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Jan 21, 21

Infrastructure for a Life in Common: An Interview with Woodbine

Interview with the autonomous anti-capitalist space Woodbine out of so-called New York about building infrastructure in the face of COVID-19 and beyond.

In the last few months Woodbine was contacted by friends from Rome, Minneapolis, Prague, and Berlin, all of whom wanted to talk about our shared organizing experiences, the meaning of mutual aid, and running a space amidst a pandemic. We want to publish in English some of our answers below, to broaden these discussions, and hopefully hear from additional fellow-travelers.

What is the Woodbine project, what would you say were your major milestones?

Woodbine is an experiment to build something in common that is more than the sum of its parts; to collectively manage a space that combines people and practices, that engages in both daily life and radical politics equally. We decided to create something real that could be wholly our own, that we would be proud of, that could serve as a potential model or seed of an organizational form, that could be adapted to other cities and contexts. Our movement needs material and historical examples we can refer to, positive horizons that we can look and point to, to demonstrate–even in a small, modest, humble way–the lives we want to live together. We realized we couldn’t just protest and demonstrate against all the things we didn’t like in the world, that this no longer felt fulfilling, sustainable, or strategic. We’ve tried to orient ourselves towards building and maintaining an infrastructure for a life in common that is desirable, joinable, and growable. To maintain a non-commercial, non-institutional space in New York City for the last 7 years has already been a significant accomplishment, and this involved dozens of people collaborating to keep it going, with thousands having passed through Woodbine’s doors. It remains our starting point and foundation.

In December of 2013 a group of people rented and renovated a cheap, long-vacant space, located on a fairly quiet street. We met each other in protest movements, at film screenings, while skateboarding, at school, etc. We decided to root our lives together in a neighborhood in Queens, to run an experimental hub which would anchor a new way of orienting ourselves politically. This took place in the immediate aftermath of Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy in 2011-2, but more broadly we were politicized through the anti-globalization and anti-war movements of the 2000s, we lived through 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, and we were ready to try something new. Woodbine opened to the public in January 2014 with a 3-part lecture series using the framework of the Anthropocene to reframe the political, social, spiritual, and ethical questions of the time. That May we started hosting weekly Sunday dinners, which continued for six straight years until they were interrupted by Covid. In January of 2015 we helped build and open a bookstore and cafe, Topos, around the corner from our space. That spring we started a community garden in a vacant lot adjacent to Woodbine, and that summer we started a CSA (community supported agriculture) program, both of which still exist. In March we started an emergency food pantry that we continue to run every Wednesday and Friday, and in November we moved spaces after 7 years. Woodbine’s current location is just a few blocks away and is 3x the size, which will allow us new possibilities to expand and experiment.

How do you organize as a group?

Woodbine is a volunteer-run project–we’re not a non-profit, we’re not a formal organization, there’s no legal entity called Woodbine. It’s a free association of people, a collective, that runs a communal space together. In the beginning we paid for all of Woodbine’s expenses ourselves, out of pocket, which was a fairly self-selecting process to see who was invested and committed to the concept, practices, and spirit of the project. More than seven years later, Woodbine is the people who continued to show up, to put in the time, work, thought, money, and care to keep it going. This includes arriving early in the morning to run the food pantry, staying late at night to make repairs, being on call to deal with floods in the basement, taking financial and legal responsibility for the bills, solving problems, mediating conflicts, but also inviting poets and thinkers to come do events at the space, coordinating with local farmers to bring organic produce to the neighborhood, writing and making videos, and cooking for each other every week. All of this amounts to an ethic we try to embody as a living communism, these are not formal “political” questions for us. Slogans and jargon don’t help us run Woodbine, it’s not what gives our space or community vitality. It has to be a lived experience, which means it’s more than just a set of ideas. That’s the foundation.

Since March we’ve been in an exceptional situation where we haven’t really been able to have any meetings or events, so we had to build trust just by being reliable and showing up to face the crisis together head on. We use various Signal groups, a Slack, a listserv, we have our social media, but the basis is in-person presence.

Are there some historical experiences from whom you take inspiration? How would you define Woodbine’s goals and what are the theoretical influences that guide you?

We’re inspired by groups like the Diggers and the Motherfuckers in the 1960s, who were organizing free stores in San Francisco and New York, rejecting the commercialization and professionalization of the counterculture, as well as the dogmatism and orthodoxy of militant cadres. The transformation required to take place, to approach something we might call “revolution,” is as much spiritual and ethical as it is political and economic, and we need to be able to balance these different registers simultaneously, to not allow ourselves to get stuck, stale, and withdrawn. Our many influences include the survival programs of the Black Panthers, the clarity and consistent discipline of the Kurdish freedom movement, the ontology grounding the armed self-defense of the Mohawk Warrior Society, the irreverent independence and resourcefulness of the American punk and hardcore scenes, the squatters movement in New York’s Lower East Side which built and defended dozens of illegal community gardens which still exist today decades later. All of these examples had theoreticians and texts come out along the way, but it is their lived realities that influence us.

