What do ASU students have in common with elderly Koreans?

northfeltAs reported in The New York Times, a group of elderly Koreans have been meeting at a McDonald's in Flushing, Queens, in New York. These old folks meet in this McDonald's and sit for hours on end after buying coffee for $1.09. How quaint, right?

Not according to McDonald's. The franchise threatened to kick out the geriatrics after a few incidents involving angry customers who wanted to enjoy their "delicious" food in the restaurant.

These probable grandparents created a space that reflected their social environment. Their physical environment, the nearby church community center housed in a basement, completely crushed their social environment. It was unable to physically meet their needs as a social community. I identify with their plight. The physical dynamics of the metro area of Phoenix and ASU are simply not conducive to my needs as a part of a social group. Unfortunately, I don't really like McDonald's, and I doubt I could drink an entire cup of coffee from the golden arches.

To create a physical representation of your social environment in Phoenix, you have to go and buy a consumable good, much like in Flushing. This demand of a social environment confines us to a material existence. There are at least 25 malls in the metro area, and these are the closest we have to a setting that can breed community.

One alternative, bars, also demand a consumer. Restaurants and bars are a sad place to create a community and don't clearly represent the rich social culture that we could have in Phoenix.

What we need are more community spaces not based exclusively in the individual. My house, my car, my cubicle and my room. It seems like there are no public spaces that we can come together as a community in these cities that surround Tempe. This is probably because we have a rotten urban plan in our cities. We don't, on a municipal level, encourage places to meet and spontaneously create social groups.

If you're like me and live on campus, you live in a small area that is oppressive in its organization. You could call ASU a version of the metropolis that surrounds it. There's the Memorial Union, a mall, that, for the same reasons above, cannot foster community that we need.

There's Hayden Library, exclusively the purview of shushing and an unidentifiable musky smell. You can't create a community in such a structured area.

My biggest beef with ASU's lack of community-oriented space is Paseo Exchange on Paseo del Saber. It's corporate, but with half the shops open, mind you, it's basically a glorified alleyway. Vista del Sol's website says, "Paseo Exchange is your one-stop shop..."

Recently, I heard music over the speakers on Paseo del Saber and it transformed the walkway into just another mall. While music encourages community spaces, that's not what our physical communities should try and foster — it just comes off as contrived and plastic. We need to come together with the idea that our public spaces are for public use and must reflect the kind of community we're trying to build.

Clearly, this place was not designed for people to hang out, despite the welcoming tables and palm trees. It's a place for people to go and buy things. No, purchasing isn't inherently bad. It's just that we end up with public space dedicated exclusively to consumption. There's more to life than that.

When the music came on, I felt as though I had no room, no space outside to gather and see people that I could, like the elderly Korean people, meet and talk, read or simply sit without being stressed out and pressured to act.

It seems ASU's Tempe campus is constantly demanding something of me; be it buying, eating or learning. There's simply no place to manifest a social environment.

So, where does that leave us? We need a community space that is exclusively (gasp) nonprofit. By dedicating ourselves to fostering a community, we can escape this "for the people" idea that malls foster and instead become "by the people." Without a physical space, we are driven into a consumer social structure or online.

Reach the columnist at pnorthfe@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @peternorthfelt

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