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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster

THE NEW YORK COMMUNE / The Gray (2012-2014)

New York Commune - Leopold Lambert (1)

“The New York Commune,” in Gean Moreno (ed), The Gray, Miami (forthcoming, 2015)

Not a single day has passed that I don’t think of the events I witnessed. What a mess, but what a glorious time! It all started when we organized the occupation of a once renowned construction site after rental prices became simply impossible to pay. They had been flying up for years and this moment marked the point of no-return! There were a few thousand of us living in this incomplete structure. We found our roles quickly, and what was at first a rudimentary camp became a well-oiled machine! Had we not become so well organized, when the cops came “knocking at the door” both times, things would have deteriorated quickly! You should have seen them, these poor cops! They left the same way than they arrived and they knew that we were outnumbering them by far. I did not talk to them personally. I don’t have the patience to be honest. It’s true that the people downstairs who dealt with them, who were mostly women actually, apparently really knew their shit. The cops were waiting for any sign to force their way in but all they got were these girls who told them that we weren’t as different as they thought. To be fair, they were also told what was waiting for them if they were bold enough to come up the structure! Well, all that was before things got ugly, a bit more than two months after we started living there. One night we were woken up by the sound of the helicopters that quickly reached the tower. Man, there were a lot of them! We were so amazed by the show they were giving us that we didn’t quite react right away. Before we knew it, the guys downstairs had been taken by the hundreds of cops that were surrounding the structure. It did not take long for them to climb their way up and arrest everything that moved. They had these big stocks of plastic zip handcuffs that they enjoy tightening to the point where the blood stops flowing to the hands. A few of our guys managed to get away, taking advantage of the chaos, but most of us got it bad. People were screaming to the cops to cut the shit but it was easy to see in their eyes that they were enjoying the hell out of it. I got caught myself while I was trying to reach the upper floors. By that point the assholes from the copters were already coming down, fuck them! Eventually we were brought back downstairs, where we waited to fill the buses that had been requisitioned just for the cops’ dirty job. And then, that’s when it happened. It was early in the morning by that time and everything had become silent after the melee from earlier. We heard the scream from the lowest level as we stood out in the not-yet- awake city; a horrible scream echoed from the middle section of the tower. And then we saw him. We saw this little dark figure fall from three hundred feet and crash into the asphalt.

A bunch of us managed to run out of this shit crowd. How pitiable we must have looked. Running, sweating, crying, shaking all with our hands still tied by these fucking handcuffs. Later that morning, after we had told the story of the night to everyone we ran into, the words of many demonstrations had spread by the voice of others throughout the city.

Eventually the like-minded managed to find each other and we all headed south toward City Hall. We were exhausted by now but we couldn’t care less. Shit! They killed that guy! At least that’s what we thought. It did not matter how it happened. It happened! Whether they killed him deliberately or not was not important, they were responsible for the shit that had happened.

And the cops were just as tired as we were. Most of them had been up all night for their operation against us and you could clearly see the difference between those who were ready to give up everything to go back home and sleep, and the rest of them that could not wait to break us into pieces. God knows we were ready to do the same to them, but it never came to that point.

By the time we reached downtown the cops had gathered their last few patrolmen in order to stop us. When they saw that they were going to be quickly outnumbered, this one white collar officer armed his pistol and ordered his men to do the same. And that was the deciding moment. They clearly considered it but only a scant few of the cowards obeyed. We had won!

The night had come; we were now the masters of the city.  We had not slept for too long so we were now basically sleepwalking. Where would have gone to sleep anyway? We just had been evicted from the last home that we had. By midnight, we learned that the mayor had fled from the city. What a feeling! Glorious! This guy had represented everything we were fighting against.

Meetings were being organized everywhere. It was time to decide our next move. We talked, talked, talked…Too much if you ask me, but well… Some of the folks were getting nervous while others had nothing to lose. A few fights started but nothing ugly, just people who were tired of the miserable conditions of our world and disagreed about what to do.

For the first time, we were actually free to decide what kind of world we wanted to live in. I have to say, it’s pretty scary when I come to think about it. I guess that we were too into it to realize back then. However, the meetings continued everywhere. It was weird to see all these people talking when the situation was asking for something more radical. But, I suppose we needed it that.

I’m still not sure how the whole thing happened and how thousands upon thousands of people around managed to more or less agree to this shit, but that was it, the city was declared independent from the rest of the country. Fuck! Can you imagine? We spent the rest of the night acquiring tents and food for those of us who had nowhere to go. We were both happy and scared.

On the morning of the first day, the streets were completely empty. The avenues were without cars or people, something to be seen in a lifetime! We knew that the cops or the army were going to come for us. The President almost lost it completely during the press conference! “Traitors, rebels, terrorists,” that’s what we were for this sad little guy, but so be it!

I walked for many hours that day. It’s not like I had a plan if, all of a sudden, a bunch of tanks were to swarm out of the next street. I just told myself “Fuck it!” and went with it. A few people seemed to be doing the same thing as me, just walking without a real purpose, just the purpose of discovering what our city looked like on its first day of independence.

I saw some guys looting the supermarkets; that’s true, but in general the city was super calm on both sides of the river. This one guy I ran into made me laugh. He told me that he had actually never crossed the bridge before. Can you fucking believe that? This guy had lived in the city for 50 years and, for the first time, he was not afraid to go meet his fellows from the other side!

