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(en) US, NYC, The RAT* #3 (page 7) - BROOKLYN FREE STORE by Jonathan Abort- jms390@nyu.edu

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Mon, 11 Apr 2005 08:52:33 +0200 (CEST)


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The Brooklyn Free Store has been operating on Grand Street (b/w Bedford and
Berry, seven blocks south of the Bedford L-train stop) on-and-off for years-- but
it's hard to pass an afternoon at the store without hearing someone say : "My fam-
ily has lived in this neighborhood for years, but i've never even seen this place!"
A new group of kids has taken the store to its fourth incarnation with hopes that
this will change.
The Autonomous Space Collective congealed out of the boot-trodden remnants
of several other New York activists groups, some of which have been well-publi-
cized in the Rat. In an activist community that is sometimes insular and clique-
ish, we found that a number of the participants in radical projects in New York
overlapped to a large degree, and yet the projects were not always supporting one
another. The New York activist community has a wealth of energy, enthusiasm,
and physical resources-- but it doesn't always seem like that.
Compared to much smaller cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore, New York's
activist community seems to have trouble mustering it's share of radical activity.
Food Not Bombs serves only two days a week and it seems to have never taken
root in Brooklyn, ABC No Rio's legal situation is in con-
stant peril, and DIY showspaces seem to be more in com-
petition than cooperation. What's needed, we observed,
is what's *always* needed: Infrastructure.
We started having meetings about setting up a new space
that could serve as a New York touch-point-- a home
to an umbrella group of sorts that could help bring to-
gether radicals, breathe new life into existing institutions
and also spur some brand new projects. Lofty goals, of
course-- but what kind of radicals would we be if we set-
tled for anything less?
All we needed was a physical space to set the plan into
action.
What we found was a place that would fuel some of our
goals and fail some of our expectations-- but either way,
the price was right. The Brooklyn Free Store had been
around for years under the premise that our primary me-
dium of interaction as human beings doesn't need to be
monetary. For the past few years, the Free Store has been sporadically open and
available to the community, but periodically, burnout has set in for one reason or
another. Apart from the difficulties of just paying bills in a neighborhood beset by
gentrificational blight, lapses in community support have left Free Store volunteers
over-strained by the demands of keeping the doors open, the shelves stocked, and
the space safe from dangerous activity.
The Autonomous Space Collective happened to be having pot-luck meetings just
as the Free Store was contemplating throwing in the towel for the last time, and a
few lucky phone calls later, we got the keys, with the admonition that we keep it a
free store, keep politics out of it, and be respectful of the space.
And that's when the work began. The space is a beautiful storefront just a block off
the hip strip of Bedford Avenue, right over the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn.
The neighborhood is a strange mix of different groups and economic strata-from
hipsters to crackheads, off-beat artists to meat-and-potatoes working class, white,
black, Hispanic and a litany of other groups--and all of them rub elbows at the
bookshelves and clothes bins of the Free Store. We have weekly movie nights, bi-
weekly art and Spanish movie nights , a womyn's discussion group, reading groups,
and concerts and conferences and skill shares are in the works. It fucking rocks.
Despite the successes of just keeping the doors open five days a week and a very
popular re-launch Open House, the space raises lots of questions for the Autono-
mous Space Collective that have been damningly divisive--and as the weeks have
crept by, it's meant three or four nights of meetings a week. Perhaps a small price
to pay for a virtually-free (we pay utilities) store-front with so much promise and
energy behind it--but it's a dark omen, with Activist Burnout once again looming
large.
But the questions remain--what does it mean to be hosted by an apolitical Free
Store, when the Autonomous Space Collective harbors ostensibly anarchist objec-
tives? Can such a radical revision of the "store" concept even be considered free
of ideology or politics? How are we relating to the neighbors in light of concerns
of gentrification that plague Williamsburg? Many previous projects like this have
been haunted by difficulties with integrating into a geographic community that
doesn't understand or particularly sympathize with the goals of radicals groups
that are predominantly white and of relatively affluent backgrounds. How many
of the initial aims of the Autonomous Space Collective are realistic in this space--
and which are even worth pursuing, considering the overwhelming
success of the Free Store so far?
Smaller issues will always have to be worked out--for instance, can the Womyn's
Discussion Group close its doors to men without violating the openness require-
ments of the Free Store? Is it arrogant, possessive and cynical to want to staff the
store during all open hours of operation (it hasn't been regularly staffed in the
past)? But the problem that will dog this project, as it has dogged many other life-
style anarchist projects is best articulated as, "How can we keep this from being
just a punk rock club house?"
Of course there are no outright answers to these questions--those of us in the
collective happen to be good friends with one another, and there's no sense in
denying the reality of our cultural and economic heritages
(and I apologize for the over-simplification of the socio-
economic make-up of our group--it's not a landed white
aristocratic monolith--but concerns of gentrification arise
independent of diversity). We shouldn't necessarily be
worried if the shop is only staffed by our people--outreach
is always vital, but it's no failure to discover that the geo-
graphic community isn't interested in every activity that
your ideological community might be.
Success, in this case, is not a cut-and-dry answer to any
of the above issues, but is just a matter of balancing all the
concerns and keeping mindful of our objectives. So far,
there have been a few clashes over when our doors are
open, and how we can include/exclude people--but there's
an overwhelming glow from the community, a sense that
we're creating a new space in everyone's imagination as to
what can be possible when a cozy little store-front is filled
with the energy and aspirations of a community. It's al-
ways a mark of hubris to think of this sort of project as providing a community
center--communities by their very nature have `centers', be they churches, bars,
stoops, coffee-shops, bookstores, and it's all too common that an activist group
thinks they're starting a community . . . in the midst of an already-thriving com-
munity.
This is the case in Williamsburg: a complex network of inter-relating social
groups with very different customs and economic statuses, hopefully coexisting
in a positive way. The Free Store, regardless of the Autonomous Space Collective,
must integrate into that community, and, ultimately, it will be an expression of
that community, and never the other way `round.
To that end, the Autonomous Space Collective has been forced to face some
harsh realities. No big surprises, but ultimately, there has been a general realiza-
tion that this is not the end of the search for a space that will serve the needs of
the radical community--it simply can't be, and moreover, it's too busy being a
functional space for the geographical community to bother with our lofty (tun-
nel-visioned?) goals. But we've made friends with a whole bunch of people, from
the somber bike shop owner and mechanic next door to the guy at the beer store
to the ­ well, that's about as far as I make it, come to think of it. But apparently
lots of other people seem to have made lots of local friends, I swear.
What's to be done? The Free Store will hopefully continue to thrive, and we need
more people to come help out. Donations are always welcome--the store is defi-
nitely open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 2-9 pm, and usually open Monday,
Tuesday, Wednesday also. Donations are always welcome, so bring us your old
clothes, books, type-writers, coffee-mugs, and all that jazz.
And in the meantime we're fundraising and hunting for a store-front that will
better serve the needs of the radical community. Any help--monetarily or real-
estate-wise--is greatly appreciated. There will be a benefit party/show/dance-fest
on March 24th and another on April 9th, and probably a lot after that too--get in
touch by dropping by or dropping a line.
===========
Free Store Calendar
Events for March:
Mondays­ 7pm
fun & radical movie night
Wednesdays­
reading groups
stop by to see what we're reading
Fridays- 7pm
peliculas en espanol
Sundays­ 2pm (alternating weeks)
art workshops & folk song circles
Thurs. March 24th - Benefit Party
Art Workshops in the next few months
Puppet Making, Book Making,
Mosaic Making, Stencil Making
================================
* [RAT = Revolutionary Anarchist Tabloid]


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