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October 10, 2008

A Journey to Rediscover the Local Commons

If you pass by Toby’s Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station, California – a small rural town bordering the Point Reyes National Seashore — there’s a good chance you might bump into Jonathan Rowe. Rowe spends a lot of time at Toby’s coffee bar, a spot that he calls his “commons office.” Amid the hay bales and sacks of chicken feed, he writes on his laptop and surfs the Web while welcoming friendly interruptions from anyone in town.

Toby’s is a perfect spot for taking the pulse of the Point Reyes. Ranchers drift in to buy animal feed and tools. Parents grab a cup of coffee while doing errands with their kids. A steady stream of tradespeople go about their business, tourists stop by for a snack, and the occasional art lover wanders into the gallery at the back of the barn and shop. (Yes, art and animal feed in the same store!)

Yet Rowe is no romantic rustic—he has logged plenty of time in busier, more high-powered settings. In the 1980s he was a staff writer at influential publications like the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Monthly. He strode the gilded hallways of the U.S. Capitol as a staff member for Representative (later Senator) Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Rowe also spent many years working with Ralph Nader on tax reform and other issues, and, at one point, for former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, who then was a member of the DC City Council.

At Toby’s Feed Barn, Rowe feels entirely at home. After his stints in national politics and policymaking, Rowe is now concentrating on one of the most important yet neglected sources of social renewal – our neighbors. From Toby’s (and from his home office a half mile away), Rowe explores the challenge of how to recognize and strengthen your own hometown commons.

He embarked upon this journey when he moved to Point Reyes in 2001, becoming the first director of the Tomales Bay Institute, since renamed On the Commons. Through his years in Washington he had witnessed how the political right had been revived by fresh ideas – or at least, fresh packaging for old ideas; the commons intrigued him as a new worldview that could successfully advance a different kind of social change. “Having lived through the Reagan years, I saw the appeal of market fundamentalism,” he explains. “It talks about freedom and mobilizing creative energies, and doing it directly, without bureaucracy. People working on the left had nothing like that.”

Rowe has been studying the vanities and delusions of market culture for more than thirty years; much of his thinking is summarized in a still timely 1995 cover story for The Atlantic that he co-authored on the misleading metrics of mainstream economics, particularly the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. The article, “If the GDP is Up, Why Is America Down?” probed the way that economists equate economic growth with “progress” and conflate market activity with happiness. He asked disarmingly simple questions such as, Why is the proliferation of fast food, video games and cable television regarded automatically as an improvement over homemade meals and socializing with friends?

An Economics That Respects the Commons

This line of thinking led Rowe to view the commons as an antidote to conventional economics – a way to construct a positive, alternative vision for modern society. Through years of work in both journalism and activism, Rowe had come to appreciate how law and economics often fail to take account of the subtle dynamics of living communities and the human spirit. For him, the commons offered a new framework for talking about people’s basic needs and new social and institutional structures for better serving them.

Throughout several years of blogging for Onthecommons.org and in articles for magazines such as Harper’s, Utne Reader, Yes!, Columbia Journalism Review and Ode, Rowe has developed a distinctive body of writing about these themes. He has written about the loss of the night sky to artificial lighting and bans on clotheslines in upscale subdivisions. He writes frequently about the commercialization of childhood experience and about the many commons-based social practices in the Philippines, where Rowe’s in-laws live. And, yes, he has written about Toby’s Feed Barn and other goings-on around Main Street in Point Reyes. (His archive of blog posts and essays on OntheCommons.org can be accessed here.)

A year and a half ago, Rowe and his colleague, Elizabeth Barnet, wanted to see if their town could recognize and rally around its own everyday commons. They issued an open invitation to local folks to do a walking survey of the main street area. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, seventy people showed up to assess together the possibilities for enhancing the “we” dimension of local life that was latent in their physical space. The empty lot next to the Bovine Bakery and the muddy “puddle park” next to the diner were particular points of interest. Some local architects volunteered to portray the ideas graphically.

“The walk got people to look at their community in a more creative, and less passive, way,” recalls Rowe. After seeing the widespread enthusiasm, Rowe and Barnet, started a new organization, West Marin Commons, named for the still-rural portion of Marin County where Point Reyes and neighboring towns are located. The group is dedicated to building “a sense of connectedness and shared responsibility around land, people and resource use in West Marin.”

From his many years in Washington, Rowe was familiar with how law and politics tend to put forward ideologically driven programs and bureaucratic mandates. That’s how government governs. But how might a small community manage problems that are too local and idiosyncratic for programmatic government “solutions”?

For example, what might it take to turn the vacant lot into a gathering place? Given the lack of frequent public transportation, is there some way to share rides and expenses for lengthy trips to supermarkets and stores twenty miles away — or to San Francisco or Berkeley? The commoners associated with West Marin Commons also explore how huge, daunting global problems can be addressed on a local scale.

