Locals launch mutual aid project in Gowanus

Gowanus Mutual Aid co-founder Ava Cotlowitz and fellow organizer Tiane selling handmade masks sewn by neighbors to raise money for grocery and cleaning supply runs.
Courtesy of Gowanus Mutual Aid

Gowanus do-gooders recently launched a mutual aid effort for neighbors living near Brooklyn’s noxious canal to help each other amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to one of the group’s founders. 

“Through all this time, mutual aid groups popped up all around us, but never really focussed specifically on the Gowanus area,” said Ava Cotlowitz, who helped found Gowanus Mutual Aid.

The volunteer support networks boomed in the borough when the novel coronavirus first brought the city to a standstill in the spring, spurring experienced activists and people newly out of a job or working from home to organize and directly help out their neighbors.

While some of those efforts have since waned, Cotlowitz — an elementary school teacher at Public School 32 in nearby Park Slope — saw that many local families were still struggling due to COVID-related stresses when she welcomed kids back to in-person classes in September.

“I kept seeing that there was this gap for families who weren’t getting what they needed,” she said.

The school’s regular toy and coat drives didn’t happen this year due to pandemic restrictions, so Cotlowitz decided that mutual aid was the way to go.

She and other local activists tapped the larger networks West Brooklyn Waterfront Mutual Aid — which sources volunteers from Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and the Columbia Street Waterfront District — and the citywide Mutual Aid NYC to help them set up a Gowanus operation, which officially launched in November and has since grown to some 100 volunteers.

The bulk of their requests are for grocery deliveries and other essentials, such as personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, and Cotlowitz said the group has already distributed $2,200-worth of goods. 

They have also connected Gowanusaurs with other organizations for housing rights issues, building maintenance, help with job applications, and navigating social services.

Many of those needs come from the local New York City Housing Authority projects, Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens, and the mutual aid counts several public housing residents among its volunteers who help direct resources there, Cotlowitz said. 

More recently, the group opened the neighborhood’s first so-called “free store” on the corner of Bond and Douglass streets, where folks can give or take goods including books, clothes, toiletries, or non-perishable food. 

“The motto of it is give what you can and take what you need,” Cotlowitz said.

Gowanus Mutual Aid launched a “free store” at the corner of Bond and Douglass streets on Dec. 13.Courtesy of Gowanus Mutual Aid

Items left at the free store have so far ranged from kids bikes and a baby stroller, to backpacks, school supplies, and mac-and-cheese packs for anyone to take. Volunteers check on it twice a day to make sure it’s intact and clean. 

Northern Brooklynites have opened similar outposts in Williamsburg in recent weeks with help from North Brooklyn Mutual Aid, Curbed reported.

While mutual aid networks slowed down as the city reopened during the summer, officials have warned of a second wave of the virus emerging, along with a possible second full-scale shutdown of non-essential businesses, despite COVID-19 vaccines starting to roll out in the Five Boroughs this week.

New restrictions could augur a renewed interest in mutual aid, but Cotlowitz believes — as do many other fellow mutual aid organizers — that the networks are here to stay well beyond the pandemic. 

“The purpose of it is to do the grassroots community work that is often missing from politics and local organizations that might not have the best interests of communities at heart,” she said. “Building a community of neighbors that care about each other, that should never go away — it is timeless and can be built upon.”

For more information visit www.gowanusmutualaid.org, call (929) 243-4408, or email gowanusmutualaid@gmail.com.