Botellóns, Malls & Town Square Culture
Europe's tradition of drinking in the street is the great equalizer in local communities
Cafe Society is Maxwell Social’s Whenever-I-Have-The-Time-To-Write magazine on the intersection of community, society, web3, F&B and more — an anthropological look at the underpinnings of what makes the world tick and how tech is changing it, written by David Litwak (@dlitwak) and the Maxwell team. Maxwell is building a new type of social club in Tribeca, check out the photos on Instagram.
I'm in Milan right now for the Salone Del Mobile, one of the world's biggest furniture conferences, meeting our build out partners for Maxwell Tribeca. Last night was the first night I didn't have any events so I decided to spend it strolling around Milan and checking out a few of the less touristy neighborhoods.
Now this is far from my first time in Europe but a two year pandemic made me forget how much of European social life is on the streets — every few blocks I'd come across a town square with a restaurant or little bar on the corner and a hundred or so young people out into the square drinking, sitting on bike racks and fountain-side. In the areas where there were lots of space the music was playing louder but when it was close to residences people were considerate.
I even walked past a group heading a soccer ball while they drank in front of a church.
In Spain this kind of social gathering is called a Botellón — drinking in town squares or on street corners before heading out to the nightclub, and versions of it are widespread around Europe. I was struck with how you never see this in America — we have no shared nighttime social spaces, and as we do most of our socialization at night, that means we have no public shared social spaces at all.
We’ve regulated the community out of our communities and decided to outsource that service to what amounts to gated communities — expensive bars & restaurants where you pay the toll in the form of a craft cocktail, meal and service.
The closest thing we’ve had in America to this type of town square culture is The Mall. The Mall is one of the only social spots that serves as a capitalist American version of the town square until you’re old enough to want to drink and age out.
I imagine Europeans watching American movies might have been perplexed as to why we actively hang out in the same place where we buy things — in front of the Radio Shack around the corner from Wetzel’s Pretzels is not exactly picturesque compared to the banks of the Seine.
But it somewhat fits in with our country’s obsession with privatization over collectivization, we build highways for private cars instead of public transit, incentivizing large private homes with private yards instead of parks and we want private healthcare.
And by privatizing our social life we’ve set a minimum threshold to participate in it: botellóns are specifically attractive to those demographics that can’t afford expensive cocktails. They are the great equalizer — if being part of a friend group literally means you just have to show up with a bottle of cheap wine and join your friends outside free of charge, no one is priced out.
I recognize these egalitarian reflections are somewhat ironic coming from the guy who is starting a “private club” (we prefer “local social club”) but in our defense:
Maxwell isn’t trying to solve EVERY problem with our communities — changes to urban planning and paternalistic regulations can help too. We believe that local social clubs will be one of MANY things that help rebuild our local neighborhoods.
The Maxwell model, the model that old school local social clubs from your grandfather’s Italian American club to the hundreds of ethnic cycling clubs that once existed in NYC, actually DOES help solve this accessibility problem.
By restricting spaces to trusted members and empowering them to fund and run their own spots we’ve lowered staff costs by 5x, upped utilization per square footage by 50% and are able to pick real estate 30% below market. Accessible to everyone? No. But we believe our model is actually 10x more affordable and so is, counterintuitively perhaps, making true community more accessible to more people. For the price of a big night out at a bar you can come to your Maxwell every weekend for a couple months.
Maxwell is trying to recreate some of the trust that allow these town square dynamics to exist — tight curation builds trust and allows smaller shared nighttime social spaces, mini town squares, to thrive.
I don’t see America suddenly legalizing street drinking but I found myself asking even if we loosened up the laws, where would people hang out — every 3-4 blocks in Europe is a little town square-like area, while we have Avenues that stretch for days in comparably boring grid formats. While American cities do have our fair share of parks, our urban planning seems to subtly acknowledge the reality that compared to Europe, we have more limited use cases for our public spaces.
But maybe I’m underestimating our will to find a cheap drink and if urban alcohol consumption was ever legalized Washington Square Park and Central Park would be non-stop party zones.
David (@dlitwak), Kyle, Joelle