New York stories

Today I headed out to visit a couple of co-ops. First, took a long and very cold walk down to the Brooklyn Cooperative credit union, which seems to be doing some really good work. This includes a really clear explanation of why they exist, as well as providing financing to people in the neighborhood who might otherwise have access to credit only at rates as high as 5% per month.

Then, I headed to the Bronx for a visit to ReBuilders Source, which got some well-deserved coverage on the Metro front page of the Times on the day it opened last year. They sell salvaged building supplies, cabinets, doors and fixtures. This is not unique, and indeed I visited a larger such business in Pittsburgh this week. But they are apparently the only cooperative in this important line of business.

Omar actually works more for Green Worker Cooperatives, which is an incubator dedicated to fighting environmental racism and disempowerment through creating co-ops. They are offering a co-op institute that includes computer trainings and other events to help people build their business skills.

After that, I took another long walk down 149th to the Hub of the Bronx, making a quick stop at Cooperative Home Care Associates, which is the nation’s largest worker cooperative. Last time I was in town was for the national worker co-op conference, and we got a tour of this amazing business, which provides good pay for its members (who previously had to take what they could get) and also many opportunities for advancement. They grossed $60 million last year, while providing 1600 solid jobs in an industry with poor benefits, astronomical injury rates, and hight turnover. Unfortunately my contacts were all in a meeting and I hadn’t had time to call them much in advance, so this was just a quick hello.

I needed to use the computer and got a real lesson in how scarce the wireless wonder is around here, and how something that I take for granted is a luxury: I took a fairly long walk down 149th in the Bronx and didn’t see anything that resembled a coffee shop. It blows my mind that there are so many people here and so few places to use the Internet. I don’t suppose it has anything to do with wealth distribution and the relative lack of laptops in the community – do you?

There were, however, many “wireless” stores, which sell mobile phones and such. I figured that they might know how to find the other kind. This was, after all, a downtown-like area with high rises and such – no new construction in decades, but still pretty large. I thought that surely there was at least one place in town, and that one of these wireless-savvy professionals would know where it was.

The guy looked a little bit puzzled but then eventually figured out what I meant. He told me there was nothing like that around there and that my best bet was probably down around 6th and Lexington. So I found a map and looked all over the place before it finally dawned on me that only 3rd Ave crosses into the Bronx and he was telling me to take the 6/Lexington line. Essentially, his answer was “I dunno, try Manhattan.”

That was a bit too vague, so I decided to try my luck in Brooklyn. The walk to the subway included my favorite New York Moment of the trip: I was passing by some public housing, which featured typically grim, minimalist, and trash-strewn landscaping. But all of a sudden, there was an apparition! A sign of hope! A community garden! Of course it was totally dormant but someone(s) had still decked it out with brightly-colored pinwheels, US and Puerto Rican flags, and a Nativity scene to accompany the permanent shrine to the Virgin Mary. No trash. It was utterly beautiful.

And then I descended into the subways. In my last entry I complained about all the mean and nasty service disruptions that had me lost and confused. But yesterday I discovered that I seem to be in a natural state of lost and confused when it comes to the subways of New York: On my way back from the Bronx, I managed to make four mistakes in a row (maybe it was only three but it’s like drinking: if you lose track of how many you’ve had, it’s time to stop). I could also blame it on the maps, which are sometimes as easy to read as a plate of spaghetti (see especially downtown Brooklyn, which is what stumped me the night I arrived).

I have been here several times and taken a few dozen subway rides, and I have been riding buses and subways my entire adult life. (in fact, I’ve only had a car for a total of about a year). I’m great with maps. But this was the most ridiculous thing: I had a straight shot downtown on the 4, in order to connect with the A/C across the East River. And somehow I got the idea that I needed the 6 because yesterday I thought that the 4 fell short. As it turns out, I had it reversed and I should have stayed put. I won’t bore everyone with the details, but it took me several tries to get back on the right train, even though I never actually got off my intended path (unlike the time I accidentally wound up in Brooklyn at 1am while trying to catch the last ferry to Staten Island).

By my third or fourth try, I was really tired of being underground. For anyone who hasn’t experienced being beneath Manhattan, it is a really intense place. Some areas are all dolled up like a shopping mall and it is easy to miss the lack of windows. But much of it is distinctly subterranean – dark, dank, damp, and filthy.

