With skyrocketing rents and rapid gentrification, it has been difficult for community organizations and political projects to make a foothold in New York City. But, as Occupy Wall Street has shown, having a space where people can gather, practice mutual aid and form new communities has a powerful political effect. To that end, Khalil Robinson and Elysa Lozano are opening a new community space, Brooklyn Base, which will hold classes, skill shares, a free store and much more. Khalil and Elysa hope to provide services through Brooklyn Base entirely for free, and have made a kickstarter to help support the project’s first year. I caught up with Khali and Elysa to talk about how to organize-ground up, community driven spaces, and how they hope Brooklyn Base can be a powerful tool in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Willie: How did you get the idea for the space? What made you want to start Brooklyn Base? And how long have you been working on it?
Elysa: There have been a lot of political movements going on, a lot of organizing that’s been based around events, and that’s really great, but we wanted to pull everything into a centralized space, so it wouldn’t be so diffuse, so you wouldn’t have one event happen and then all that energy dissipate. You’d have somewhere people knew they could come for alternative resources, to build up something really consistent and strong in Brooklyn
Khalil: We’ve been working on the project about 7, 8 months now. We felt to actually have an inroad into neighborhoods where we’re living would be equally as important as protests and spectacular actions.
Elysa: There are a lot of people working in activist millieus and it’s really hard to connect with that if you don’t know the private space where they meet or you don’t know the people. With Brooklyn Base you’d have a gateway where anybody can wander in and get involved in a project they’re interested in. We really want to have a diversity of projects in there, so there isn’t just one type of organizing happening, but lots of different things that people can access in a lot of different ways.
Willie: What sort of projects do you have in mind? And what projects are you working on already?
Elysa: We’ve been doing pay-what-you-want/pay-what-you can boxing classes, and there’s a great amateur boxer whos been donating his time to that. It’s been in a couple different locations, it’s actually in our backyard right now, [laughs] so now we’ll actually have a normal space where people wouldn’t feel awkward to join in. We did a free store, and that’s something we want to do much more consistently. But we want to have a free store that’s actually appealing. Sometimes I’ll go to one and it’ll be full of old clothes that are moth-ridden or dirty. We really want to show people a lot of respect with a free store, to have nice stuff, and display clothes as attractively as you would in a normal for-profit store. And that’s something that we could do much better in a long-term space. We’re also working on issues of renters’ rights, and hoping to have a lot of open, community organized classes and reading groups.
Willie: Renters’ rights advocacy is something I’m pretty interested in, and a very important issue in New York City right now. What sort of work have you been doing with renters’ rights, and what sort of work do you hope to do with the space?
Elysa: A friend hooked us up with a housing rights lawyer, who is offering her time for free which is really really cool. She put us onto some issues with rent controlled houses in Bushwick, because this area is rapidly gentrifying, becoming “East Williamsburg” really really quickly. She let us know that a lot of landlords are doing little tricky things: for example, taking a rent-stabilized house and not doing any repairs, so people will leave because it’s a really crap situation to live in. And once they leave, they’ll do a quick renovation job, bring in new people, and charge way more, ending the rent-stabilization. That’s something we really want to organize against in the space. The problem we’ve come up against is how to let people know they can access this resource. So we want to have a centralized location where we can advertise that people can get involved in the project. We’d love to have people to be able to take their case to court if they need to. But we also don’t want to go knocking on doors and making people’s living situations de-stabilized unneccesarily, so we want to have that as a resource people can elect to have if they want to.
To complement that, our friend Andy wants to run a program that will start off as a historical research into Bushwick, and then lead some workshops based off that, to bring people in to talk about how the neighborhood’s changing, and what’s happened in the past, and connect with this history of the neighborhood, so its not like this obliterating of the distinctive Bushwick issues with the broader topic of gentrification.
Willie: In terms of classes, what are some topics people have expressed interest in, and what sort of classes would you be interested in working on?
Elysa: We wanted to start something where we could invite people in to participate in discussion groups that we’re excited about, that our friends are excited about, but once we do that to allow people who take part in the groups to organize their own. We can start off the discussion, but we want it to be able to take a lot of different trajectories based on what people want to talk about, how they want to organize themselves. And we mentioned the boxing, we want to have MMA and kung-fu and self-defense classes. Again, it’s dependent on what people want to share and what people want to see. I suspect people will come into the space and say “this is something I really need, this will help me a lot” and we’ll try and find someone in the community who can offer that. We definitely want to offer english and spanish classes, though, that would be amazing.