“While new laws and policies will play a role in addressing climate change,” Rowe argues, “these won’t work without attention to underlying social habits and mores at the local level. A social dimension, a sense of community that is grounded in the use of land and resources locally.”

In this sense, West Marin Commons takes a cue from Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet and essayist who is an eloquent prophet of local sustainability. Law and policy have their place. But there is also a great deal of creative energy to be unleashed in our social relationships, daily household habits and personal interactions with nature.

Building local commons

Soon, enthusiastic townspeople were tackling a number of projects in Point Reyes Station. In front of Tomales Bay Food, volunteers pulled up the brambles and weeds, constructed a wood fence, and are planting a “food forest” of fruit trees, vegetables and vines. On the side of Mesa Road, people reclaimed the public right-of-way and put in a sidewalk that enables parents with strollers to walk to a nearby toddler playground – built recently with WMC support. West Marin Commons is trying to acquire or preserve two or three empty lots in the main-street area that have served as informal commons, but that may be sold or developed at some point. One possibility is a small zocalo, which is a kind of gathering place or square common in Mexico.

As he wades deeper into the life of his community – Rowe has also hosted a local radio show for several years – he came to appreciate how socially minded property owners play an important role in nurturing the commons. “Some of Point Reyes’ best commons are privately owned,” he said, citing the favorite local gathering spot near the bakery, the green area outside of a grocery store and the social mixing that occurs at Toby’s coffee bar.

Part of the beauty of West Marin Commons is its openness to new ideas as they arise. A lecture by a visiting author, Kat Anderson, inspired residents to launch a project aimed at reclaiming local ethnobotanical knowledge. Anderson’s book, Tending the Wild, describes how Native Americans developed a stable partnership with native flora by tending various plants and using them in distinctive ways for cooking, medicine and other uses—a tradition the West Marin Commons hopes to revive.

West Marin Commons does not regard the commons as an untouched patch of nature, but as a social community that works respectfully with nature. Promoting this social dimension for land on the edge of town has been controversial in one instance. When the National Park Service, which oversees the neighboring National Seashore, bought a dairy farm with the intention of restoring it to wetlands, a dispute arose about whether the land should be accessible to people or treated as a wilderness.

For years, people had used a footpath along the edge of the dairy, and then the top of a small dam on a creek, to go to and from the neighboring town of Inverness Park. The shortcut saved people from having to walk on a busy two-lane road with no sidewalks or drive their cars instead. But when West Marin Commons supported a proposal for a footbridge across the creek (the dam was taken down to help the salmon run) to restore the walking route between the towns, other residents balked. They felt strongly that the wetlands should remain off-limits to foot traffic or any human use.

For his part, Rowe says that a footpath is, historically, a defining commons use. In this particular case, landowners whose properties border the new wetlands are trying to reap the lion’s share of benefits. “A commons should not be seen as a private ‘viewscape’ for the fortunately situated,” he argues.

Both sides in the controversy invoke the commons to articulate their position, thus raising some fundamental questions about what a commons is. Is it a parcel of land that is isolated from humanity (“wilderness”) and therefore to be preserved as a pristine place apart? Or is the commons something that humans should be able to use in sustainable ways, particularly when the land adjoins human settlement and traditionally has been symbiotic with it?

Rowe believes that in this instance, the commons should be the latter. Commons are about people and their relationship to a resource. He points out the irony that “wilderness itself is a social creation,” citing the invention of the national parks at the turn of the 19th Century as a counterpoint to industrial capitalism.

Besides its work on places and spaces, West Marin Commons has developed a number of projects to help people share food, transportation and other limited resources. One initiative is a ride and errand-sharing group called the Over-the-Hill Gang, in which people can share rides “over the hill” to the eastern, more-developed portion of Marin county and beyond. Another is a food- and garden-sharing clearinghouse that lets people share their extra supplies of tomatoes, apples and other food. West Marin Commons hopes to start a seed library, a tool-sharing project and a depot for exchanging things and cooperative purchasing.

Throughout, Elizabeth Barnet has worked closely with Rowe in building the West Marin Commons. She initiated the food forest and food-sharing projects, and has taken on most of the day-to-day operations, along with a steering committee of which both she and Rowe are part. A monthly newsletter is available at (click here to subscribe).

Reinventing the Do-It-Yourself Ethic

West Marin Commons has evolved in part because of the minimal government presence in Point Reyes Station. The town is in the unincorporated portion of the county; government essentially consists of the elected representative to the Marin County board of supervisors, whose district covers a wide swath. A village association reviews local development proposals, but beyond that, a do-it-yourself community ethos largely prevails. In a town with few official vehicles for civic deliberation, West Marin Commons is striving to provide a focus for the initiating side of this work. Even more, it has become a vehicle for reviving community, getting closer to nature and having some fun.