More than five months later, with the coronavirus crisis taking an unprecedented toll on New York City, Woodbine has almost entirely pivoted from a civic-minded cultural space to a mutual aid powerhouse.
“When it all started we had a hunch that we would need to organize and collaborate,” says Matt Peterson, one of the hub’s co-founders, “but we had no idea the scale at which things would take off. We’ve had to experiment with so many new avenues because everything changed.”
Woodbine recently expanded its efforts to support Ridgewood residents by installing a 24-hour community refrigerator outside of its headquarters at 1882 Woodbine St. One of several to pop up in the neighborhood, the refrigerator and its accompanying pantry shelf invite people to both take what they need and contribute what they are able to.
In addition to continuing its yearly Community Supported Agriculture season by collaborating with Rock Steady for a summer farmshare, Woodbine has been operating a food pantry outside its space for months.
A partnership between the group and local food insecurity outreach organization Hungry Monk, Woodbine’s pantry serves nearly 400 families each Wednesday and Friday morning.
But Peterson says residents need much more than food. They also need information and resources that will assist them in mitigating the fallout of this pandemic, as well as advocacy on behalf of their rights.
It was this observation that prompted Woodbine to further its experimental pursuits and distribute a bi-monthly newsletter called Free Ridgewood - printed in both English and Spanish - to help community members process the chaos of this moment.
The first edition, published in May, contained a neighborhood resource guide, as well as interviews with essential workers and community organizers. In July, the publication focused on social issues, featuring a “Know Your Rights” guide, protest tips and more interviews.
The next issue will put an emphasis on school reopening, awaiting a second federal relief package, the extended moratorium on evictions, and increases in unemployment and business closures.
“So much of the last five or six months have been trying to adapt,” explains Peterson. “We never anticipated being a food pantry or printing a newsletter, but as we go on we see those needs and we try to fit them.
“There’s not much of an end in sight,” he continues. “We passed phase four and it still doesn't feel very normal. The city isn’t what it was, and if this the new normal of Ridgewood we need to be thinking about how we can adjust to that reality.”
Every Sunday evening, a group of volunteers gathers at the Woodbine space for a weekly mask sewing workshop. The skillshare is conducted by professional seamstresses and sewers, who teach others how to create reusable face coverings.
They have distributed hundreds of free masks to adults and children at the food pantry.
Although Woodbine has mostly transitioned from cultural programming to mutual aid, the hub still offers an opportunity for artistic expression through a reading series called CRUSH.
The readings started virtually, but during a protest at City Hall Park, the first outdoor installment was held. Series organizer Suzanna Golderberg describes CRUSH as fulfilling a desire to create an inclusive and liberating poetic space for writers, artists and activists to “become a mutually cross-pollinating, ever-expanding affinity group.”
This shift in focus points, says Peterson, is all in the evolution of Woodbine’s work.
“Before, Woodbine was a cultural space to talk about ideas, politics, art and philosophy, and a lot of that was centered on meeting up in person,” he notes. “We definitely miss people getting together, but all of that is still happening implicitly among the volunteers.
“People are still talking and thinking about those things,” he adds. “Just not against the traditional backdrop of a cultural institution.”
One of the next issues Woodbine will likely take on is pushing for landlords to repurpose some of the more than 100 vacant storefronts the group identified in Ridgewood for community space.
As donations and governmental support begin to dry up, Woodbine will continue to expand its mutual aid network in order to maintain its current programming and plan for the future, which the team hopes will include a larger space that could be used as a child care cooperative.
Donations can be made at withfriends.co/woodbine/join.