In Search of ‘the Commons’ in Modern America

My Rhode Island Town Has Had a Communal Green Since 1694, but Today’s Public Spaces Are Complicated and Splintered

In Search of ‘the Commons’ in Modern America | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

This 2007 photograph of Gray’s general store, located in Little Compton, Rhode Island, was built the year before George Washington was sworn in as the nation's first president. The store closed in 2012 after the owner passed away. Courtesy of Stephan Savoia/Associated Press.

What It Means to Be American “The commons” is a concept, an ideal. The commons are property we all share, property that’s owned not by any one person or group, but that’s held—well, in common. It also has a distinct history in the U.S., harking back to early American towns having an actual commons, an undivided piece of land owned jointly by all the residents of a town. It was a place where all could graze their cattle, bury their dead, and meet for church and to make community decisions.

Today, the concept of the commons is under threat in a country that has become more focused on individual rights than on collective ones. We hear more about the “tragedy of the commons”—the economist’s phrase for what happens to jointly held resources like clean water or air when everyone acts in their own self-interest—than about the value of the commons.

To understand the long history of the commons in American life, I went looking for it. Little Compton, Rhode Island, where I live, has an actual, physical commons. The town green is officially “the Commons.”

Little Compton was originally part of the Plymouth Colony, which designed towns to include a space for the government and church in the center of things, embracing the idea of the commons both as civic space and as a way of governing. (This sets Little Compton apart from most Rhode Island towns, which lack town greens, and opposed established churches.)

When Little Compton was laid out in the late 17th century, each purchase from the Sakonnet people was divided among the 29 “First Proprietors,” men from Plymouth Colony who had been promised land on the frontier. An additional equal section was set aside for “Minister,” land to be rented or sold to support the church.

And then a plot of land in the center of town, about 20 acres, was set aside for the church and for government offices, a common burial ground, a pound for wandering animals, and space for the drilling of militia.

This plot was called the Commons from the start. In 1694 the town erected a building to be used as a combined town hall and church, tavern and poor house. It was a place for community in a community that still owned much in common and made decisions as a group. (Not an inclusive group, though: the town’s Native population, its enslaved and free African-Americans, and women were not present at the town meetings.) Among the early decisions at the town hall: the laying out of roads, apportioning the town’s allotment of salt, and the division of the town’s woods.

Today, the concept of the commons is under threat in a country that has become more focused on individual rights than on collective ones.

Ideas about community and what was properly owned in common changed dramatically over the following decades. In 1724 a new church, separate from the Town Hall, was built on the Commons, the beginning of the separation of church and state.

By the end of the 19th century, these official structures were joined by new types of semipublic buildings, fraternal organizations for narrower slices of community. The Grange was a gathering place for farmers, providing education and lobbying for their interests. The Odd Fellows Hall offered fellowship and opportunities for community service. The government expanded too: The poor house had moved, but now there was a school and a hearse house, for the shared, town-owned hearse. There were two churches, a Methodist church joining the Congregational one. There were also more spaces that were privately owned but publicly accessible, including a general store and shops. The federal government was represented by a post office, established in 1834. Its official address was “Commons, Rhode Island.” It was still a commons, but one that had been subdivided in new ways.

I visit the Commons fairly frequently, both public and private sides, to buy a dump permit from the town hall, attend an event at the Community Center (in the old Grange Hall), visit the library, or eat at Commons Lunch. When last I visited, I took a good look at just what was common—what was still public—about the Commons today. What does commons mean, in our era of privatization?

There’s still much about the Commons that is held in common. The property is still owned by the town, except for the plot where the church stands, which is now owned by the church. There are government institutions: the town hall, school, and post office. Much of the land is occupied by the town burying ground, which also includes the town’s war memorials. All of this reflects, in a modern way, that sense of shared purpose that goes back to the Plymouth Colony.

Where that starts to change is in the new additions to the public domain. The Commons has been extended to include a large area for public recreation, including a soccer field, tennis courts, and playgrounds. These are on town-owned land and are maintained by the town government. But, as with so many recent public amenities, these facilities are actually public-private partnerships, dependent on donated funds and volunteer labor for construction.

The town library, on the other side of the Commons, is another example of this public-private duality. It’s actually the Brownell Library, bequeathed to the “people of Little Compton” by Pardon Brownell, a “generous citizen, whose ancestral roots are deeply fastened in the community,” in 1921. (The existing town library was combined with it 40 years later.) The Brownell Trust maintains the building; taxpayers fund staffing, books, and supplies; and a separate nonprofit group supports programs.

This public-private framework means that decisions about community are made by segments of the community, those who care most, or have the time or funds to support their interests, and not by the town as a whole. Many of the organizations that support community life are nonprofits. They might receive a small amount of government support, but also do a great deal of private fundraising.

The Village Improvement Society, just off the Commons, was founded in 1914 by Georgiana Bowen Withington, a wealthy summer resident, to help the town “develop along the lines so carefully drawn by the wise first settlers.” It was not to be a charity, but “an effort to stimulate the people to get for themselves the good things of life,” established by “leading citizens” but open to all. The Community Center, established in 1993 to provide “educational, social, and cultural programming for the enrichment of the community,” fundraises to support after-school activities, a summer camp, and other programs. There’s a Senior Citizens Center, sharing the building with the Grange.

