Care in the City: An Introduction to Mutual Aid

In the week following the Northeast’s bomb cyclone, the sidewalks in New York City are a mess. Melting snow thaws along every curb, pooling at every intersection. It’s often impossible to cross the street without hazarding ankle-deep icy sludge. Holly Ojalvo has neatly classified the affected crosswalks into four charming types: the abyss, the sludge, the channel, and the holy grail.

But as the days pass with the same 19-degree weather, boot prints begin to appear in the snow, offering some guidance for how to cross safely. I know it’s an unintentional thing, but it always feels a little bit like someone is helping me out as we each make our way around the city. I’ll never know who made those particular tracks, but I certainly benefited from them. 

This is maybe a tenuous connection to the other thing that has been on my mind these last few weeks, which is how a community cares for its members. Sometimes, it’s ultra-passive, like the boot prints, or leaving free stuff on the curb. But sometimes, it’s active. People organize, form phone trees, create community fridges and closets, and volunteer to do grocery runs. These types of assistance all fall within the umbrella of mutual aid. Mutual aid’s grounding ethic is “solidarity, not charity,” and the concept has deep historical roots. It hasn’t always had a name- mutual aid “predates colonialism and capitalism” as a long-standing practice among Black, Indigenous, and people of color (Mutual Aid NYC).

A long history

Mutual aid has received a lot of attention in the last few years because it helps neighbors support each other during times of crisis (hello, pandemic). But for many communities, mutual aid is nothing new, and has actually been routinely criminalized for its anti-capitalist strategies (Mutual Aid NYC). Rather than a short-term solution to the impacts of a single event, mutual aid is meant to be a lasting commitment to the community, involving each member to contribute as they are able. Contributions can be financial but are often exchanges of services, skills, and other resources. A local mutual aid group is not simply a fundraising mechanism, it directly engages community members and attempts to address their needs. For instance, the Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid group in Brooklyn does grocery shopping and delivery for those who request it, perform wellness check-ins via phone call, and trains community members to process and fill requests for assistance, as well as collecting funds to be redistributed (Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid). 

Mutual aid as a form of care is radical because it defies the capitalist logic of concentrating resources. Instead, it focuses on sharing and exchanging resources equitably. This has long been a valuable strategy for communities whose access to resources has been routinely and systemically restricted. A famous example is the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program, which did exactly what the name indicates (Blakemore). Another case is the Young Lords’ “garbage offensive” of 1969, which entailed demands for adequate sanitation services in East Harlem (Museum of the City of New York)- Interestingly, New York’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) ties into this story again very shortly.

Yet another example is the work of Chinese Six Companies, a federation of mutual aid groups in San Francisco’s Chinatown which, during the late 19th century, addressed inadequate medical care and violently racist “medical scapegoating” by creating its own hospital. It was the “first Chinese-American medical facility in the continental U.S,” which eventually “became the Chinese Hospital, which now has locations all over the Bay Area” (Wang).

The important thing here is that countless groups over the last several centuries have performed mutual aid and have been villainized for it, because they are responding to oppressive conditions. As intuitive as direct community-based assistance may seem, its history is an essential piece to consider as so many neighborhoods explore mutual aid for the first time in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A crisis of care

Several compounding crises of care have become starkly visible over the course of the ongoing pandemic. First, healthcare workers all over the world became the first line of defense against a virus we knew far too little about. Overwork, acute stress, and being undervalued and underpaid created a dangerous whirlwind for the people risking their lives to save ours. Then, as schools shut down, parents faced a crisis of homeschooling and a lack of childcare as they tried to balance their own work, if they were lucky enough to still have jobs. The severe strains of the pandemic are highly familiar by now, so there’s no need to emphasize any more details. But this cultural moment has prompted a lot more questioning of how we value our care workers and systems of care. Luckily, there is a useful volume of writing and research on this very subject. 

One text that is especially helpful in exploring problems of care in a capitalist economy is the Care Collective’s The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (2020). The Collective identifies a societal failure to “care for each other, especially the vulnerable, the poor, and the weak” (The Care Collective, p. 2). What’s more, neoliberal market logic has made profit “the organizing principle of life,” relegating care and wellbeing to the sidelines (The Care Collective, p. 3). 

