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.

Mixed Messages of Inclusion on New York City’s High Line

Walking along the High Line over the streets of Chelsea on a sunny day, it’s easy to see why the repurposed rail bridge has gained such fervent acclaim in design circles. The High Line is an innovative example of adaptive reuse, made possible by the organized efforts of Friends of the High Line. Despite its triumph as a design project and as a green space, how the park functions in its context points to flaws in its creation as well as flaws in the city itself.

Visitors gather on tiered benches at the High Line

Affordability

The creation of the High Line had an explosive effect on property values near the park. Real estate prices skyrocketed after the High Line’s construction, primarily within a couple of blocks of the park’s location. Josh Barbanel reported on this ‘halo effect’ in his 2016 article for the Wall Street Journal. This kind of boom is to be expected near an amenity like a new park, especially in such a dense city. Unfortunately, the majority of housing around the High Line is market-rate, leaving out anyone who can’t afford a luxury apartment. In one apartment building next to the park, a studio apartment starts renting at $3,215. An apartment in the Spears Building sold for $350,000 in 1997, $2.2 million in 2008, and $3.15 million in 2016.

Participation

The High Line’s design process did not effectively include the community because it did not take into consideration how the park could meet local residents’ needs. While there were participatory elements in the design process, the input residents were asked for was not oriented around their needs as a community. The executive director of Friends of the High Line, Richard Hammond, discussed the flawed process and the group’s new approach an interview with CityLab’s Laura Bliss for her 2017 piece on the High Line.

The flaws in the High Line and its effect on the surrounding neighborhood emerge from both a poor inclusionary process for the original community and the failure of New York City to protect and provide for low-income residents.

Inclusion

The High Line also operates on a contradictory logic of inclusion, at once advocating for an inclusive public space yet explicitly monitoring and restricting who should have access:

Informational signs encourage visitors that they are welcomed, but warn against giving money to panhandlers

The message of the first sign is essential to ensuring inclusive public space, and is admirably explicit during a time of increasing social and cultural division. All people should be able to freely access and benefit from public space as equal members of a community and a city. Why, then, should the needy be excluded? Why should poverty be criminalized even in spaces that tout philosophies of inclusion? The exclusion of the needy from the public realm can only lead to greater bias against and fear of those in poverty or suffering from homelessness, and prevents communities from the self-reflection necessary for positive change.

Andy Merrifield, quoting Marshall Berman, identifies public space as an environment in which “a whole society might begin to confront its collective repressions to call up the specters that haunt it and look them in the face.” One of the specters that residents may be called to face in unrestricted public space is the existence of those in need.

Merrifield asserts in his own words that “a democratic and ‘open-minded’ public space would ensure the shock of recognition” of the existence of poor people. Berman calls this confrontation a way to ‘grow up in public.’ Shared space calls on people to truly share their world and bear witness to its realities. Through this confrontation, communities can begin to critique and improve their social conditions. If the High Line is yet another tool in the city for policing the homeless and impoverished, attempting to erase them from the public eye and cementing their image as a threat, it can’t possibly serve its community and city as a truly public space.

Excluding impoverished people from public spaces denies those people the recognition they deserve as legitimate city residents, while also denying entire communities the responsibility and opportunity of self-reflection and improvement presented by confronting their own realities.

Work cited: Andrew Merrifield, Metromarxism: A Marxist Tale of the City, 169–170. 2013.

This piece was originally written in Summer 2018.

On Traveling Alone

In October of 2018, I took a train trip from Copenhagen through Brussels, Paris, and Berlin. Many of my classmates were traveling as well since we had the week off. Most people traveled with a group of friends or to meet people they knew studying abroad in other cities, but some of us traveled alone. What stood out to me talking to people in my apartment who had spent even a day traveling alone was our common ground of shitty moments.

One of my housemates got hopelessly lost walking through Amsterdam, then shattered her almost-dead phone when she was trying to get directions. Another, who went to Cinque Terre, wound up having to walk up the steep roads of a coastal village in the middle of the night when her plane was delayed and her train passed her stop. Yet another shared how uncomfortable it was at first be the only one eating alone in a restaurant. As for me, the loneliness-restlessness I remembered from other solo trips hit me hard on my third day in Paris and I nearly cried in public three different times. Traveling alone doesn’t always go well and it doesn’t always feel good. But it gives you a stronger sense of self, an emotional connection to wherever you go, and shows you the goodness of the world when you least expect to see it.

A self-timer selfie at the Seine after a woman wouldn’t let me into the Orsay with my student ID. I almost cried but started walking and taking photos instead and I felt better.

You’re On Your Own

In his book Why Travel Matters, Craig Storti advocates hard for traveling alone. To be a traveler (distinct from being a tourist), Storti explains, your perception must be uninhibited by having a familiar person with you, no matter how well you get along. A travel buddy could be a distraction, filtering your experience through their own, or simply make it harder to meet locals (Storti 139). In A Taste for Travel, John Julius Norwich says a companion can ‘cushion’ the traveler, “desensitizing their antennae.”

