Instead of having to share your living room with a stranger and make small talk all those hungover mornings while brewing coffee, you can rent a private unit in a shared building from “co-living” firm Common. Marketed as a communal experience, units come with complimentary wi-fi, detergent and toilet paper, and the option to socialize with other residents or not.
At The Baffler, Zach Webb examines this concept and finds nothing redeeming about it. To him, Common exploits a generation anxious about their future prospects. Worse, these units, like so many things in our venture capital-fueled era, “reposition” occupied buildings, disrupting cities’ social fabric. And they reduce a building’s distinctive elements to a type of one-size-fits-all-West-Elm-coffee-shop aesthetic, which helps make cities at large look less like themselves and more like one anywhere America. Instead of truly creating “a commons” where people of different socioeconomic classes meet, Common begs the question: what do we want our cities to be?
In the realization of their houses, a complex network of contact and camaraderie, an entire ecosystem of social practice is displaced, its constitutive bodies dispersed to the far fringes of the city, supplanted by the inorganic experience manufactured by Common. In the former, this net is predicated on “contact” as defined by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities—the passing conversations on the sidewalk, the cup of coffee offered by a neighbor when you’re locked out, the collective monitoring of children at play, all of it undergirded by a balance of public and private life embedded in an area of socioeconomic diversity. The accumulation of these seemingly trivial moments and experiences generates, as Jacobs writes, “a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need.”
Common, for its part, excises the warmth of this community-building and retains only its atomized bits: a greeting mumbled in passing, an Instagram snapped of the local bodega cat, generating the false impression of being within and of a true neighborhood for impermanent Commoners biding out leases usually numbering in months. At Common, a Commoner’s energy is used to network with fellow Commoners of equivalent class status and material use.
Common’s expunging of tragedy from the commons thus takes with it the possibility generated by contact outside a uniform bubble. At Common, there’s just simply no need to borrow a cup of a sugar from a neighbor or fall into conversation with strangers at the laundromat.