In a 2010 interview with Amy Goodman, economist Manfred Max-Neef proposed a new economic paradigm altogether, an alternative to this profit-centered system currently in place. To Max-Neef, life should be at the center of everything, not profit. Growth has limits, which we are approaching rapidly, and, Max-Neef states, “the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above the reverence of life” (Goodman). 

Folded into the capitalist framework is also, of course, the patriarchy. Care work has historically been linked to women, contributing to its undervaluation. Care is not associated with productivity and is not quantified in the same way as the roles we tend to value and compensate. The artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles explored this divide over the course of her 50-plus year career.

When Ukeles had her first child in 1968, she was upset by the duality she experienced as an artist and a caretaker. She committed the rest of her career to blending caretaking with art, identifying as art the care work performed by herself as well as others. She famously became the artist in residence for New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) (remember them?), a position which she has maintained for over 40 years (Steinhauer). She spent 11 months from 1979 to 1980 shaking the hand of every sanitation worker in the city, totaling around 8,500 people. She also challenged traditional dynamics of care work by cleaning the floors of an art museum while it was open, displaying the type of labor typically performed by people of color and not made visible (Wetzler). Her most recent project has been engaging with the Staten Island landfill Fresh Kills, which she considers a “true social sculpture” of “individual decisions and acts of rejection” (Steinhauer). Systems of care and cycles of waste are often linked in this way and have a lot to do with how our economies and cities are structured. 

This piece is the first in a three-part series on care in cities. The next installment will focus on how zoning and architecture undervalue care and the history of care cooperatives. For more history on mutual aid, I highly recommend Ariel Aberg-Riber’s visual history of mutual aid, which can be found here, as a starting point.

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this piece, please consider subscribing to email updates from the blog and following @thepeoplecity on Instagram.

Sources

Blakemore, Erin, “How the Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program Both Inspired and Threatened the Government,” Updated January 29, 2021. History. https://www.history.com/news/free-school-breakfast-black-panther-party

Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid, “About us,” Accessed February 4, 2022. https://chfgma.org/

Goodman, Amy, “Chilean Economist Manfred Max-Neef: US Is Becoming an “Underdeveloped Nation,” Democracy Now! September 22, 2010. https://www.democracynow.org/2010/9/22/chilean_economist_manfred_max_neef_us

Museum of the City of New York, “Power to All Oppressed People: The Young Lords in New York 1969-1976,” Museum of the City of New York: Activist New York. Accessed February 4, 2022. https://activistnewyork.mcny.org/exhibition/economic-rights/young-lords

Mutual Aid NYC, “The History of Mutual Aid + Ways to Keep Showing Up,” June 12, 2020. https://mutualaid.nyc/2020/06/12/the-history-of-mutual-aid-ways-to-keep-showing-up/

Steinhauer, Jillian, “How Mierle Laderman Ukeles Turned Maintenance Work into Art,” Hyperallergenic. February 10, 2017. https://hyperallergic.com/355255/how-mierle-laderman-ukeles-turned-maintenance-work-into-art/

Wang, Claire, “When Chinese Americans Were Blamed for 19th-Century Epidemics, They Built Their Own Hospital,” Atlas Obscura. April 13, 2020. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/chinese-blamed-19th-century-epidemics
Wetzler, Rachel, “Meet the artist who called out a museum by scrubbing the floor for hours,” Timeline. December 15, 2016. https://timeline.com/mierle-ukeles-cleaning-museum-64d274a0a19c.

Walking the City: Belonging & Identity

I spend a lot of time walking. Almost everything I need is within walking distance of where I live, which is an enormous luxury, and I have a body that is able to get to most of those places on foot. Of course, whether or not something is within walking distance really depends on the person. Culturally we have a fairly normative idea of how bodies move through space, but what is accessible for some is definitely not accessible to all. The act of walking can be physically and socially accessible or inaccessible. Physically, each individual body has a different set of abilities. Despite this, cities are designed with a particular idea of a standard body, which then limits many people’s access to them. Socially, the feeling of access or belonging in space has been manufactured and restricted over time, making walking a highly subjective experience depending on one’s identity and expression. These types of inaccessibility have personal impacts, but they also limit how we plan our cities.

