Infrastructure For A Life In Common

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

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.

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