Woodbine’s goals are to build collective power and to survive. We want to demonstrate that intentional and strategic forms of cooperation can build both capacity and strength, as well as make our lives healthier and more desirable. All of these things reinforce each other, they help build a shared world together, but remain counter-cultural in New York and the US, where individualism, isolation, loneliness, and alienation prevail.

How is Woodbine responding to the coronavirus pandemic? What are your mutual aid activities, and how is mutual aid a good political option for you in this historical moment? What are the most challenging aspects? 

In March, when there was a state of emergency declared in New York, we shut down Woodbine’s public events programming and weekly community dinners. Since a number of us were now fully unemployed we had time on our hands, and we still had access to our space, so we transformed Woodbine into a full-time emergency organizing hub, with its primary function being a food pantry. We’re now in our 10th month, and we’ve been distributing free food to upwards of a thousand families a week. Working groups have formed to maintain the supply line of fresh produce; to drive around picking up supplies and making deliveries; to sort and pack the pallets of bulk food we receive; and to do media and press, “public relations,” to bring attention and visibility to what we’re doing and why.

There’s a research component in finding and making available general resources for people, including other places to find food in the neighborhood, or housing advocacy, unemployment benefits, Covid testing locations, contact information for local politicians, etc. We published a printed newsletter, Free Ridgewood, in both English and Spanish editions, featuring interviews with local organizers and community members. In July we started hosting weekly mask making workshops and skillares, to produce and distribute free reusable masks at the pantry. We’ve organized monthly outdoor BBQ’s to socialize with our neighbors, including a Halloween costume party, and we did special food distributions on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Dozens of neighbors now volunteer at Woodbine every week, and we’ve met hundreds of new people who wanted to get involved. We installed a refrigerator outside of our space in July, to offer 24/7 access to free food in the Ridgewood. We’ve maintained our CSA programs with local organic farms, which have more than doubled in size since the pandemic.

The difficult part right now is constantly trying to find free food to keep up with the demand. This involves navigating the bureaucracies of various state-funded programs, charity organizations, and city agencies, while sharing information on the continually changing resources and contacts with other pantries and neighborhood mutual aid projects throughout New York City. The economic situation in the city and country has worsened, which of course affects all of us as well, and Covid rates continue to rise throughout the country. Many have left the city, including close friends. People’s mental health has suffered. We’re fortunate that there has been so much interest and energy to volunteer with what we’re doing, but there’s a broader layer of administration, coordination, networking, and strategizing that’s needed as well, and it can be a bit harder to get new people involved in that aspect of what we’re doing. Which is to say, how to connect neighborhood volunteering into a broader, longer-term political vision and strategy. Because Woodbine has a history prior to this crisis, volunteers and neighbors became more interested in us as an organization, and the ways we were prepared or capable of responding to something like Covid.

When the economy stopped working–with no wages to cover our rent and bills, no job to provide privatized health care, no more mass gatherings for education or entertainment–we were all confronted with the question of what was “essential” about making up a life. We faced together the challenge of time: what would we do with all this time we were now presented with? And how were those around us getting by amidst this breakdown? “Mutual aid” has simply been a framework to experience these things together as a community: who would work towards mutual survival, how, where, and why.

Can you tell us about the neighborhood you are in? What does it look like, who inhabits it, what is its social composition, and what is the role that Woodbine has? How do your mutual aid practices affect your relationship with the neighborhood, has there been an increase of interest?

All throughout the 20th century avant-garde and counter-cultural political and artistic movements were primarily based in Manhattan, which is the central island of New York City. Around it are four boroughs: the Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, and the state of New Jersey is across the Hudson River. Manhattan was “the city”: urban, professional, intellectual, the center of politics, finance, media, culture, and the outer boroughs were working class, poorer, more immigrant, less “sophisticated”, less dense, and just had less of their own major institutions. Over the last 20 years this started to change, as students, “creatives”, and young professionals could no longer afford to live in Manhattan, so the cultural geography of the city shifted. New venues, spaces, gatherings, and events started to take place in different parts of the city, especially in Brooklyn and Queens. Before we moved to Ridgewood together some of us lived 45-60 minutes away from each other, and we would have to travel similar distances to various meeting places. We wanted to make living in New York City more communal, to concentrate the potentials of what we hoped to do together, which meant we had to create a localized density of our own.

By starting Woodbine in Ridgewood we had to balance running a radical political and cultural center in a neighborhood that didn’t have anything like that, while also organizing local community projects to learn who and what was already happening here, to build a shared context to exist within. Ridgewood is a neighborhood in Queens, about 30 minutes by train to Manhattan. On one side it borders the hip and increasingly gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, but the other side  borders the more suburban, conservative Queens neighborhoods of Maspeth, Middle Village, and Glendale. Ridgewood is working class and ethnically diverse, with many immigrant homeowners living in the same small buildings with their tenants. There are Coptic Egyptians, Ecuadorians, Poles, and Puerto Ricans all living side by side in a fairly dense community of around 70,000 people.