Does the Commons still serve as a commons? I think it does. It’s still the place for official government work: elections, town meetings, and committee meetings. It’s where citizens go to interact with town offices, or attend the annual town meeting. It’s the place for other kinds of community, too, both the kind supported by nonprofits and those that form at restaurants and coffee shops. It also serves as the location for grassroots politics: the Sakonnet Peace Alliance has held vigils in “peaceful witness against war and violence” at the Commons every Sunday since 2003. The Commons, as community space, still does important work.

There are also other common spaces, beyond the Commons, in my town, and I set out to visit them all to see if their history might help explain the changing meaning of commons.

Public access to the shore is a hot issue in any seaside town, and it’s been contentious in Little Compton since its founding. That first division of land included a very small lot for a “herring ware,” a commonly owned stone structure for catching fish when they ran in the spring. And the shores of the rivers and ocean that bound Little Compton would have been public, for fishing—that was in Rhode Island’s Royal Charter. Locating the shoreline, and determining what activities were allowed, has been fought in courts for centuries.

In 1796, the town arranged with a major landowner to secure a new common space. In exchange for a road to his farm at the harbor, William Rotch granted town residents access to the harbor, agreeing to let them collect sand and seaweed, build wharfs, and keep boats there. Through the farm and road have gone through many changes of ownership, and many legal battles, the public access remains. Today, the southernmost part of that property is called Lloyd’s Beach, and a sign grudgingly allows town residents to enjoy it. A guard is posted in the summer, to keep out-of-towners out. The citizens of 1796 would no doubt be pleased that public access remains, but never could have foreseen the new uses and meanings the Commons they established would take.

These beaches, these parks, and even that old burying ground on the Commons, once the sturdy embodiment of our collective ideals, now feel as fragile as the concept itself.

The Sakonnet River, which borders Little Compton on the west, tells another story through two public access points to its waters, Town Way and Taylor’s Lane. These were once points where ferries provided access to Newport, across the river. Roads that once led to wharves became roads to access the rocky shore for fishing and swimming. These are unmarked and hard to discover. They aren’t secret, exactly, though maybe folks are happy if people who don’t already know about them don’t find out. Small towns can be like that.

Another point of access to the shore introduces a new era of the Commons: public spaces donated to the town by wealthy residents. In 1949 Hester Simmons willed Town Landing, a lovely, if rocky, oceanfront property, to the town. (Rumor has it that she did so to spite a neighbor.) It was one of several gifts the town received at midcentury from wealthy residents. Elizabeth Mason Lloyd offered Wilbour Woods, a park. Sophie Wheeler gave the town a ball field in the village of Adamsville. These philanthropists assumed that the town was the proper owner of property held for the public. The town had to promise to care for the property—something that it has struggled to do in recent years. The publicly owned commons only works if the town has the will, and the finances, to support it.

Perhaps that is why local residents in recent years have turned to more private ways of creating public lands. The Sakonnet Preservation Association, a private, nonprofit land trust, was founded in 1972 to “promote the preservation of natural resources in the Town of Little Compton, including water resources, marshland, swamps, woodland and open spaces.” It receives property or a conservation easement by gift and protects it from development. A few properties are public, open to hikers and nature lovers; most are closed to the public, conserving properties of environmental interest, or viewsheds, sometimes to the benefit of those who donated them. The Nature Conservancy, a national organization, also holds lands and easements in town, including two of the most used “public” parks in town.

Land trusts are private solutions to a public concern, but they come with public costs: the tax deductions for donations, and the removal of land from the tax rolls. And, of course, there was no “commons” in the decision-making. Decisions about which land to preserve has been privatized—given to the donating landowners and the associations who accepted their gifts. These undeveloped properties appear to be commons, but they are free of the messy local democracy and taxes that actually bind commons and community together. They’re a privatized commons.

A park just down the street from my house with the ungainly name of the Simmons Mill Pond Management Area suggests that there’s still a role for government to play in creating public space. State owned, the area encompasses some 500 acres of woods that are managed by the Department of Environmental Management for hunting and fishing. A public-private partnership made the purchase possible in 1995; a major local foundation, the Champlin Foundation, provided some of the funding. On the other side of town, there’s another state property, with a boat ramp into the harbor—done in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy. Both of these projects also received federal funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program–supported by a special tax on motorboat fuel and fishing and hunting equipment. Public, but a narrow slice of public. The Commons is increasingly complicated, splintered.

My visits to these commons gave me a new appreciation for my town. Spending time in all of these various public spaces made the town feel like it was home in a way it hadn’t before. Learning the history of those places helped me understand something important about what it means to belong. I appreciated both the public and private groups and the individuals who made possible these public and natural spaces for me to enjoy. But the visits also made me worry about the changing meaning of commons, privatization, and the lack of transparency in decision-making, as well as the lack of government support for places so important to creating community. These beaches, these parks, and even that old burying ground on the Commons, once the sturdy embodiment of our collective ideals, now feel as fragile as the concept itself.


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