Interview with Matt Peterson of Woodbine
Interview with Matt Peterson of Woodbine
What is Woodbine?
Woodbine is a common, autonomous, experimental space in Ridgewood, Queens, opened up by a group of friends in the beginning of 2014. The idea behind it was to open up an organizing space in a neighborhood where we ourselves would simultaneously relocate and live. Woodbine has never simply been about having a venue to program events at, but rather to serve as a headquarters and hub for a group of people to experiment with putting their lives in common, trying new practices and organizational forms, and rooting ourselves within a neighborhood. The alternative was existing as a diffuse group of friends scattered across a giant, overwhelming, deadening metropolis. Once we had the space up and going we started hosting weekly dinners on Sundays, regular open political discussions, we started a community garden, we helped open a bookstore/cafe, we started a farm share to help distribute organic produce in the neighborhood, etc. Woodbine has been an opportunity for us and others to try to practice politics in a new way in New York City.
Can you tell us a bit about the neighborhood that Woodbine’s in?
Ridgewood is in Queens, right on the border of Bushwick in Brooklyn, served by the same L and M train lines as its hip neighbor, but further out from Manhattan. It functions similarly to how Greenpoint relates to Williamsburg, a bit removed, less dense and over-developed, more families and homeowners. Because it is in Queens rather than Brooklyn, it shares some of its administrative districts with neighboring Glendale, Middle Village, and Maspeth, which are even less dense, they’re not really connected to subway lines, they’re almost suburban, they’re whiter, and have some vocally reactionary, conservate elements. So Ridgewood is sandwiched between this very old-fashioned part of residential Queens, and Bushwick, which for a long time was a neglected, blighted, abandoned industrial part of Brooklyn, but in the last 10-15 years has seen a lot of new real estate development and speculation, and a demographic shift bringing in increasing amounts of out of town millennials.
Along the border with Bushwick, Ridgewood tends to be more Latino, Ecuadorian, Puerto Rican, and as it veers further into Queens it becomes more Italian, Albanian, former-Yugoslavian, Polish, with pockets of Nepalese and Coptic Christians from Egypt. A lot of the ethnic groups in Ridgewood have their own private, members-only social clubs, and at first Woodbine felt like it existed within this fabric of the neighborhood–a bit opaque, but clearly a space serving some particular communities. In recent years, as new businesses have popped up tailoring to the growing transplant youth population, it’s changed the feel of things.
How did you get started? What were your first activities?
Woodbine started in Winter 2014 with a 3-part lecture series on the Anthropocene, which served as a conceptual framing both for the space and our move to Ridgewood, and also an invitation for people to take up its proposal and horizon. That Spring is when our weekly Sunday Dinners started, which was a practice we had been experimenting with in other community spaces over the years, as well as at our homes, but once they got going at Woodbine they became a cornerstone of the space and project.
In that first year we organized screening series, we invited comrades from out of town to visit and give presentations, there was a clothing swap, a poetry reading, and we opened up the space as an ad hoc convergence center during the Climate March that September. This is how we got to know who was curious and interested in what we were doing and thinking about. We were able to figure out who might seriously move to Ridgewood to organize with us, and we started to have a sense of what threads we wanted to follow-up on together. The first year was probably the invitational stage, and from there we had a more solid and stable group to start to work with, to really see what we could try to do together.
How have your projects changed over the years?
Woodbine was started in the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy, and those events and references still weighed heavily on the group imagining and starting the space. But beginning in 2014 the political, environmental, and historical contexts within which we were operating changed. Ferguson, the Kurdish movement in Syria, Standing Rock, Bernie and Trump, the proposed Amazon HQ in Queens: these phenomena that we couldn’t have anticipated changed how we, and everyone around us, were thinking about politics and organizing. They changed the tone of how we shared space together in Ridgewood, and what we thought we should be focusing on at any given time. Woodbine having a space, a lease, bills, and rooting our daily lives in a neighborhood gave us a different rhythm and temporality of being together in the city. Maintaining our regular weekly and monthly programming and responsibilities, while still trying to be fluid and responsive to the broader political context around us, this has basically been the challenge of doing Woodbine as a long-term commitment, rather than a pop-up “project”.
