A new public space for the common good

Photo: Toa Heftiba

Our existing social institutions–schools, the “job” economy, family, community, religion — are in crisis as we undergo rapid, large-scale change caused by such things as technological development, social fragmentation, and competitive workplaces. Every aspect of our lives is impacted, from our relationship to work, the ways we relate or don’t relate to one another in a community, and what our social and personal lives look like. We’ve replaced public spaces with ways of interacting that don’t involve contact and physical presence. We no longer live close to family and the communities we grew up with. And our expectations about our lives have skyrocketed. All this means is that we’ve become a nation that is depressed, anxious, disconnected and unhappy. Often we address these conditions in isolation, with limited resources, and in a society that pathologizes everyday life.

As monumental shifts are happening in all areas, we need places where we can talk about what that means, be thoughtful and reflective about what that means, and understand and help shape these transformations. Those places don’t exist — universities, coffee shops, online — none of these places really gets us there, and we haven’t expected them to. Learning, understanding, and support happen in community, they are fundamentally social, and so we need new kinds of institutions to facilitate the experience of our lives and how we relate to one another

That’s why we’ve been thinking about Storefront as an institution and not just a space. A space is just a site, a container for collecting programs together, and it does that (it has to do that), but it’s an institution because we (all of us) are working towards new forms of public space and urban commons to replace the institutions like schools, churches, community centers, museums, etc. that we’ve known all our lives. An institution is more than a building — which is to say that it’s more than what happens in a physical space (conversations, people coming together, practices, programs, etc.). Institutions are about how we learn to be who we are in our cultural/social/economic lives. That takes in space, and connections, of different kinds: physical, intellectual, emotional, collective.

With Storefront, we’re aiming to create a public institution for the common good and a cultural institution for the public good. We’re reimagining what social, cultural and learning institutions look like today and trying to build an outward-facing institution that builds community so that our public spaces can be active locations for public and personal discourse.

And we need to do this across the board: We need to create new public spaces that speak in a new way to who we are, what we do, and what we need in our lives. More and more we have good company — as other creative enterprises, individuals, and organizations move into this sector, there’s the very real possibility of public support for our increasingly complex personal lives. But that’s probably the focus of another post!