I accidentally got to a free jazz concert too early, and sat reading alone while really cool-looking French people socialized around me. The seats filled up and it was a great concert.

This is not to say that traveling with someone whose company you enjoy is by default a bad idea. Traveling with those you love is its own kind of wonderful adventure, and one that is worth having. It just depends what kind of trip you want. For me, traveling alone means more direct contact with a place and my experience with it. I can think and reflect in a more authentic way because I’m only focusing on my own experiences.

Because you typically have a more direct channel to wherever you visit when you are alone, and because you have your own emotional journey while there, traveling alone helps you develop an emotional relationship with the places you go. Experiencing a new place alone gives me a personal and emotive connection to wherever I am. I have regrettably few memories of the trips I took when I was younger where I was guided along with a large group of other tourists, or even just with other family members. My experience wasn’t defined by relating to the place, but rather by relating to the people that came there with me.

Solitude Demands Optimism

Traveling alone can be draining. Having only yourself to rely on when navigating a new place, eating alone, and, if you’re like me, overcoming introverted tendencies to make new friends, can all be pretty exhausting. I felt this on my third day in Paris especially (you know, the one where I kept almost-crying in public). That afternoon I found myself walking through the rain, sans umbrella, wishing for someone to magically show up to take me in and take care of me.

That didn’t quite happen, but sticking it out got me pretty close. The first sign that things might be okay was a ceramics shop, which I tried to enter not realizing it was closed for All Saint’s Day. Not a graceful start, but the designer was there and invited me in while she found a card to give me. We made some small talk, during which she validated my desire to learn how to make pottery. I didn’t feel better immediately, and ultimately had to walk back into the rain, but I was glad she was so kind to me.

Later, I went Montmartre, happy to find the Sacre-Coeur shining over everything. My only memory of Paris from my first trip to Europe as a kid is that church, so getting to come back and recognize something washed a lot of my stress away. I walked past it to one of the winding side streets and found dinner at a cozy restaurant with a kind hostess who let me practice what little French I knew as I ordered my food. I was the only one there at first since I was early, and getting that extra warmth helped me start to mend. I wrote on my phone, ‘I don’t feel good, but I feel better,’ and read short stories until it was time to go back down the hill for a concert. These little moments of hospitality answered my wish for getting taken care of, and wouldn’t have been possible if I had allowed myself to give up and stay in for the rest of the day.

The Sacre-Coeur at Montmartre

Traveling alone is not only defined by loneliness. It gives you moments of euphoria, little gems of sheer joy that come unexpectedly. I have had one of those moments every time I’ve traveled alone. Walking home on a dirt road in Mindo, Ecuador and getting caught in the rain was my first experience with this. I was breathless and laughing, and was able to experience it so intensely precisely because I was alone, thrilled that I had managed wind up in such a beautiful place, not to mention spend three weeks getting by on what Spanish I knew in an unfamiliar country. Later that summer I found the same feeling, this time standing in a lake in the Rockies during my second day of driving to Denver. It’s one of my most precious memories, even if I have no one to remember it with.

I didn’t expect to have that feeling last week. I spent the bulk of my second day in Paris going between a bookstore and a bistro, reading and writing for hours about what I was feeling on my own in a new place. I wound up walking from the Louvre pyramids to the Musée de l’Orangerie, and although it was cold and had started to rain, the joy I remembered from other places came to me and I felt relieved and comfortable for the first time since I had arrived. I bought some roasted chestnuts with my last bit of cash and walked through the park happy and content, finally having found my moment of joy that always makes the solitude feel worth it.

A shot from my walk through the rain towards the Musée de l’Orangerie

Finding that moment told me I was experiencing not only a new place but new aspects of myself in an authentic way. Last week’s trip changed what I thought I had already learned from other travels because that’s what solo travel does. It gives you experiences with only yourself and can teach you something new even years later. It gives you space to grow and experience feelings fully and lets you create relationships with worlds outside of your own.

On the train out of Paris the morning after going to Montmartre, all my bad feelings had evaporated into a fondness for the city and a vague interest in returning. I had learned what I liked and what I didn’t and added it to my growing understanding of what kinds of travel work for me. It felt like looking back on a long school year, knowing there had been highs and lows but ultimately nostalgic because of how much it felt like I had grown. And all this within a week. I imagine longer, more adventurous journeys both back in the U.S and abroad and feel the excitement that made me want to study abroad and travel alone in the first place. There is so much to see and feel just beyond my immediate world, and I feel better the further out I go, still knowing it won’t always be happy or comfortable. That’s the whole point.

This piece was originally written in Winter 2018.