Beginning this spring in New York City most people weren’t leaving their neighborhoods, they weren’t going to work or school, and people weren’t really taking the subway or bus or taxis. That generally left two options: either you self-quarantined at home alone, or you put yourself out there to do community organizing and volunteer work in your immediate surroundings. We immersed ourselves more deeply than ever before in Ridgewood, printing up flyers to put in all the nearby buildings and car windshields, hanging signs outside the space, and posting on all the neighborhood Facebook groups. Because of the instant visibility of our food pantry lines which stretched for multiple city blocks, and our consistency over the last 10 months, it enabled us to meet and build relationships and trust with far more neighbors than ever before, and in a deeper and more significant way. We intentionally sought out more media coverage from Queens newspapers, which put us on the radar for more local people. Our organizing wasn’t aimed at a broader citywide or national Left-activist base, but was focused explicitly on experimenting with alliances and partnerships to be able to bring in as much food as we could, for as many local people as possible. We’ve met thousands of our neighbors, a number of whom are now directly involved in running Woodbine and our food pantry.

We know that you communicate with similar groups in other countries and have often visited your comrades abroad. Could you tell us more about what you’ve learned from other groups? 

New York is a global cosmopolis, around 3 million New Yorkers are “foreign-born,” so political realities apparently taking place elsewhere often feel present for us. New York hosts both the headquarters of the United Nations and the world’s largest stock exchange. There’s no real local here that is not simultaneously global. In the months before lockdown Woodbine hosted presentations by friends visiting from China, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria. We need perspective, to better see and understand the metastructures that compose contemporary governance. Being able to recognize what is faced and shared in places that might seem to have little in common helps us identify the differences and specificities of our situations.

There are many questions people in cities all over the world face today: what does cooperation and self-organization mean when your basis is not family, ethnicity, religion, or workplace. How do you begin, how do the dispossessed put money and material infrastructure in common, how do you create time for yourself alongside the demands of the capitalist economy. How does what you’re building grow and how does it last: these are the things we all want to know and hear about, from anywhere people have experiences to share.

Travel was always vital to us, to find strength and inspiration by seeing what others have been able to do with commitment and perseverance. We need to be able to translate practices and concepts across time and space, and find ways for new forms of sociality to take hold in the inhospitable environments we find ourselves in. All over the world people have had to organize themselves to resist assimilation into lifeless modes of being. To do that you need help from others, you need some stubbornness, and you need some affirmation. These are all things we’ve gotten from comrades from Lisbon to Qamislo, and from Mexico City to Tunis.

What would be your advice for like-minded collectives just starting out?

Think of the virtues you’d like to aspire to and embody, and think of which adjectives you’d like to be associated with a communal ethic: empathetic, generous, curious, helpful, reliable, hardworking, ambitious, inspiring, inviting, open, creative, friendly, humble, trustworthy, dependable… Whatever they may be, have goals, and be experimental in how you achieve them. Be honest with yourselves and each other, don’t always try to agree on everything, don’t let the pressures of being “radical” stop you from being truthful. Find the shared practices that feel rewarding, enjoyable, and affirmative, build on what empowers those around you. Value the contributions and presence of each other, especially those who show up early, stay late, who deal with floods and rats, who solve problems and mediate conflicts. Try to be more than the sum of your parts, encourage people to bring more than they take.

Ask yourselves, what would feel like an increase in your power and potential? What will enable you and your friends to grow, to get stronger? It could be anything, a space, a website, a car, a video, a boat, a podcast, a truck, a book, a fund, a building, a TV show, a farm, or all of those things combined. How will you get them? You’ll likely need to coordinate your resources and skills, your energies and networks, you’ll need to engage and involve more people, and have the creativity and charisma to bind all of those efforts and practices together.

Based on the current political situation, what trajectory do you expect US politics to have?

In the last 20 years opposition to figures like Trump and Bush tended to subsume all of our efforts into an official Democratic response, but what’s needed remains the development of our own alliances, coalitions, and institutional forms, guided by our own practices and ethics. We can’t be limited by forming identities around being antifa militants or socialist commentators, we need a better story of who and what we are. The challenges we face are spiritual and technical, infrastructural and social, generational and ecological, and we need strategies that embrace the fullness of what we’re up against, and all that’s needed for liberation.

The United States is in the midst of a decades-long decline, and Covid has made visible the common instability faced by tens of millions of Americans. The deep polarizations brought on by Trump will not recede anytime soon, and this summer saw the largest and most intense anti-state demonstrations in 50 years. There is a widely felt lack of trust in the government, the media, science, the educational system, and employment as a site which produces meaning. But without a viable alternative this will only produce nihilism, apathy, and depoliticization, allowing the status quo to continue. America’s two-party political system, despite everything we might say against it, remains hegemonic, and our recent presidential election had the largest voter turnout in more than a century. We have no choice but to continue getting organized, making ourselves visible and legible, meeting new people, building our capacities, and inspiring belief that life can be lived differently in the here and now, as a foundation to survive the ongoing collapse all around us.

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