By Suzy Subways
[Note: Names with an asterisk * have been changed as protection against the police, who have historically targeted radicals and exacerbated conflict among them.]
Since 1991, the A-Space Anarchist Community Center, has at times thrived, at times stood quiet in its storefront at 4722 Baltimore Avenue. In a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, the space has frequently featured the artwork of local queer and Black artists and provided meeting space for political radicals. Books Through Bars, a separate collective, mails more than 8,000 book packages to people in prison every year from its back office. At the moment, A-Space is embroiled in controversy — but upcoming changes promise new vibrancy.
While, for years, activist groups, knitters, and shape-notes singers have gathered at A-Space at their regular date and time, many say the process for new groups or events is unclear. “I don’t think I’ve seen a call for volunteers in years,” local activist Christina* said. For decades, the space printed a calendar of events on the front door for their neighbors who were not part of activist circles and were bearing the brunt of gentrification; there is no longer a printed calendar.
“Currently, we are at a bare bones crew consisting of three active collective members,” an A-Space collective member said by email in response to questions from The Philadelphia Partisan. “In recent years, we did have a larger group with 5-6 actively involved folks, but due to various life events (school, moving out of town…), our numbers have dwindled.”
Regarding the events calendar, the collective member said, “Due to our limited capacity, we rely on event hosts to promote their own events. […] Hosts are encouraged to make fliers to post on the door and bulletin board. Events are shared on a Facebook group and Facebook page, and there is a public Google Calendar. As for a monthly paper calendar, unfortunately, it has not been consistently created/posted.”
But a painful controversy may be catalyzing changes.
Controversy and Cooperation
When the collective decided that Michael*, the host of the popular daily morning meditation sessions at A-Space, can no longer host any events at the space, he agreed and did not contest the decision. But nearby neighbors and fellow anarchists reacted with fury and tears. Natasha, a preschool education worker, said, “I’ve been doing morning meditation with Michael since 2012. It’s been my daily ritual that’s most important to me.”
Michael has also recruited local artists to show their work and to curate exhibits. Claes Gabriel, an artist from Haiti who lives in West Philadelphia, said Michael invited him to show his work at A-Space and brought curators from other galleries to see it. “Michael knew people — just because he’s not rich doesn’t mean he doesn’t know people. It was a domino effect. That’s when it all got started.” In December, Gabriel’s artwork was exhibited at the airport, and he has a show coming up in March at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. Gabriel said he feels more comfortable in an “outsider gallery” like A-Space than in traditional art galleries, because of the diversity of people the space attracts.
Cliff, a barber at the Hair Show barbershop on the same block as A-Space, said, “Michael’s a great guy. He’s helped people in prison and guys around here who’ve been in prison. We see him every day.”
On the evening of Thursday, February 21, about 40 community members gathered in the parking lot outside A-Space to share hot soup and talk. Thirty-two people signed a petition asking for more transparency and community involvement in the A-Space and for Michael’s hosting privileges to be restored. Others signed a request for a community dialogue with the A-Space collective.
Pam Africa, a leader in the movement to free political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, signed the petition. “If we’re looking to help the community, these decisions should be made collectively,” she said. “Michael made this a place that is very comfortable for people to come. He would go out of his way to make it accessible. We had events where people from out of town stayed here overnight so they could do activist work. I hope people reconsider what they have done.”
About the collective’s reason for revoking Michael’s hosting privileges, Africa said, “I heard this was over a brother who stayed overnight. Michael didn’t tell him he could stay, but he didn’t tell him he couldn’t stay. But that’s the humanity, wanting to give and share.”
At the outdoor meeting, community members remarked that Michael was the “unofficial caretaker” of the space. “Michael is a staple in this community since I was a teenager,” said Dookie.* “He has fed me, clothed me, and given me clients for bike repair.”
No reason has been given to the community for the decision. The A-Space collective member said, “We are not interested in detailing the problems that lead up to asking the organizer to stop hosting events at the A-Space, for their own privacy. We can say, the decision was not easy, was not taken lightly, and was due to persistent concerns that occurred over the long term. There was a recent incident, but it was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
This leads to another question: Who is the camel?