Willie: You want the space to be community driven and driven by the people who use it. That can be a difficult organizing task. What are some of the methods you’re thinking about using to make that a reality?
Khalil: That’s actually one of the trickiest questions, obviously. We’ve been talking about that a lot lately. Because one way we frame the project is we want it to be more outward looking. With Occupy, with most activist groups, it can turn into a very insular thing after a while. You have a big success, and then everyone ends up infighting and it becomes a very closed community. We’re trying to work around that, so everything is projected outwards as opposed to inwards.
Elysa: We really like the model of the Public School New York, their framework is organized around a website, people can just post a class up that they want to see or they want to teach. I like that model of self-organized skill-sharing education. But of course, there’s a built-in hierarchy in that, because at Public School classes get edited before they’re posted, so things don’t always pass, and that’s a little bit complicated.
Khalil: We’re also making sure that most of the people who want to be main collaboraters in the place just treat people decently. If someone doesn’t have a really honed political or social viewpoint, to still treat them with the respect you’d expect from a good friend.
Elysa: We’ve been talking about how to reach out beyond our circle of friends to neighbors and we think a lot of it will come really simply from talking to our neighbors, and inviting people to come to Brooklyn Base and do what they want to do. We think that’s how it will spread to start with. That’s the first step, and it will be a learning process too. We’ll have to see what people will get out of it, what they don’t get out of it, if it will spread or if it doesn’t spread.
Khalil: Seeing what they want to see and not imposing.
Willie: In your Kickstarter, you mention that it’s a space for creative economies. What do you mean by creative economies, and what do you hope for that to mean in practice?
Khalil: There are two different ideas. What we’d like to do is push forward the notion of sharing, and how that itself is a method of revolutionary practice. Like with the notion of the gift economy from Marcel Mauss, and the flipside of capitalism, that we can actually share amongst ourselves to create a better world. That’s how the free store comes into play, as well as self-programmed classes and workshops that are all based on sharing knowledge and resources, sharing all kinds of things as the basis for a better world.
Elysa: We also want to have a tool-lending library and a book-lending library as well. A lot of people have been coming to us already saying “I have something I’d like to put in to share with other people. I have a bunch of tools, I’d love to share with other folks in the neighborhood” We’d like to start with that, and then other people can donate when they feel comfortable in the situation, step into it and share. Want it to be somehwere where people can find their needs met by sharing rather than spending money. We’re trying to orchestrate a situation that’s safe for people to do that.
Willie: Why is it important that everything’s free? What does it mean to have a space where everything is free?
Elysa: Bascially, especially in New York City, where we have some of the highest rents in the world, a lot of people we talk with are spending a lot of time working more than one job just to pay for housing, transportaiton, basic necessities. Free services are something that we really feel is essential for this place right now, so people can cut back on that time spent working and devote it to other things that are better for the enivornments they live in.
Khalil: Also, we’re viewing this as a social and political kind of project. If we think that you can have an ethos of life based off of sharing, we’d like to keep the place as true to that ethos as possible, to not have the influx of money, and greed and competition that comes along with it.
Elysa: It also has to do with the motivation. If people come to do something for the space, they know its not because I’m trying to get some cultural capital, or looking at them with dollar signs like “please, come in!”
Khalil: Try not to be Scrooge McDuck swimming in a pile of gold coins. [laughs]
Elysa: We want people to know if they come into the space we’re valuing that relationship, we’re not valuing them as a tool for us getting ahead in some way, eitehr monetarily or career wise or anything. And we’d like other people to function that way too.
Willie: Is there anything I missed that you’d really like to talk about?
Elysa: Well, actually, I’ve been reading Shareable for years, and it’s actually helped me come up with some of the ideas for the project.
Elysa: Yeah! I should’ve warned you. [laughs] Basically I’ve got a lot of inspiration from Shareable. I think there’s a lot of things that have a lot of potential to run out of the space once we get a little more developed. I’m hoping that that idea of sharing and creating common use of items is something that can keep pushing and pushing into more and more aspects of people’s lives, and that will become the underlying fabric rather than work and money exchange, competition and exhaustion. We’re hoping to get more ideas from other people who are sharing things around the country and around the world so that we can bring that here.