Over the years, I’ve noticed a lack of radical political organizing spaces in the United States, though the same is true in other nations as well. Rural, suburban and even many urban communities lack anti-consumerist or non-commercial spaces where progressive and leftwing activists, artists and others can organize, create, socialize and learn.
Usually, progressive/left activists are forced to rely on churches, universities, governmental buildings such as libraries, or private for-profit businesses for meeting spaces. Many of the activists I know, including myself, live in apartments that are far too small to host 30-40 people, so we’re forced to rely on the above mentioned entities, which poses a number of challenges. Unfortunately, those spaces also keep many potential activists at home.
First of all, many people don’t have the disposable income to go out and spend money once, let alone multiple times per week. Of course, some organizers will say, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to spend any money if you come to our event!” However, the reality is that many people feel obliged to spend their money if they’re sitting in a private business, especially when many of their peers are.
We should always keep these class dynamics in mind as many of the local and regional organizers I’m encountering in the post-Trump world are middle to upper-middle class, hence they have a lot more resources, time and money than most Americans. Hell, many times, people simply lack the transportation necessary to attend the numerous political events that are taking place at any given moment.
Furthermore, many young people in our region don’t enjoy attending events at churches or universities. Local universities are sterile and uninteresting, largely due to the fact that universities in our region are commuter colleges where students, for the most part, do not live or hang out. Alternative spaces, for lack of a better term, are virtually non-existent in our region.
Last week, I was driving through Michigan City (MC), where I live, when I noticed a ‘For Rent’ sign taped to the front window of what used to be a local bike shop. To be clear, I’ve been searching for potential spaces for years, but I’ve never had any luck finding something affordable and sustainable. Anyway, I slammed on the brakes when I saw the sign and immediately ran to the window: $600 a month!? I couldn’t believe it – finally something in our price range!
Immediately, I called and scheduled a meeting with the landlord. A few days later, I signed a two-year lease agreement. Since then, my friend Sergio and I have been cleaning, repairing and decorating the space. Sergio, who recently moved to MC from Philadelphia, is one of my best friends and someone I’ve known for almost fifteen years. We met while in the Marine Corps, but we truly became close friends during the last eleven years of our collective activism.
Sergio is dependable, committed and disciplined (all rare qualities). He’s also well-educated, both institutionally and organically, and he’s been involved with activist groups from India and Ukraine to the Netherlands and the U.S.
Practically, our space will be an organizing and cultural hub. Our initial ideas include a weekly poetry night, guest speakers (artists, intellectuals, activists, organizers, etc.), a bi-weekly documentary film night, fundraisers for local organizations, workshops, and in the most simple of terms, just a place to hang out that’s not a bar or a restaurant.
We don’t want anyone’s money, so whoever visits our space isn’t expected to buy a damn thing. We’ll have water and coffee, and alcohol for special events. But what we’re most excited to feature is a social space where activists, artists, writers, poets, concerned citizens, decent people, feminists, environmentalists and so on, can hang out, share information, perform, talk, socialize, share resources and develop ideas.
Our rent is $600 a month, not including electric, water and internet. So, in reality, we’ll be paying around $800-$900 a month. Right now, Sergio and I can afford that amount, but only by the skin of our teeth. Plus, we don’t want the space to be ‘ours’ – we want activists and artists in our local and regional community to feel as if the space is their own.
In order to do so, we’ve been thinking about a sustainable donor program. Let’s put it this way, the population of MC is roughly 35,000 people. If we can get 800 of those 35,000 to donate $1 a month, we’ll be set for the foreseeable future. How great is that? I guess this is one of the benefits of living in Northwest Indiana as opposed to Chicago. There’s no way we could get away with such a project in the city. If we lived in Chicago, we would need serious donors and many more partners.
Another benefit of being in MC is the public transportation system. People can travel from South Bend/University of Notre Dame to Michigan City in 45 minutes. A train from Chicago to MC takes roughly 90 minutes. In other words, we can feature world-class speakers in a region that very rarely enjoys such things.
We also hope to feature the voices of people who are unknown and rarely heard. What does your local butcher think about politics? How about my friend Pedro, a local line-cook? How about our neighbor Marlon, who sells fireworks out of the back of his car? My friend Jim, a life-long server? Certainly the mainstream media isn’t going to explore their reflections. In this vain, we hope to channel Studs Terkel.
Across the street from our space is a Mexican grocery store/restaurant. Two doors down form the Mexican joint is a resource center for homeless people. A guy I went to college with runs the homeless center. We hope to work with both entities.
Michigan City is, like most Rust Belt cities and towns, a very segregated area, hence we hope to provide a space for racial and cultural exchange. It may sound crazy to some people, but segregation in 2017 is a serious obstacle to progressive political change.
In fact, some reports suggest that schools in Chicago are more segregated today than they were in 1967. In this context, Sergio and I hope to connect black, brown, and white communities in MC and beyond. To be honest, we’re interested in providing a space for people from the 10th Ward in Chicago’s South East Side, to South Bend, Indiana.
Our space will hold bilingual events. Our brochures and flyers will be bilingual. And we will regularly feature immigrant and refugee speakers, artists, and organizations from overseas. Both Sergio and I hope to instill an internationalist perspective in everything that we do, which is why our proposed grand opening will take place Memorial Day Weekend – the Holy Grail of American nationalist bullshit.
Instead of mattress sales and banal parades, we plan on featuring antiwar veteran speakers who will talk about the horrors of war and the need for non-violent international relations. Our hope is to inject a critical perspective in what is otherwise an utterly uncritical weekend of hyper-patriotism and barbecues. This, for many who live in Northwest Indiana (NWI), will be a new concept.
Like most Rust Belt cities and regions, MC and NWI are behind the cultural-political curve. However, that doesn’t mean people who live in our region are stupid or uninterested in politics and culture – quite the opposite.
Our region gets a bad wrap for all the wrong reasons. It’s not our fault that industrial capitalists sent the jobs overseas. It’s not our fault automation ravaged the workplace and industrial pollution ravaged our bodies and the living world. Those are systemic problems, not individual ones. We should always remember that.
Our region, our people and the natural world deserve better. And we will create something better. That’s the goal of our space. For now, our space will be called P.A.R.C. – Politics, Art, Roots, and Culture. Our address is 1713 Franklin St., Michigan City, Indiana 46360. So, in the short-term, our name will be P.A.R.C. @ 1713.
On April 1, 2017, our IndieGoGo campaign will kick-off. We hope to raise $7,500, but we probably need closer to $10,000. Because our building is over 100 years old, we’re not required to create a handicap staircase or bathroom. Yet, that’s unacceptable because we want our building and space to be accessible to everyone, regardless of “ability” and so forth. So, installing a handicap accessible bathroom will be an initial challenge, but one that can be overcome with the proper support.
Otherwise, Sergio and I are ready to rock and roll. We’ve traveled from India and Europe to Australia, Ukraine and everywhere you can imagine within the U.S. in search of vibrant, creative and interesting political and cultural spaces. We aim to utilize our collective knowledge and experiences and create what we see lacking on the left: alternative spaces where people can create independent organizations and movements.
Vincent Emanuele is a writer, activist and radio host who lives and works in Michigan City, Indiana. He’s a member of Veterans for Peace and the National Writers Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org