On the morning of July 24, half a dozen NYPD officers formed a line behind a man in a black baseball cap wielding a metal rod. He was trying to pry open the door of a Bushwick storefront. But the police weren’t there to arrest the man, who was an employee of the landlord, the Dodworth Development Corporation. Instead, it was the second time in a week that the police had been called to kick out local activists who had broken into the storefront. Their first attempt to occupy the space a couple of days prior had resulted in one arrest. This time, a handful of them had managed to barricade themselves inside, blocking the door with a pile of heavy objects that barely budged when the employee tried to smash it open. Soon, the police would join in with bolt cutters.
It was the start of a daylong standoff between police and the organizers behind the Gym, a mutual-aid hub that briefly operated out of the storefront last summer until the landlord locked its members out. Since then, the Gym has operated on the sidewalk in front — until late July, when organizers tried to reoccupy the space. In the subsequent scuffle that Saturday, the police presence grew from half a dozen officers to more than 50. As they tried to clear the sidewalk, some officers grabbed the supporters of the Gym gathered outside and slammed them to the pavement, while others used power tools to open the door. The confrontation ended with police breaking into the store and arresting five people. Since then, both Representative Nydia Velázquez and Maya Wiley have called on Mayor de Blasio to open an investigation into the NYPD’s conduct. It was a dramatic escalation in the ongoing feud over the three-story building — and part of a larger debate about how vacant commercial spaces should be used during the pandemic.
The Gym got its start in June 2020, when 37-year-old Caitlin Baucom, who lives in a loft upstairs, and another resident asked the owner of the Strength for All gym, which leased the street-level storefront, if they could use the space for mutual aid. The owner of the gym agreed (the space had been temporarily shuttered due to the pandemic and then closed permanently in the summer), and Baucom and others got to work amassing donations, from diapers to face masks to fresh produce, which they offered to locals in need. In just a few weeks, the Gym gained a reputation in the neighborhood as a resource for free essentials. But Richard Pogostin, who runs the Dodworth Development Corporation, wanted them out.
“My landlord is very blustery, and he’s a lawyer, so he comes around and yells a lot of vague statements about liability and legality. And then at one point, they put all of our stuff on the sidewalk and locked us out,” she said. So she and other volunteers kept the Gym going on the sidewalk in front of 1083 Broadway, stocking tables and shelves with donations and hosting events like a “community-care weekend” that included everything from Reiki to legal services.
But as the months passed, the Gym’s organizers became frustrated with the fact that the storefront remained vacant while they operated outdoors, rain or shine. So on July 20, activists made their first attempt; they broke a lock on the gate and “took back” the store. They moved supplies inside, and someone lugged in a mattress to make a place where an unhoused person could sleep; one man from Harlem spent the night. But the occupation was short-lived: The next day, Pogostin called 911 and the police cleared them out, arresting one man who refused to leave. In Pogostin’s view, the activists “didn’t reclaim anything, because they never had it in the first place. They never had a lease for that space ever; they just cut my lock, opened the gate, and went in.”
This isn’t the only reason why Pogostin and Baucom have a strained relationship. Baucom says she has not paid rent on her upstairs apartment since March 2020, primarily because she has lost work as a performer. Pogostin says she owes him two years’ worth of rent. Roughly every three months, she receives a notice that says her lease has expired and demands that she leave the apartment. But she refuses to go (she says she is applying for rent relief) — nor does she plan to close down the Gym.
A few days after the second attempted occupation, Baucom and several other volunteers once again set up the Gym outside the empty storefront. For now, Pogostin says he can’t push them out because they are occupying public space. “I’ve got hippie losers partying in front of the space all the time,” he said. “What potential tenant is relishing the opportunity to have those knuckleheads in front of his store 24/7?” He says he’ll eventually pursue eviction cases against Baucom and other residents who owe rent.
For several days after the second round of arrests, it seemed that everything might return to the way it had been. But on Tuesday morning, Baucom went outside and saw that a wooden shade canopy, a leather sofa, and a grill that are usually parked on the sidewalk as part of the Gym’s setup were all gone. Still, she and others got to work setting up a couple of folding tables and carried on. On Sunday under a blue tent, volunteers sorted through donated blankets, books, and deodorant that they had gathered to give to unhoused men staying at a nearby hotel. A homeless man dug through a pile of diapers to help a mother find the right size. Throughout the day, a steady stream of neighbors stopped by to rummage through the donations. “We set up yesterday,” said Baucom, “and we will do so again today and every day.”