Who gets to be a flâneur?

Walking is not an exclusively urban act, but the image of the urban walker plays an important role in history. The idea of the flâneur is perhaps the most recognizable archetype of someone walking in a city. The flâneur, Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 term which Walter Benjamin introduced “into the academy,” was composed of several ideas (Stephen). Firstly, the flâneur is a male figure. Second, the most technical definition of the word is that of a “stroller” or “loafer,” per the Tate Modern (Tate). Their signature activity was the distant observation of modern life as they strolled through the growing cities of this period.

A more complex image of the flâneur, however, is one of a “modern artist-poet” who was at once an “amateur detective” and a “sign of alienation of the city and of capitalism” (Stephen). The flâneur was not simply a natural progression of human behavior but a direct result of the emerging capitalistic city of the 19th century. The flâneur archetype is one of privilege and yet also of anonymity. Anonymity is an important theme when discussing walking in the city, as it is only afforded to those privileged enough to pass by unnoticed.

It is easy to assume that all urban walkers in history have been male. But of course, this is mostly a result of a lack of documentation. Lauren Elkin addresses this lack in her book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (2015). In an interview with Arnav Adhikari at the Atlantic, Elkin identifies some key figures as flâneuses, or female walkers. These figures include Virginia Woolf and George Sand as well as war reporter Martha Gellhorn, whose “technique [was] to wander the streets of Madrid to get the story from people on the ground” (Adhikari).

Elkin’s discussion of the ways women have occupied the role of urban observer expands the definition of what a flâneuse is beyond the conditions of a flâneur. For instance, Elkin points out that since the city has never been a neutral space for women, they can instead go the opposite route of the flâneur and consciously adopt “extreme un-detachment” and “instead choose to be very engaged.” (Adhikari). In this way, the flâneuse is not simply a mirror image of the flâneur- not just a woman adopting the same values of a male standard- but is instead a unique archetype with its own historic and social significance.

The “little mysteries” of walking the city

As the slowest and most intimate form of transportation, walking involves a direct physical connection to the earth (or at least the street). It places the body in direct contact with the elements and allows it to observe the intricacies of a place that get blurred together when passed at a greater speed.

There’s an illusion within modernist planning that is still present today that a neighborhood or city can be fully understood if it is measured or observed correctly. Matt Green offers an alternative approach to the city that centers on its inherent mystery. In his walks through every neighborhood in New York City, Green discusses the “little mysteries” and “visual discoveries” that he has learned to read, and that may or may not lead to something interesting (The New Yorker).

Another man, the late author, and scholar William Helmreich, famously took on the same project of walking every block of New York City- approximately 6,163 miles (Chang). He maintained that walking was the best way to explore the city and get a real sense of each neighborhood. Anonymity was a part of his strategy- ahead of a profile by The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman, Helmreich advised Rothman to dress casually in order to not stand out too much on their walk (Rothman). However, Helmreich did not act as a removed observer on his strolls around New York. He made a point to make eye contact with passersby, say hello, and engage with whoever he could. By not being selective about his interactions, Helmreich aimed to get a decent “cross-section” of the area (Rothman).

Helmreich’s tactic strikes a balance between the flaneur’s imagined objectivity and Elkin’s “extreme un-detachment.” He described the ways in which walking so many neighborhoods helped him debunk stereotypes of those communities, getting a more authentic feel for their character and quality.

While Helmreich’s work is pioneering in its intimate exploration of the city at the micro-scale, it is worth noting that even if he was aiming for anonymity, Helmreich’s whiteness and male body granted him inherent access to the city in ways that other bodies may not have experienced in the same way. Rather than disqualifying his findings (or discouraging others to undertake a similar project), it simply adds a lens to the work which would shift depending on who is doing the walking.

