Radically Sharing Temescal 

A group of artists, hackers, and other creative people have launched Omni Commons, a new community resource center in North Oakland that they hope will be an antidote to gentrification.

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For nearly half a century, the Scavengers and their families passed through Ligure's canted entryway — that is, until 1981, when Ligure's membership dwindled and the association's funds dipped, forcing the club to move elsewhere.

However, not long after, the building became the Omni nightclub, a music venue that hosted such legends as Primus, Metallica, Too $hort, Don Carlos, and Mr. Bungle. But after roughly a decade, neighbors got fed up by the noise and rowdiness. So, in 1992, the Omni nightclub closed, and for twenty years the building sat empty, used only as a live-work space by an eccentric couple. In recent years, it has been eyed for use by the New Parkway Theater, various music venues, and the Center for Creative Reuse, and as a live theater, a bowling alley, a beer garden, a bar, a restaurant, and a burning-man-oriented live-, work- and party-space.

I'm at bio-hackerspace Counter Culture Labs in Omni Commons with Marc Juul, a co-founder of Counter Culture Labs and Sudo Room. The hackerspaces share a wide-open room that used to be dedicated to the Ligure Club's bocce ball courts. These days, it's filled with lab benches, test tubes, an industrial robot arm, and racks of scavenged hardware.

Juul pulls out an open PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machine. He explains that PCR machines are essentially DNA copy machines used in bioengineering to target and replicate desired strains of DNA, and that they're indispensable for genetic engineering projects. But for Juul, the fact that this PCR machine is "open" makes it something much more spectacular. It's a device he can modify, and even improve into a cheaper alternative.

He explained that the blueprint for the open PCR can be found under creative commons, meaning that anyone can download the plan from the internet and build the machine using basic tools and a bit of know-how. For Juul, an open PCR machine is an example of the potential power an ordinary person can wield if he or she has access to proper tools and knowledge. Juul noted that most advanced equipment cannot be found in the creative commons. "Most scientific equipment and academic literature is locked down and extremely overpriced — inaccessible to the public," he said.

"In order for us to work at the highest level of humanity right now," he continued, "everyone needs access to equipment ... knowledge ... skills."

This concept of open access mirrors a point of view popularized by twentieth century Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who asserted that everyone is inherently intellectual, but only some have the social privileges to realize it. That's why, Juul said, Counter Culture Labs and the other collectives at the Omni are building a "commons," a space in which everyone can have access to essential resources for learning, creating, and meeting each other, for free. "We're really trying to create a commons — not only in the sense of all these tools, but in terms of a space where the community can come in and be part of it and decide what to do with it," he said. "Not having a commons means you're reinforcing privilege in a lot of ways. But having a commons means that everyone — if they have the time and dedication — can come in and use it for whatever they want and create something."

Juul contends that Oakland doesn't have enough common space available. "Yes, there are park areas, but what are you going to do when a park is limited?"

Having come from Denmark, Juul explained that there are more public spaces — commons — there in which people can interact and share ideas. "There's a lot more positive socializing, and the intermingling of different social groups happens in these commons," he said. "And I think that's something that Oakland can really use."

click to enlarge Brian Brooks and Emily Wick, co-owners of Smokey's Tangle art gallery, fear that it's only a matter of time before their business shutters, too, because of rising rents in Temescal. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Brian Brooks and Emily Wick, co-owners of Smokey's Tangle art gallery, fear that it's only a matter of time before their business shutters, too, because of rising rents in Temescal.

Commons exist in many forms: There are intellectual commons, such as the creative commons, in which ideas, inventions, and text can be accessed free of copyright and patents; there are also digital commons, such as open source technology (Wikipedia, for example, or Linux, which gives users access to its code); and there are municipal commons, such as parks, libraries, and community centers — all of which Omni Commons seeks to resemble and expand on in some way. One can usually access these places without paying a fee. They are maintained and paid for by the pooling of resources.

Juul explained that Omni Commons also differs from a park and library because it welcomes participation. In other words, the more diverse the participants, the richer it can become. It can almost be thought of as an "open source" community center. "We're taking the ideas that have been successful in the digital realms and bring them into physical reality," he said.

At their former location, Sudo Room and the Bay Area Public School (BAPS) rented two rooms in an office space, which were connected by a dingy common area. The common area was usually filled with people waiting for the next BAPS class or Sudo meetup. These people would work on their laptops, pull a book off the shelf, or play the upright piano next to the bookshelf. A web developer might be arguing with a BAPS student about 18th century philosophy. Anybody could be there, even if they weren't visiting BAPS or Sudo. "It was almost as if Sudo Room and the Bay Area Public School were dating each other," said David Keenan, an organizer at Omni Commons. "We were different subcultures, there was a sense of possibility around sharing that common room that allowed so much stuff to go on there, which Sudo Room and the Bay Area Public School would never have on its own."

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