Some places I went to were showing the signs of combat which I knew nothing about. What the fuck happened? No one was around to tell me but it seems like we hadn’t found ourselves masters of the city just by chance. The riots that started after they killed one of us had clearly reached the entirety of the city and there’s nothing the cops could have done about it.

Later, I found myself in the financial district. Here as well, it seemed fights had been going on. Presumably, the bankers were not going to leave the city without bringing their stuff with them. Well, it seems it was probably harder for them to leave than they expected. Some of them were probably still hiding under their desks as I walked around.

It was certainly not glorious what we seem to have done here. These poor little bankers had faced the wrath of the people that they had used all these years, so naturally they were not going to get away with it so easily. Later on, I learned that some of them had been taken hostage. As it turns out, the government out there didn’t care much about them after all…

As I had been outside all day, I did not realize that the city was now operating without electricity. Those assholes cut off the grid entirely, and it was not going to be the city’s plant-life that would feed us with the same wasteful excess that we had known beforehand. But, it’s not like we needed it so much anyway. Sharing the little we were able to produce would be enough as we would soon realize.

The city in the dark. Despite the inconvenience, there was something quite beautiful in this darkness. That’s something that they could not understand out there. Cutting our electricity was more of a blessing than anything. Yes, a blessing. Actually It was only after this first night in the dark that we understood the extent to which we were going to have to organize our own lives in this city.

It was quite crazy to see how the idea of the neighborhood came back at that time. We had to share electricity, water and food so it went down to small groups of blocks to organize their life together. It was an idea much easier to accept on one side of the river than by the others but eventually, everyone came to live this way. Anyway, what else were we going to do?

For the first time in most peoples’ lives, they were each actually using their individual skills for their own benefit. Most of us were making stuff and everyone around was benefiting from it. Whether you were cooking, fabricating shoes, or building water turbines in the river, you were feeling useful to yourself, and useful to others. Man, you wouldn’t believe! How could have we been so blind before?

With time, we all found the places that we could consider home in the end. When all those people fled the city, free apartments were not hard to find, let me tell you. So yes we were still having “our own stuff,” but really we were spending most of the time outside, in the public with the others. It was such a weird feeling to have the desire to stay outside, to share something…so very strange…

Every now and then we would just meet somewhere and just dance in the streets. It’s not like there were a whole lot of cars flying around now. To see all these bodies interacting with each other, that’s when you could see the best of the city coming up. We were still waiting for the army to make a move, and yet we were dancing like nothing else was going on.

Before, the arts seemed like this thing that only rich people bought. Now that the city was on its own, everyone seemed to have something to express through one means or another. I’m saying that everything was good. God, no! Some stuff was just awful, but at least we had the time to try stuff, take the risk, feel the move, you feel me?

The big communal meals were also a nice moment. The stuff they were cultivating on the roof was weird to eat, but we got used to it. Those guys were doing an incredible job. Can you imagine? Feeding an entire city with whatever is available! I’m sure it was exhausting but they handled it. These meals were no banquet, that’s for sure, but I don’t remember having ever been hungry.

Now, an interesting moment was when we started to build stuff. It didn’t take us too much time to realize that every building around us reeked of the former system. There was this group of women who started to burn all the former government buildings like the City Hall. I didn’t really know what to think of that. It’s pretty fucked up, yeah, but on the other hand, wasn’t the idea to liberate ourselves from the old system? We could have also used those buildings like we used construction site back then, but then again, why not building some stuff from scratch? There is this one structure we did, for example. There weren’t any plans for it, that’s for sure; we just built it with whatever was around. I still can’t believe it never collapsed! It was a sort of assembly place with a stage and shelves for thousands of books. We built it in the park near the library, which is how we came to have some many books on the thing. Sure, they weren’t organized in alphabetical order or anything, but fuck that, right? Anyway, every evening, something was happening at the structure. It was hard to remember if we had built specifically for these little events, or if the structure itself that was sort of inducing these things in the first place. It doesn’t matter now anyway, more structures came after that; in parking lots; in the middle of the street; on rooftops; there’s even one in the god-damned river! And it turned out these were the places where all the important decisions were being made. Again, I can’t believe how long some conversations took; it’s like it was never going to stop! Yeah, of course we need to think, that’s good, but sometimes we just need to fucking DO something! Well, I suppose it wasn’t all that bad in the end. We were living in this city together, and we were building it together at the same time, so it’s kind of normal to take the time to talk about it so no one feels left behind like we used to feel before. It even reached a point that the whole damn thing was working pretty well. We learned to make everything better with time, but well, all that was before the army eventually came to play. We had noticed the spy drones in the past, and had even captured one that was flying too low, but soon people were waking up at night seemed to become very well armed and it did not take too long before everything went to shit. Once the attacks started, it took me two weeks before I saw an actual human soldier. The sky seemed like it was never going to be silent again and it was now out of the question to walk outside at night. Rumors of hidden snipers from the old regime up in the buildings in Midtown were spreading everywhere. Some groups tried to organize themselves, but since we only had just a few weapons, we knew we weren’t capable of stopping that force that was coming down on us.

The city was still ours but we were slowly losing it…

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