The Gardner Commons:
What We Share When We Share Lunch
Listen to a related podcast here.
The Gardner Commons is a new building on campus at the University of Utah, a shell of concrete and metal. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard thinks of shells as inhabited stones and wonders if it is “possible for a creature to remain alive inside stone, inside this piece of stone?” Here, not just one creature, but many creatures are alive inside the stone, and at the heart of this stone is a food court. I go to the food court to sit and watch how people share. Well, that’s not entirely true; I really go because there is a microwave for my lunch and electrical outlets for my laptop.
The food court is airy and open, with a two-story high ceiling and a wall of windows. In spite of the openness of the atmosphere, there is no good way to walk from one end to the other. The most obvious thoroughfare–a strip of floor space separated from the rest of the room by a low wall–is often clogged with people waiting for the microwave, and the dining floor is choked with too many tables. The layout of the cafeteria facilitates collisions with other people. Negotiating a crowd in a tight space makes me aware of my body and its dimensions, and I become self-conscious. That awareness makes me imagine acutely what it would be like to enjoy community with all these people.
Lunchrooms are for sharing: tables, french fries, gossip. Maybe even disease. I both want the communion of sharing yet react violently against it. Supposedly people exist who would sit next to a stranger just for the fun of making a new acquaintance. These people are called extroverts, but that’s not me. I once saw three boisterous men invade a table at which a bespectacled man was seated alone with his books and computer. While the intruders laughed and pushed each other, the loner pretended they were not there. To be clear, I was not the loner. Not that one, anyway. The cafeteria asks each of us to become aware of our shells, our outward presentation and our inner defenses. What do we keep hidden? How do our shells bump up against those of our neighbors, and do we choose to emerge? On the one hand, all the potential energy of human social bonds is immensely enticing; on the other, rejection seems like a price too high to pay. One solution to my ambivalence might be to abolish commons altogether. No potential for community means no anxiety that I might be missing out.
When I imagine the commons–the places and resources that are open to many people sharing–I want to believe in a utopia, a place of perfect harmony. I want it to be a new Eden complete with vegetarian lions. But commons are just as often predicated on exclusion as communion. For example, the people who use the food court commons represent only a small segment of the population. Most are students at the university, and can afford to buy an eight dollar chicken sandwich. Their enjoyment of the space is upheld by the labor of dishwashers, cashiers, and cooks. There is privilege inherent in the food court, but it is also true that the boundaries are permeable. Determining whether or not someone is a paying customer would be difficult here, and not worth the resources required. I have been a paying customer in the Gardner Commons only once, so I suppose I am a kind of interloper here, but I am still more or less welcome. However, I can imagine a homeless woman shuffling in, dressed in several winter coats and carrying a little dog in a cardboard box. She would sit down on a sofa, only to be ushered out by one of the cafeteria employees. There would be no malice in this, only a businesslike dismissal. She simply would not be welcome. I can’t say for sure that the scenario would really be handled that way, but it seems intuitively correct. The Gardner Commons is too clean, too slick, too new to be truly open to everyone.
Instead of buying food, I usually bring a lunch from home, a piece of leftover lasagna or something, which I warm up in the microwave. This cafeteria has only one microwave, which means that a queue is likely to form. Some people are microwave regulars whom I recognize by sight and who might even share a greeting nod with me. I regularly meet a few of them at five o’clock in the evening on Tuesdays. We are both competitors and comrades. One of the Tuesday microwave users catches my eye. He is confident enough to wear odd clothes and recently got a clean haircut. I think I might like him, but I never manage to get up the courage to strike up a conversation. It would be easy: “Hi, what’s your name? Want to sit and eat together?” But it feels impossible. I feel like I’m in high school again. Maybe the lunchroom commons has always been a locus of desire. It seems part of the magic of the thing: whereas if I stay at home or insist upon constant privacy my desire for connection will never leave the realm of fantasy, in the commons my desires can actually play out in the form of friendship or even romance with any stranger.
Desire is the thing that makes some theorize that all shared resources will be exhausted in “the tragedy of the commons.” But it seems to me that they fail to consider the desire that impels people to connect with each other, that results in sharing and cooperation. Desire, to such critics, is only a selfish, individualistic force. Writers Bonnie McCay and Svein Jentoft have written that tragedies of the commons occur when “resource users find themselves without the social bonds that connect them to each other and to their communities.” I feel that lack of social bonds, and it makes me hesitant to share close space with anyone else in the lunchroom. In that absence, the only desires I can successfully satisfy are the selfish, individualistic ones.
Stavros Stavrides, an architect in Athens, Greece, external authorities are often involved “in the ordering of a large department store, upon entrance to a bank or a corporate tower and in the layout and use of a shopping mall or a huge sports stadiums.” In other words, the use of a space is usually circumscribed by institutions and authority. However, Stavrides also suggests that spaces may be reclaimed, or “commoned,” as people collectively bend the use of the space to their own purposes, as the home lunch microwave club does. City buses, suburban streets, and airport terminals all have the potential to become sites of community, of commonality. This is possible as people understand themselves as sharing with each other, and not as competing for limited space and resources. The commons will never be perfect, but it beats the hell out of being alone all the time. Someday a social revolution may make sharing a normal practice. In the meantime, I am still sitting in the commons, wishing I could make myself get up and sit next to that boy.
~ Davey Cox (Spring 2019)
To explore related Sightlines, follow this route.
For further reading:
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science, December 1968, 1243-1248.
McCay, Bonnie J., and Svein Jentoft. “Uncommon Ground: Critical Perspectives on Common Property.” Human Footprints on the Global Environment, edited by Eugene A. Rosa, Andreas Diekmann, Thomas Dietz, and Carlo Jaeger, MIT Press, 2010, 203-230.
Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place. Paragon House, 1989.
Stavrides, Stavros. Common Space: The City as Commons. Zed Books, 2016.
Wall, Derek. The Commons in History: Culture, Conflict, and Ecology. MIT Press, 2014.