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In defense of apartment dinners

Rent Strike1

Francisca Ixtilico, one of Sunset Park’s tenant leaders, standing outside the building where she helped organize a tenant’s association. (WNV/46th Street Tenant’s Association)

For a writer, my interpretation of the exercise was way too literal.

Last Friday, six of us were leaning over a massive white sheet of paper littered with multi-colored markers. The prompt hung in the air: “What do you want this neighborhood to look like?” There was a pause, and then people started drawing.

In truth, I hadn’t wanted to do this exercise. It was the main activity for one of the first large meetings intended to help catalyze a hyper-local housing movement in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, and the whole drawing proposal felt a little too abstract for my “just the facts, ma’am” personality. The neighborhood was already facing massive housing-related problems: rising rents, encroaching gentrification, disappearance of Section 8 housing and intense harassment by landlords, especially against residents without U.S. documentation. Didn’t we already know the problems — and wasn’t the vision simply the opposite reality?

Plus, to be honest, I was anxious to actually get rolling. To get started with action. Governments were toppling across the globe, after all. If we were going to start small, I thought, we had to be snappy about it.

Coordinated by a handful of resident groups and with the support of an outside housing network, the plan is to organize building-by-building in this corner of southwest Brooklyn and then, hopefully, spread to adjacent neighborhoods, leap-frogging across the borough and possibly, beyond. “Organize your bed, then your bedroom, then your apartment, then your apartment building, then your block,” a friend wrote, summarizing the overall strategy. His words resonated with me. They also reminded me that I had to wash my sheets sometime before the full-fledged revolution.

As the exercise got underway, I staked out a small corner of the piece of paper and drew the most inspired change I could imagine: A block party.

I soon learned that, out of nearly 40 participants, my sketch was perhaps the most unimaginative one of all. People drew rooftop gardens and community centers and domestic violence programs. There were solar-panels studded roofs and elevators for the subway station and free language classes. The neighborhood had a local newspaper and a low-frequency radio station. The library  sprouted multiple floors and extra computers. There was beach access, a luxury that — although our neighborhood bordered the water — I’d never really considered. One woman had drawn a large apartment building and in each one of the windows hung a small sign reading, “Huelga de Baja Renta” or Low Rent Strike.

Sure, some of the visions were projects we could probably never accomplish ourselves, such as constructing elevators for the subway stations. Other visions, such as the giant pre-historic birds one woman had drawn, were impossible — end stop. But what struck me was that the majority of changes didn’t require us making demands upon anyone — not the city, not the landlords, not the local community board. From constructing rooftop gardens to launching neighborhood-wide rent strikes, these were visions of a community that had united to take care of itself and solve its problems together.

The question, now, is how to move from not-to-scale drawings on a piece of paper to a reality. In order to talk about that process — and to continue writing this paragraph — I decided to first phone a friend. (As a journalist, I’m often much better at asking questions than providing answers.) I called a neighbor who was also at the meeting with the intention of asking how he imagined moving forward. But he couldn’t talk, he said. He was busy eating breakfast and catching up with his neighbors.

Could he call me back?

I said yes, but the call seemed like an answer in and of itself. We have to build friendship between neighbors. We have to start organizing building dinners and movie screenings. I remembered what one of the community leaders had said during the Zapatista organizing school down in Chiapas, Mexico, when asked how in the world had they managed to build their own schools, sports teams, hospitals, cooperative businesses, clinics, judicial system and government. Which initiative did they start with? Was it the armed uprising? Or a school? Or a corner store?

The answer was far simpler: We started with trust.

From there, the movement built an array of structures whose successes now rival — and indeed surpass — the capacities of the official government. The result is an organization capable of caring for its own community. Of course, compared to orchestrating mass mobilizations like the Occupy movement, hosting an apartment dinner feels far from transformative. And indeed, the world is in a moment when governments are toppling almost as fast as New York City is gentrifying. The latest president to flee is Ukraine’s Viktor F. Yanukovych, and it’s almost impossible to imagine he’ll be the last.

But in some ways those shake ups are only the beginning. Mark and Paul Engler’s recent provocative article, “Did Nonviolence Fail in Egypt?” highlighted this fact by analyzing what happened after Mubarak fell. As they explained, the once-underground Muslim Brotherhood had built alternative structures over decades that allowed it to slip into power. Sure, the younger, network-based organizers like the April 6 Youth Movement were able to turn out crowds and topple dictators like no other. But when left with a national power vacuum, it was the Brotherhood and its alternative structures that seized control from the idealistic youth.

This history raises the question: What if the idealists were not only able to mobilize in the millions, but also had their own network of gardens, radio stations, community centers and health programs? What if they were able to both launch direct actions — such as a neighborhood-wide low rent strike — and offer tutoring programs?

As I thought more about this possibility, I realized it reminded me of something I’d seen recently: It was a vision my neighbors had sketched onto big pieces of paper.

The next step now, I think, is to organize an apartment dinner to learn more about what exactly they are imagining.