The Omni Commons is probably the most exciting thing happening in Oakland right now, and it hasn’t even opened yet.

The simplest explanation of it: Omni Commons is an enormous old building in Temescal which is being renovated by hackers, activists, feminists, scientists, artists, educators and others who want to create a free space for building community, supporting local projects, sharing resources, hosting events, and teaching classes — but it is also much more than that.

Strictly speaking, the Omni Commons is not yet ready for the general public. Its rooms are often cluttered with the materials of renovations, and its members are always busy unpacking, installing and rearranging their digs, but in spite of the chaos they have a standing invitation for the community to come learn more about the project and, if inclined, join the discussions or help with renovations.

So consider this a preview of what is to come, and glimpse at the challenges of getting there.

Sudo Room and Counter Culture Labs are setting up in what used to be a bocce court.

4799 Shattuck Ave.

The front door, 2014

The building sits on the dead-end side of 48th St. and Shattuck, somewhat hidden from the hustle and bustle of Telegraph. From the outside, the building itself is rather shy, with blue and white stucco walls, a red clay-tile roof and giant juniper bushes. But inside, the 22,000-square-foot space is a welcoming maze of rooms, staircases, mezzanines and more rooms, and more staircases.

The Ligure Club, 1939

It first opened in 1934 as The Ligure Club, a meeting hall for Italian families in the Temescal neighborhood affiliated with the Oakland Scavenger Association, the local trash collector’s corporation.  The Ligure club closed in 1981, and reopened in 1982 as The White House, a community center of sorts.   It was eventually re-purposed as a music venue in 1986, dubbed “The Omni”, and for seven righteous years the likes of Gwar, Motörhead, Neil Young and the Red Hot Chili Peppers played the ballroom, until noise complaints shut the scene down.

The New Omni Commons.

There are now approximately 13 independent collectives of various sizes and diverse interests working out of the Omni Commons space.

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Besides endless bookshelves and meeting spaces, the basement also has a complete letterpress setup.

La Commune is turning the front room into a bookstore and cafe, and Food Not Bombs is renovating the kitchen to continue its 23 years of feeding anyone who’s hungry.

The Sudo Room and Counter Culture Labs share a massive space that was once bocce courts, and is now a hackerspace and bio lab.

The poetry publishers Timeless, Infinite Light and the wellness collective Backspace, will be setting up on the second floor, while Material Print Machine runs a letterpress/book art studio in the basement, and Black Hole sets up a film-making collective.

The rest of the collectives, including the Bay Area Public School, Peak Agency and CAMO, will have little trouble sharing the enormous remainder of common space, which includes the ballroom, parts of the second floor and most of the basement.layout

What makes Omni extraordinary

The welcome table is always covered with communiques and event flyers.

Upon visiting the space you will immediately grasp its potential, and after talking with the members you will feel their excitement, but it takes time to understand what truly makes the Omni project so unique, in part because there is always more to it. There are approximately a ba-zillion subprojects: they are coding a mesh network, processing celluloid film, making kombucha, teaching language classes, creating a new vegan cheese, hacking yoga, work-shopping cryptography, publishing local poets, cooking community meals.

On their own these would just be great projects, like so many other great projects in Oakland. It is the ideas and methods behind the projects that make the Omni Commons truly unique.

 

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Signs on the Sudo Mesh server reads: “do NOT hack,” but the mixing equipment and the shelves filled with other components have no such sign.

Everything that gets done at Omni is a decentralized, non-hierarchical, consensus-based adventure. Per the Omni founding document, each collective has one voting delegate, part of a council whose “only and sole point is to reach consensus on the use of the space, how to pay bills, resolve any conflicts between the groups in the space, interface with the state, banks, authorities and map out the logistical dissemination of the collective work needed to maintain the space as a commons open to the surrounding community: That’s it. ” Seems like plenty.

In addition to the delegates, there are several working groups that focus on specific issues, such as “challenging dominant cultures” and “finances” (a real challenge when you are working on an anti-capitalist, commoning project — yay crowdfunding). Each of the member collectives also has its own unique organizational structure where they define their goals and membership criteria. No two collectives are run the same way — having different missions, methods, sizes and support bases, each collective is its own microcosm of consensus complexities.

In balance to these consensus-processes is the Do-ocracy, which is essentially an ideal of being transparent about your projects, accountable for your decisions, and willing to work through the governance structure when there’s conflict. As fellow SF hackerspace Noisebridge defines it: “Do-ocracy: If you want something done, do it, but remember to be excellent to each other when doing so.”

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Citizen science: microbial “ghost hearts,” hacking vegan cheese recipes, showing people their own DNA.

 

The other half of it

The complexity of orchestrating the Omni project with a decentralized governance structure is one-half of what defines the Omni Commons project.

The other half is the commitment to “a radical commoning of space and resources” —the goal of one day purchasing the building and converting it to an ownerless space for community building and resource sharing. While that goal may be a long way off, the logic behind it permeates every discussion and decision made at Omni.

Classes, events and workshops are all free, or will be when the space is open. The members are all volunteers, or, as with La Commune Bookstore & Cafe, worker-owned cooperatives. As a venue for conferences and events, Omni will be rented on a sliding scale in order to ensure the mission of solidarity. And their safer space policy is designed to keep Omni inclusive to all people while working through any conflicts with restorative-justice methods.

This mission of commoning is the foundation that supports and directs the entire chaotic project. At heart, it is the certainty that the “value” of Omni Commons will be so much greater than anything money could ever measure.

Getting involved

In every way it can be said the Omni Commons project is vast, unruly, radical and incomplete. It changes as it moves, constantly negotiating the balance between its principles and its practices. It can be a place filled with energy and ambition, but can also turn confusing, demanding, humbling as the collectives and the members try to work out regulations, obligations, priorities and next steps.

Ultimately it is the challenge of living up to these ideals that fills the Omni with the excitement and dedication that is tangible in every room. It is the hard work done the right way that makes this project exceptional.

As Scott Nanos of member collective Bay Area Public School put it, “No idea is anyone’s, no solution is anyone’s; if everyone contributes then that solution is likely best. The flip side being that people who aren’t used to a culture of equal responsibility may not feel it.”

Learn more about Omni Commons at their website, and if you are interested in getting involved check out the Omni calendar, the Sudo Room calendar, or the Bay Area Public School’s calendar.

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Just another photo of the beautiful space and its skylights, this one from the mezzanine. Do you feel it?

 

 

 

About The Author

Eric is a freelance writer who covers Oakland's thriving New Economy movement, as well as local culture, community projects, and letters. As graduate of UC Santa Cruz he is essentially a socialist, but what does that even mean anymore, really? As a proud Oakland transplant from the PNW, Eric sees his work at Oakland Local as a small part of Oakland's battle to keep its identity, support all its peoples, and be prospering without plundering.

2 Responses

  1. Kate

    greatvarticle, but material print machine is a letterpress/offset print and book art studio

    Reply

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