Homelessness in the Welfare State

During June of 2017, Danish parliament passed an anti-begging measure to discourage panhandling. The following month, within a fourteen-day span, five people were arrested in Copenhagen by plainclothes officers for begging in public places. When my urban design professor mentioned to us during the first week of classes that panhandling is illegal in Copenhagen, I couldn’t believe there was even a homelessness problem to begin with. Coming from the United States, I had understood the Danish welfare state to be a relative utopia of democratic socialist policy without knowing how that might manifest in daily life. Even after going to Denmark and learning more about how the welfare state operates, it strikes me as a surprising struggle for a country with a famously tightly woven social safety net.

It doesn’t take much digging, however, to notice the increasingly complex approach to issues of squatting and homelessness in Copenhagen. As more central neighborhoods get tapped for redevelopment and public space is further commodified, homelessness is being relegated further away from the public realm. Local ignorance regarding homelessness in Denmark makes the decriminalization of homelessness and poverty unlikely, too. A study on perceptions of homelessness in Copenhagen and one of its suburbs identified a theme in residents’ understanding of homelessness: The Danish government provides assistance to those in need, so why wouldn’t someone take it if they had to? Homelessness must be a choice.

Generally, those most removed from daily urban life (in this case, residents of the more expensive and suburban Hellerup neighborhood) were more likely to hold such convictions. The interviewees from Copenhagen proper had more varied responses, with a more sympathetic bent. What the study found was, unsurprisingly, that homelessness is not a choice but rather a matter of repeated poor circumstances that strip away a person’s economic and social resources. This can make it difficult for folks struggling with homelessness, often along with addiction or mental illness, to go through the official steps to claim their benefits. They may not even know they are qualified for the benefits in the first place. And even then, there have been reports of government employees turning people away for their behavior while visiting the office to fill out paperwork.

Clearly, there are social and bureaucratic barriers that still keep those experiencing homelessness from getting the help they need. This condition is not unique to any city. Thankfully, Denmark has such a strong welfare system that homelessness is unlikely to reach the proportions it has in the United States. The criminalization of poverty and need, however, does nothing to help the most vulnerable residents in any city. Denmark’s recent anti-squatting laws are only the most recent legal apparatus developed for clearing urban space for more desirable occupants; but it is certainly not their first or most dramatic attempt to do so (for example, the destruction of the Youth House, which involved police violence and mass arrests). As redevelopment and gentrification continue here and in cities around the world, protection and resources for those least likely to benefit should remain a priority.

Public space is not public if it isn’t for everyone.

Welcome to People City

People City is made up, but you’ll recognize pieces of it from where you’ve already been. If you’ve sat in the sun in a public plaza, listening to the fountain bubble and musicians play for passersby, you’ve been here before. The widest sidewalks and bike lanes you’ve ever navigated are here, too. The crowd of protesters downtown, who carried their painted signs rolled up on the subway en route to City Hall, are still chanting through the streets. If you’ve congregated with your neighbors on your front porch, stoop, or outside the local corner store, you’ll find yourself doing the same here.

People City represents a vision of the city as it might be, but not as a utopian dreamscape. My goal here isn’t to imagine away the realities of city life but rather to celebrate moments where cities do good by their people while critiquing where they fall short. I’m a student of cities, so this process is as much about learning for me as it is about sharing. This is a sketchbook of ideas, a journal of drafted thought. I hope you’ll bear with me.

The relationship between the city and its people is historically fraught. Industrial urbanization subjected masses of people to disastrous living and working conditions, yet made large-scale organizing (against those same conditions) possible. As the city grew to bursting it became a physical manifestation of structural inequality under capitalism. And in the post-WWII United States, those structural inequalities were demonstrated more viciously as white people fled to the suburbs, taking their privileged tax base away from inner cities and leaving already systematically oppressed citizens to fend for themselves. More recently that pattern has shifted, as wealthy and predominantly white suburbanites ‘rediscover’ the value of the city and move into spaces made available to them by the displacement of more vulnerable longtime residents.

As the gap continues to grow between the poor and the wealthy, the city likewise becomes polarized as a home for both. This along with the increasing privatization of formerly public goods and services means that the line between space for the people generally and space for the consumer specifically has become hazy. We are finally recovering from freeway-dominated mid-century planning practices, but those highways remain, and we still struggle with creating equitable and human spaces. We’ve seen towns and cities adopt principles put forward by New Urbanism, but are still deeply entrenched in an inequitable economic structure so that even something as simple as walkability becomes an issue of wealth and class.

Ultimately, though, the city can be a rich and vibrant place where all sorts of very different people can mix, which is why public space and human-centered design are so massively important. The potential of the city is that of communication, exposure, celebration, protest, and all that people as individuals and as a collective can bring to it. People City is that city: animated, yet imperfect, and above all allied with its people.

Summer 2018