Who Represents the A-Space?
When asked how the collective makes decisions, the member responded, “We don’t use a formal consensus process, although we seek agreement/consensus by everyone. Because the A-Space collective has been so small lately, we have generally been merging the A-Space Collective meetings and the 4722 building meetings into one meeting.”
4722 Baltimore Avenue is owned by a community land trust, the Life Center Association. Land trusts are cooperatives that ensure long-term housing affordability by taking homes off the capitalist market. The LCA was founded by anarchist-leaning radicals in a national organization called Movement for a New Society, which existed from 1971 to 1988, and it also owns seven nearby houses and the Pentridge Children’s Garden. Two apartments and the Books Through Bars office share 4722 Baltimore with the A-Space.
The A-Space member added, “Books Through Bars (BTB) Collective is a separate collective. BTB were *not* involved with this decision. Additionally, these responses should not be assumed to speak for BTB in any way.”
So if the building meetings have been merged with the A-Space meetings, but BTB was not involved in this decision, this means the three-member collective was mostly made up of residents in the apartments at the time the decision was made. Tony, a member of Food Not Bombs and lifelong resident of West Philadelphia, said this structure is a problem. “There should be a separation of A Space and the tenants, to some extent,” he said. “They should have a voice but not be one and the same.”
This issue is addressed in one of the four demands of Thursday night’s petition: “The A-Space must have its own autonomous representation within decision-making by the building as a whole.” If the A-Space can get more volunteers and collective members, it will have more representation when issues come up in the building that need to be negotiated. For example, the LCA has repeatedly gone to court to contest city fines for garbage dumping, because community members leave old clothes and housewares outside the building for others to take — and often the items don’t get taken. This is a problem for residents of the building. However, A-Space has its own interests, such as being a lively, dynamic space that attracts a wide range of people. Sometimes the interests of the residents and the space overlap, but sometimes they don’t.
One activist goes further: “The long-term goal has been to get rid of the A-Space. I guess this is another attempt, yet it seems like [Michael] is always holding on to what little is left, and others, myself included, are standing around watching,” a lifelong Philadelphian and anti-prison activist said. “The entire building is owned by the Life Center Association (LCA) by law as a low-income housing organization, but in all reality it’s a middle and upper-class gentrification organization!” he added. In recent years, the building has accepted money from the University City District, an engine of gentrification in the neighborhood, to make needed repairs.
Conflict and lack of continuity are common in all-volunteer activist spaces. For anyone dedicating years to organizations such as the LCA or the A-Space, it’s important to guard against burnout and bureaucracy. One way is to consistently share skills with new people and replace yourself as a leader over time. This means constantly reaching out to community members, bringing them into the space, and involving them in the work; it means organizing.
Get Involved in Organizing the A-Space!
Do anarchists organize? People who are not familiar with anarchism may find this question bizarre. But the truth is A-Space wouldn’t exist if anarchists hadn’t organized together in the 80s and 90s. Anarchists are community-minded, and have a strong organizing tradition.
And new energy may soon infuse the space. “Obviously, it is not ideal for anyone for the collective to be so small, so we are currently making plans about how to expand,” the collective member said. “We will be actively reaching out to folks who have recently hosted events at the A-Space to see if they’d like to get more involved with logistics and potentially join the collective. We plan to institute regularly occurring monthly meetings, starting in mid-March. In the past, when expanding the collective, we have reached out and asked specific known and trusted leaders to join the collective, along with welcoming folks who expressed interest.”
“Hosting an event at the A-Space is very flexible — asking only a small sliding scale donation of $10-$20 for an event (and often receive less),” they added. “There are many events that are POC [people of color] hosted/focused, a wide range of ages and styles of events, and we remain anti-capitalist (i.e., not booking people who are essentially businesses).”And as for concerns that the space is not as lively as it could be, the collective member responded, “It is booked daily, with multiple events on the weekends. There were approximately 79 events scheduled for January and February (this number does not include the daily meditation).”
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to request the A-Space for an event.
Disclosure: The author has participated in (and occasionally hosted) events at A-Space for many years. She helped write the petition mentioned in the article. However, she does neither mornings nor meditation.
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