Walking in nature and subjective belonging

The physiological and psychological experiences of walking are the focus of Frédéric Gros’s book A Philosophy of Walking (2014), in which Gros explains various (white, male) philosophers’ relationships with walking. Gros also elaborates on his own convictions on walking and notes other cultural practices involving walking, including a pilgrimage to Tibet’s Mount Kailash or the Huichol people’s annual “great peyote walk” associated with cosmic rebirth and harvesting (Gros, p. 122-124).

Overall, the image Gros paints in his reflections on walking is very specific, taking place mostly away from towns and instead through ideal, unspoiled nature. However, the idea of an unspoiled landscape (at least in the United States) is largely a myth-making tactic rooted in speculative Westward expansion and the erasure of Native American populations and cultures. Plus, these days, “nature” does not really exist, as the impacts of human development completely permeate every ecosystem.

Whatever version of landscape that Gros is situating these philosophers in, he still falls into the trap of assuming that bodies in nature are inherently neutral. However, as with the case of the flâneur/flâneuse, identity plays a key issue in how one experiences their surrounding environs.

A helpful challenge to Gros’s portrayal of landscape is Jamaican scholar and poet Jason Allen-Paisant’s lyric essay “On Being a Black Body in ‘Nature.’” In this “walking lyric,” Allen-Paisant examines the long-held cultural default of white bodies ‘belonging’ in nature, those bodies’ right to watch and observe nature, and their assumed right to leisure and slowness. Beginning his critique through the lens of nature writing, Allen-Paisant asks why nature writing “does not address the concerns of people who look like me?” He observes that the white body lacks the “existential uncertainty of belonging” that Allen-Paisant identifies within himself (Settee Seminars).

Allen-Paisant frames walking as a subjective experience depending on one’s identity, rather than something that is inherently anonymous or neutral. In discussing his experience walking in a park in London during November of 2020, Allen-Paisant intertwines issues of capitalism, colonialism, and identity. On one hand, the park is the sole refuge of “nature” available to most of its visitors- visitors who are “released” from their labors on Sundays and spend that time in the park.

However, Allen-Paisant also notes that dog-walking, a popular activity at the park, is a uniquely “Northern white bourgeois ideal vested in ownership and property.” As people walk their dogs through the park, they express certain ownership of the space. Such feelings of entitlement to space are linked to money and privilege, what Allen-Paisant calls an “unhindered relation to space,” as opposed to his own. Allen-Paisant wonders about the specificity of his own physical experience in space, and how it differs from that of others, asking, “what is it to walk in this body?”

Our identities change how we walk the city

Despite what mid-20th century Modernist planners would have had us believe, cities have been planned according to subjective social concerns for decades. Redlining created extreme racial segregation in American cities which is still very much intact today. Highway construction and suburban development created spaces for white families to flock towards ethnic and economic homogeneity. These types of planning legacies create messages of belonging and non-belonging that are built into the city and felt on an individual level depending on the context and the individual’s identity. As Gabby Tuzzeo notes in her article on flâneuses, the city can at once be a “performance space and hiding place” (Tuzzeo).

Thank you for reading! This blog is a passion project, so if you enjoy it, please consider subscribing to email notifications and @thepeoplecity on Instagram. If you would like to read more about walking, here are a few books that informed this piece-

The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City by William Helmreich (2013)

Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin (2015)

A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros (2014)

Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont (2016)

And here are the sources referenced in this piece-

Adhikari, Arnav. “The Case for the Flâneuse.” The Atlantic. 2017. 

Chang, Ailsa. “William Helmreich, Sociologist Known for Walking Every Block of New York City, Dies,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio. 2020.

Gros, Frédéric. A Philosophy of Walking. Verso London. 2014. 

Rothman, Joshua, “A Walker in the City,” The New Yorker. 2013. 

Settee Seminars. “Jason Allen-Paisant- On Being a Black Body in “Nature”: A Walking Lyric,” 2021. 

Stephen, Bijan. “In Praise of the Flâneur,” The Paris Review. 2013. 

Tate, “Flâneur.”

The New Yorker, “The Men Walking Every Block in New York City,” 2015. 

Tuzzeo, Gabby. “The Flâneur and the Flâneuse: the culture of women who wander cities.” boshemia. 2021.