The other answer about things changing is the membership of the group itself changing, as different people came and went organizing with us Ridgewood, they each brought different interests, skills, points of emphasis, which affected the space’s public programming at any given time, which then affects who circulates through. In early 2018 we started the monthly reading series Crush with Suzanne Goldenberg, which has become one of Woodbine’s most popular series, and has brought in a whole new community of people relating to and caring for the space. Our weekly Research Group seminar, which re-started around the same time as Crush, focuses on autonomous pedagogy and thinking together, out loud, in person. With the ever-increasing domination of social media in all spheres of our communication, there was a need and desire for in-real-life gatherings to patiently and generously think and discuss together things that may have nothing directly to do with Trump or Bernie Sanders or climate collapse, but which inform the way in which we should relate to them.
What would you like to do next?
We want to meet more people in New York City, and have them feel empowered and inspired to collaborate with us, to try new things at the space. We want to work with people that are excited about responding to the present, who are forward-looking and imaginative. There is every reason today to be cynical, withdrawn, depressed, defeated, but what we hope to do for ourselves and each other is to be a space to find this other tendency in New York, to overcome the despair which tells us nothing can be done, or that nothing is worth doing.
How do you communicate with what might be considered your different constituencies?
Right when we opened Woodbine we made a conscious decision to try to be more transparent or accessible than our previous organizing efforts. Coming out of an anarchist and militant context there was the expectation that everything would always be anonymous, secretive, opaque, circulated through certain channels or outlets that were available solely to other self-identified radicals. Starting Woodbine came from an exhaustion with doing politics and life in this way, and we wanted to open ourselves up a bit, to see who and what else was out there if we didn’t have this pretense of secrecy. We tried to reflect this in the aesthetic of the space itself, to not look like a typical political space with tacky and dated propaganda, slogans, and posters hanging all over the place. We also signed up for social media profiles for the space and ourselves, opening up our social networks to let people know what we were doing, and simply inviting people in. Our weekly Sunday Dinners have been the clearest form of communication: an open invitation for anyone to come and eat and talk with us, for anyone who wanted to learn more about who we were and what we were doing. Maintaining that openness has always been an important part of the project and community: we’re here if you want to find us.
Could you give some examples of the conversations you had with people in the neighborhood when you tried to explain what you were doing?
Our most successful neighborhood projects have probably been the Ridgewood Community Garden and the Ridgewood Farm Share, both of which came out of suggestions we got from neighborhood forums we organized at local churches and the Ridgewood public library. It’s worth noting that neither of these activities are really about discussions. The materiality and directness of a garden and food were just immediately legible and joinable to people, and we decided explicitly to not ideologically frame either as some “radical” intervention done by “revolutionaries”, but rather to let the practices speak for themselves. Our Sunday Dinners and the bookstore/cafe Topos have also been largely neighborhood-based, but these were also attempts to build new social forms for ourselves and others, rather than attempts to do dogma in Ridgewood.
Our more explicitly discursive, theoretical, “political” programming at Woodbine probably brings in more people from outside of Ridgewood, but this is also fine. We never meant to isolate ourselves in Ridgewood as if in a vacuum, nor to be a service organization for one neighborhood. We run a political space in the largest city in America, a city with one of the largest microscopes on it in the world, and there are presentations and conversations we want to host that simply aren’t happening at other spaces in New York. Sometimes 10 people come, sometimes 100 and we have to turn people away.
What has it been like for you personally to be involved in this kind of work?
Starting a space from scratch was a new practice for all of us–physically, financially, socially–to organize within this kind of framework. In previous generations people might have formed or joined some organization, or started a publication as a stand-in for an organization, but it seems in the 21st century it’s been more common for a space to be the organizational form that bound people, practices, ideas, and movements together. This probably has something to do with the post-68 growth of autonomous and anarchist politics, especially post-Seattle.
Being involved with Woodbine has meant taking a certain responsibility for yourself within the space, to put yourself out there to organize events and gatherings, to be a host, a facilitator, someone who tries to welcome new people into a context that might feel unfamiliar to them. The question of organizing in this sense is not just about ideology and strategy, but also the interpersonal dynamics of how do you meet new people, how do you greet them, make them feel welcome and comfortable, to intervene in discussions and events to keep things on track, and to make people feel an investment and stake in coming back.
Do you have any advice for people who might want to do the same kind of thing elsewhere?
People need to experiment, not just in the beginning as you consider opening a space, but also along the way, to try new things, push yourselves, collaborate with people you might not have expected. You also have to admit when certain things aren’t working, or feeling joyful, or rewarding, and figure out a way to talk about that together. There’s no singular model that Woodbine has tried between 2014 and the present, and no model we could say would apply to any other context outside of Ridgewood. The advice would be, if your goal is to find like-minded people wherever you are, to continue to experiment with the forms that allow you to do that. Don’t withdraw into your screens.