I am sitting in Alternative Grounds, which by now everyone knows is my favourite cafe. Between conversations I’m thinking about how it attracts people inclined toward activism. It’s not surprising, as the café is owned by a Fair Trade activist, Linda Burnside. I think much of her value system is expressed unconsciously in the décor: ‘hot’, clashing colours; old vintage kitchen tables from the fifties; promotion of environmentally-friendly and Fairtrade goods. A generally unpretentious, friendly atmosphere.
Linda supports and enables community-conscious events, social change, people ‘in need’ and various consciousness-raising efforts. She supports activism in general by supporting other peoples’ fund-raising events throughout the year.
I do believe people are unconsciously attracted to certain environments by subtle clues: you walk into a café and see men in white shirts sitting alone, identical booths in black and white, chrome and glass everywhere, framed black and white prints on the walls. An atmosphere. Next door another café – this one with clusters of two or three people chatting, others moving from one table to another, odds-and-ends decoration, a slightly chaotic atmosphere. Depending on who we are, and our mood, we’ll be strongly drawn to one, but not the other.
In the first environment, I would not expect a lot of talk. I would expect to sit and read a Globe and Mail, not daydream or dawdle, and move on out. In the second, I would be more inclined to sit and watch people, expecting them to be ‘different’. I might even anticipate the possibility of a meaningful chat. A sense of ‘values’, ‘what really matters’, permeates the atmosphere.
That’s what I’d anticipate at Alternative Grounds. And for the most part, that is what happens. But there among the individualists, the eccentrics, the thinkers and activists, are some “ordinary” people. They want to talk about the stock market, sports, popular TV programs. They don’t operate in the world of ideas, theories, or dreams of change. But they feel good there too – probably because they feel accepted as they are.
In the early years, dogs were welcome there. It wasn’t legal, but it was just that kind of place. I had thought that everyone loved that little something extra that dogs provide (says me!), but someone reported it, and dogs were no more. One day I bumped into a former ‘regular’, and was told in no uncertain terms that he had thought it was disgusting to have dogs. He was now a regular at a ‘very New York, glass-and-chrome’ café he found ‘cleaner’. To each his own.
Neighbourhoods are like this too. And people are attracted to them much the way they are attracted to cafes and other environments.
But there are those who neither sense environments intuitively – nor care. They simply arrive, impose, and assume that whatever they bring will be welcome and appreciated – perhaps even needed. They do not pause to assess, to hear what is already happening, to learn what people care about. They arrive, including in neighbourhoods. They bring their values, their attitudes and beliefs, decide things are not okay as they are, act, lead, bring change. Another side of activism. Yin and yang. Twas ever thus.