and find common ground. I’m especially interested in spaces where community bridging happens, where people who otherwise wouldn’t meet (coming from different walks of life) find meaning together. I live in a big city, where its easy to be anonymous amongst the 2.6 million others passing by, so when community spaces open up, it can feel, quite frankly, magical. Here are three urban commercial spaces where community building happens, sometimes when we least expect it:
1. Coffee Shops – Oh, I love the coffee shop, not just because I love coffee, but also the community vibe. As a mom of two kids, both who love to wake up really early (in the 5:30am-6am range), the coffee shop has been my sweet salvation many times as I show up bleary eyed, kids in tow, desperate for caffeine. And of course, I have met lots of other moms at coffee shops early in the morning, bonding over our fate of being awake too early. Even before kids, I have always loved the coffee shop and whenever I go to a new city, I like to find a cool coffee shop to sit and people watch (and eavesdrop on local conversation). Coffee shops have a historical connection to political organizing and democratic conversation, where community has discussed the issues of the day. This still continues with the Conversation Café concept (http://www.conversationcafe.org/), where anyone can attend and join the conversation.
2. Bars – As much as I am up early in the morning, I also love to go out at night and be part of the nightlife. Because of my kids, I don’t go out as often as I have in the past, but in the past, I have spent lots of time meeting others in bars, especially through playing guitar and singing and going to Open Mics all over Toronto. The Open Mic scene is definitely a place for community building, where anyone with a song to sing can show up and sing and be heard. My fav bar for Open Mic performing and hanging out has always been the Free Times Café (http://www.freetimescafe.com/) at College and Spadina, where I have shared the stage with many amazing performers. Currently, I’m enjoying the Kareoke scene at a bar where I can walk to from my house, meeting the nicest crowd of people who love to sing and are so encouraging, I am not afraid to try singing any song. The Kareoke scene is a bubble where no matter who you are and what your day job is, you can transform into a star for the night.
3. Shopping Malls – I’m not a big shopper at all, so haven’t spent much time in shopping malls. However, I have come across community forming in malls when I have least expected it. I work by a shopping mall that looks dated and derelict and doesn’t have great stores in it. I happen to go into it at 8:45am because the closest Toronto Public Library is located in the mall (and I am a passionate super-user of the TPL!) and while no shops are open, the parking lot is full and the food court is FILLED with people, maybe 100 or so people, chatting and laughing and sitting with their coffee (McDonalds and Tim Hortons is open). The scene is definitely seniors, and I don’t know if they all know each other and decide to formally meet there or if this is spontaneous or not. What I do know is that they are happy, and they are using the food court as community space. I also know that when I sit down with my coffee (waiting for the TPL to open), they all want to chat with me too, and include me in conversation. Interesting indeed! I know that Mall Walking has become a big health program for seniors, using the mall space for organized walking. This is interesting, transforming a commercial space to a community space focussed on improving health.
I know there are other spaces all around us where community building is happening, spontaneously and magically. I know the opportunity exists all the time, when our commonalities trump our differences, and when we really see each other, not as strangers but as friends. These moments, if we choose to be open, make this city feel like a village.