Rhizome: A Grassroots Conspiracy
Article by Scott Uzelman
Photos by Jason Vanderhill
Unbeknownst to most Vancouverites, for two months this spring a “commonist” conspiracy brewed at a small restaurant in Mount Pleasant. A group of self-proclaimed “commoners” met to discuss the potential of collectively-managed spaces and resources to solve the many social, political, and environmental problems facing humanity.
This motley group dared consider “commons” of many sorts: spaces, food, media, knowledge, transportation, etc. They also conspired to consider the many acts of “enclosure” that they claim privatize, dismantle or otherwise destroy the “commons.” And they did all this with the explicit approval of the restaurant’s owners. The shocking fact that one of the leading conspirators is herself a co-owner of Rhizome leads the author to ask just what kind of front has been set up here to harbour the commonists in our midst.
A covert interrogation of Lisa Moore revealed that since establishing Rhizome in 2006 with her partner Vinetta Lenavat, Rhizome has functioned as a “hybrid space” (as Moore puts it). A small business at first glance, but a closer inspection reveals that the restaurant serves numerous social, cultural, and political functions. The restaurant has hosted many workshops, talks, and forums on all manner of issue but with a special focus on “social justice work”. It has also been home to social events, music performances, film and video screenings, and its walls prominently display the work of local artists. And on any given evening, the casual visitor can spy small groups huddled together having “meetings” (unknown conspiracies, no doubt!). More brazenly, the restaurant boasts of a meeting room at the front of the café which can host cabals of over 20 people.
Having spent a bit of time in this “hybrid space”, the question occurs just what is it that inspires such nice people to support overtly commonist causes? While Lenavat had always dreamt of creating her own community space, the thought really hadn’t occurred to Moore. Before coming to Canada, she worked as an immigrants’ rights activist in San Francisco. Having left a home, a community, and a movement behind, Moore found herself feeling isolated. Rhizome, and the intense work of planning and running the endeavor, became a means re-creating these things.
Moore reveals that it is precisely this desire for connection and community that inspired the name Rhizome. Referring to the network root systems of some plants like bamboo or ginger that grow horizontally just below the surface throwing up seemingly unrelated shoots in unpredictable ways, the metaphor invokes the often unseen connections that exist between individuals. “It is a metaphor that brings people together,” claims Moore, “because it is understandable to people from a variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds.
It occurs at this moment that perhaps we are in fact dealing with a shrewd marketing ploy designed to lure Vancouver’s commonists and commonist sympathizers into a wholesome profit-making venture. But just to be certain Moore is confronted with the all important question: is Rhizome now, or has it ever been, commonist in nature? Again she evades the question by raising the idea of hybridity. “Rhizome is a hybrid space. I like to think of it as a commons in that it is a community resource, one that people really have taken ownership of through their desire to support, sustain, and really participate in the project. But ultimately are the legal owners who have to pay business loans, bills, our employees and ourselves, come up with licenses, and fulfill all the other responsibilities and obligations that ownership ultimately entails.”
Aha! So it is a wholesome entrepreneurial venture after all. However, Moore continues: “We have to conduct impure experiments in an impure system. Right now we’re trying to strike a balance between serving affordable, locally grown food – organic when possible – and paying ourselves and our employees a living wage. But it’s precisely this impurity that makes Rhizome accessible to such a diverse community.”
When pushed to clarify what these “impure experiments” might be Moore explains: “we are attempting to challenge the idea that restaurants are machines that operate with clock-like precision to efficiently serve faceless customers. We want to adopt a more humanizing approach to food and community that is not focused solely on the exchange of money for goods and services but instead to collectively build a community resource, a commons of sorts.” Moore goes on to suggest that like all commons Rhizome is regulated according to specific values. In Rhizome’s case these are values connected with social justice. “So, on the one hand we try to mix lower and higher priced items on our menu so that we can draw on different capacities to pay. On the other hand, our space is available to community groups on a “pay-what-you-feel” basis that makes it more accessible to a variety of groups but still provides the opportunity for them to recognize operation costs.” But Moore admits that the space is not open to just anyone: “although anyone can submit a proposal to use the space we evaluate the applications to make sure there is a good match between their values and our own.” She stresses, however, that “we are creating a space that is shared by a lot of different groups that cross all kinds of divides of age, sexuality, ethnicity, class, etc—as well as working on a really wide range of issues. We’re working to create a space where people feel at home, where all aspects of people’s identity are valued.”
It is when Moore begins to discuss, of all things, lentil stew that the full extent of the commonist conspiracy Rhizome represents is revealed. To mark their first anniversary, Rhizome extended their “pay-what-you-feel” system to a new menu item, a delicious lentil stew. The stew is not priced in the traditional sense but instead customers are asked to read a brief statement regarding the nature of the experiment before deciding what they feel the food is worth, what the value of the space is, how much they are able to pay, and how their decision contributes to the ability of others to eat at Rhizome. Moore explains that it is not a charity model but rather a way of “eating with dignity. It’s a system of shared responsibility and respect for each other, one that recognizes differences in income as well as the necessity healthy food for all.” When asked what could possibly motivate people to offer a fair price in exchange, Moore again insists that people want to support Rhizome and the principles that inform it. “But more importantly, people are generous in paying because they want to support other people’s ability to eat here. It’s a unique opportunity for everyone to take a concrete action toward making this a real commons for all, not just for those who can pay a certain amount to eat.”
As if this challenge to the sacred laws of the market weren’t enough, there are plans in the works to add a new “pay as you feel” item to the menu to mark their second anniversary. “In fact,” Moore continues, “we are always exploring ways to expand the idea. This is one small step towards experimenting with a less commodified relationship to food and to each other.” She also admits that they have also been brainstorming other ideas for making Rhizome less market dependent. For instance, they have considered the idea of bartering for local food produced in backyard and community gardens as a way of creating some level of autonomy from unpredictable markets. “We’re going to continue with these kinds of ‘impure experiments’ to see what’s possible. You never know, we might be doing something completely different in a year or so.”
Concerned citizens can investigate this commonist conspiracy for themselves at 317 East Broadway, Vancouver (http://www.rhizomecafe.ca/
Scott Uzelman is a commoner and lounger who, in his spare time, is completing a PhD and teaching at various universities.