Some of the stations actually have stalactites from where the water (street tea, really) drips through cracks. If not for constant pumping, the whole thing would fill up like a bathtub. And it is a maze. Some stations are several platforms wide, some stations are joined by tunnels stretching literally for blocks, with many twists and turns and stairways. The thing was not so much designed as it was created by a century of mutation, so none of it really makes sense (except for that straight shot down Manhattan on the 4, which I still managed to botch).

By the time I finally found my way out to the cold sunny grit of Bed-Stuy, it felt like a sun-dappled meadow with butterflies (or were those gum wrappers?) flitting about. Had I known what the subway experience was going to be like, I probably would have braved the cold and climbed those big boulders in that park back on 149th. I almost stopped to hang out among the frozen weeds of a vacant lot. I’m such a hippy.

After a walk down Nostrand Ave. (which formed the main drag of the African American community that formed here once they built the A train from Harlem – remember that song? It’s about living in this neighborhood), I finally found a proper café with wireless, and started mulling over  how the subways are also a metaphor for the isolation in our society. It isn’t just the descent into them, but also the utter separation from nature and community. The latter part is especially difficult, because I get really emotionally drained being around large crowds of people trying to ignore each other.

 It seems to me that subway rides present the opportunity to pick each other’s brains. Our society has a lot of problems, and many people have good ideas about how to address them. But for now, those ideas are just trapped inside our heads and perhaps shared privately with friends and family. But how cool would it be if we could take advantage of all this time spent cooped up together to have lively discussions about how people are trying to solve our common problems in different neighborhoods. There could be a constant flow of ideas, with new energy coming and going as the train passes through different neighborhoods, where people are trying to cope in a variety of different ways. It seems better than spending an hour trying to avoid eye contact.

I know, I know, it’s New York, and people don’t want to talk to me about my goofy ideas (or anything else, for that matter). But this isn’t about my ideas. I’m just saying that it would be useful to have a sort of salon car. Start with one line and say that people who want to talk should go to the last car and wear some sort of special hat or something. Kind of like a secret handshake. OK, I’ll stop trying to tell New Yorkers not to be New Yorkers. I was able to walk back up into the sunlight and now I am escaping from New York. But lots of people are just there, all the time. I can’t fault them for having coping mechanisms to deal with the constant crush of strangers.

At some point I may have to develop these half-baked musings, which could be applied in other communities as well. Meanwhile, if anyone has any suggested secret handshakes, please comment.

After answering my most urgent emails and eating a really nice salad, it was time for tonight’s talk. It was a good turnout considering the short notice, and afterward we had a really neat conversation that was very solutions oriented. In particular, there was energy around a web-based barter network. This would be something like Craigslist but with some way of checking people out to make sure they are solid. Perhaps it could be a verification and rating system like that on It seems like Radical Living and their networks can provide a valuable nexus for this conversation and some concrete organizing. There is already a group working on a food co-op in the neighborhood.

I want to say a few more words about Radical Living. They are a young community, founded in the last three years. They have three houses, which are a combination of shared households and studios. They use consensus decision-making. They have common meals on a regular basis. But what I really liked about them was a quote from their statement of purpose, which is framed and posted in each house. It included these words, which I think are just about right: “We will share the gospel always and, as Saint Francis said, use words when necessary.” Less talk, more action (said Andrew the professional talker).

On the way out of town, my subway ride was mostly uneventful except for the odor of the guy next to me, and lingering agitation from yesterday’s adventure. Now I’m back on the train, passing through the snowy woods of Connecticut. I’m not in nature, but at least I can see it. It is snowing again, and we’re expecting subzero wind chill. I thought that Wisconsin would be the cold spot on the trip, but it looks like that honor will go to Massachusetts.

OK, I went on and on (and on and on) but hey, it’s New York. Lots to blog about. 

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2 Responses to New York stories

  1. Susan McLeod says:

    The subway sounds scary. I’m glad you are on your way to Connecticut. Of course, my impression of Connecticut is of snow, sleigh and horses, little house with lights in the windows and smoke curling out of the chimney, and maple syrup. You know, Currier & Ives.

  2. coopgeek says:

    Connecticut was way cuter than the subway, even if it has its gritty bits. Heck, even the Boston transit system is quite adorable in comparison.

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