Community: Hiding in plain sight

finding the community around you

What’s in a community?

Imagine you’re going through your day when you notice that the faces of the people around you seem to be repeating themselves. You wonder if you’re noticing a glitch in reality, and that possibly you’ve been trapped in the matrix. After finishing your day dream of fighting an army of Hugo Weaving clones, you come to the realization that you’re just continually running into the same people. This is the first step of becoming a part of a community. 
What exactly is a community? A survey by the American health association came to the conclusion that community was “a group of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives, and engage in joint action in geographical locations or settings” (MacQueen) by asking a wide range of American citizens what community meant to them. Broken down we see that community is typically made up of like-minded people within a similar geographical place. Writer Lynn A. Staeheli discus’s briefly in one of her contemporary geography textbooks how place is not only a geographical location, but also a metaphorical web of social relations and cultural traditions; eschewing the notion that “place” is solely defined by its geographical icons for the alternative idea that a “place” can be jointly defined by the communities that inhabit it. With Staeheli’s idea in mind we can think about how a place can cultivate a “community” and how a “community” can exist within a place. Community can be as big as the American LGBT movement, or as small as a local cafe. Seeking out and recognizing these communities can provide a person with a sense of belonging and well-being.

The Underground Coffee House

Let’s look at an example that’s near to my heart as a musician; coffee shop open mics. Wherever you are in the world, there are bound to be no shortage of coffee shop open mics. You can find them in any standard cafe. To give you an example, let’s take a local Bellingham coffee shop, the Underground coffee house. Located on the campus of western Washington University, the Underground serves as a place where western students such as myself can socialize and relax. Hidden behind four flights of stairs and a loading bay for trucks, a feeling of exclusivity washes over you the first time you enter the underground. This feeling immediately recedes as you enter a very standard cafe. Vintage easy chairs in figure 1, and how they blend together with concrete to create a sterile yet oddly rustic environment.

Figure 1: Vintage easy chairs and fake shrubbery make this place feel like a cross between a retirement home and hipsters first time on Craigslist.

A large mural of what appears to be indigenous people create a feeling of mutual cultural awareness and exchange. A side room containing a pool table and a back shelf full of board games, lets the patrons know that this is a space for relaxation. The room is full of couches and tables, well suited for studying or eating. The menu of the underground is your standard coffee shop fare, with a range of coffee flavors, pastries and sandwiches. In every sense of the word it’s your average liberal hippie coffee shop, right down to the usage of locally made “Tony’s coffee”. If anything makes this coffee house stand out, it’s the unbeatable view of the Bellingham bay as shown in figure 2 that provides a scenic look at the entire city and surrounding bay. Despite being painfully standard, this view alone elevates the coffee shop in my opinion.

Figure 2: The view from the underground coffee shop elevates this café from ordinary to somewhat less ordinary with occasional moments of breathtaking scenery.

More than Just a Coffee shop

Fast forward a few hours to 7:00 o clock on a Tuesday night. It’s the weekly open mic at the underground. The feeling of the room has changed. The sunlight has been replaced by incandescent lights and classic rock plays loudly over the PA system. The room is packed with people and smells of sweat and bagels. The smell of sweat is not out of place; the room is tightly packed and a lack of chairs has people sitting on every available surface. After a certain point two bouncers in yellow polo shirts arrive to stop people from entering as the room has hit maximum capacity. Perhaps it’s the lack of personal space, but people seem to become more amicable. People are more open to meeting each other and new hellos are exchanged freely. Now this is a community. Hidden behind a loading bay and a series of dumpsters, we can begin to see the foundation of human interactions take shape.

Eventually attention focuses on the stage, as seen in figure 3. The stage is a trans formative space where artists give insight into the universe as perceived by themselves. This stage is slightly less than prophetical however, and the performing acts are a very standard mix of acoustic guitar covers and singer-song writers of which I am one myself.

Figure 3: The underground from the inside.

Despite having done this old routine a plentiful amount of times before, my nerves are on tilt. It’s no secret it’s a scary thing to get on stage in front of others, but despite the shortcomings, mishaps, or occasionally uncomfortable political rant, everyone gets a fair round of applause at the end. I’d like to think this stems from a shared understanding among performers of the courage it takes to force your art into a five minute time slot and have it be judged by an uncaring crowd. The brisk set’s keep the night moving and a variety of individuals, some cheery, some Goth, and some nondescript give their all. An unusually high amount of the performers are comedians due to Bellingham’s bustling comedy scene. Despite how I may glamorize these adjectives, the experience I describe here is not unique. Almost any cafe open mic will net you a cast of people diverse among themselves in attitudes, styles, and presence but united in this shared experience. You’ll find the people who talk loudly between sets, the audience members who patiently listen, the service industry employee eyeing the clock for their shift to end. These people unknowingly take up roles and positions within a community. And these communities intersect and weave through each other like the cultural web that Staeheli had mentioned previously. The Bellingham comedy scene overlaps with the Bellingham music scene which then overlaps into the associated student body of western to create an entirely new and specialized community.

Community and you: what’s the point?

Why should we seek these spaces out? As the University of UW points out in informational web flyer “A strong community benefits the individual, the community as well as the greater society. People of all ages who feel a sense of belonging tend to lead happier and healthier lives, and strong communities create a more stable and supportive society”. (Woolley 107). Human beings are social creatures, and we are drawn out to each other. Even the introverts among us feel a deeper need for human interaction. Being a small piece within a community can give a person a greater feeling of belonging and self-actualization. The underground is a prime example of a quality and budding community to immerse yourself in, but cafe open mics aren’t the only place where community thrives. It’s in everything we do and everywhere you look. There is community within your weekly physics class, your apartment complex, within the recreational ski teams that live within 20 miles of you. I encourage you to seek out these communities that hide within everyday life and reap the benefits of positive social interaction

Bibliography:

MacQueen, Kathleen M. “What Is Community? An Evidence-Based Definition for Participatory Public Health.” Ncbi.org. US National Library of Medicine, Dec.-Jan. 2001. Web.
Woolley, Paul O., and Barbara A. Woolley. “Tips: The Importance of Community.” Journal of Community Health J Community Health

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