Often community media theorists (myself included) talk about community media itself as a site of the public sphere acting as an agent in the mediation of dominant cultural messages. Talked about as Community Media projects as the site through which dominant messages are filtered and deconstructed, and then re-represented as an alternative produced message the other end of the project. But what of the actual physical sites in communities that have been present as social glue long before the (digital) community media intervention arrived? (Think about churches, pubs, butchers, parks, banks, post offices, cafes, shops, etc.) How do they feature as mediators for communities to filter dominant messages and meanings for the area’s citizens’?
It was these kinds of public (although male dominated) places that Jürgen Habermas was talking about when he identified sites of of the public sphere, and I’ve been kind of forced to reflect on this recently with 2 events happening in my own life. One is the closing down of a local pub in my home town (I don’t live there anymore), and the other is the closing down of my parents’ church that they have attended for over 40 years.
Last night I attended the closing down of a local pub that has served the African Caribbean community in Bath, England since the 1960’s, when many first came to this country, (often faced with a hostile reception by the ‘hosts’). Gentrification of the area is one of the reasons blamed for the pub being sold by the brewery. Obviously not everyone in the community went to the pub, but for those that did it became an important social venue to play games together such as dominoes and pool, to listen to traditional and new music from their homelands, and also to talk to each other about the issues of the day – trade gossip, talk politics, share news.
There is no doubt that this pub acted as a public sphere for this community. Consensus has been built, campaigns argued, events promoted, topical issues debated, ideas generated and whole host of other socio/political/economic and cultural ‘events’ have taken place there, (mostly positive, but always some negative things have happened as well).
With the closing of the pub this energy and platform for debate will be dissipated and dispersed, and the public spheres for the next generations growing in this area will be very different from those that have gone before. But such changes need not always be lamented, as I feel such cultural changes can also be good for the dynamics of an area – challenging yes – but it also provides an opportunity and space for the younger generations to build their physical spaces and also to explore new territories. There is no doubt still that the loss of the pub will be a big hole in the heart of the community.
The second similar event happening in my life is the closing of the church I attended growing up, and where my parents have been members of the congregation since the 1960s, (they went to church and never ever went to the pub!). My family were the only black family to attend the church. The church has been there for over 100 years serving the local Methodist worshippers and wider community. It is now closing to be sold and turned into private living accomodation. The church became too difficult to be used by the increasingly elderly congregation, and they are now going to merge with another church in a different area.
I must point out at this stage that my house and this church were on the opposite sides of the city to the pub and the area that is known locally as the ‘black area’. But that said, the city of Bath is so small that it is all very close-knit anyway and no barriers where people live – as everyone knew each other anyway. As evidence of the slippery multicultural nature of the city, see this photo of a Caribbean evening at the church held two years ago, notice the colour of the heads of the congregation listening to the steel band.
I wouldn’t say I have ever heard any really overtly radical or political firebrand sermons from the church, which Methodist history has a reputation of, but absolutely churches are sites of discussion, campaigning, socialising and trying to make sense of topical events, the same as a pub is a conduit for these activities but in a more formal way.
Both the pub and the church act as mediators and producers of messages, the same as a community media project. Authors will be the ones with the tools or production (the ones with the most central or loudest/most persistent voices), participation is encouraged (volunteering in the church or socialising in the pub), and productions will be made (new opinions/insights formed and/or old opinions validated). Both spheres will have the leaders, participants and audiences.
With the loss of these two institutions that everyone thought were permanent fixtures that would out live any of us, it is a timely reminder of what community media actually is and what is should be doing, and also what it may become unless projects stay relevant and empowered by the communties they serve.