Omar Freilla is an environmental justice activist, cooperative developer, and founder and coordinator of Green Worker Cooperatives in the Bronx. Raised in the South Bronx, where he continues to live, Freilla is passionate about creating a green and democratic economy. He is nationally recognized as a leading voice for worker ownership, green jobs, and environmental justice and is founder and coordinator of Green Worker Cooperatives, an organization dedicated to incubating green and worker-owned businesses in the South Bronx. He has received numerous awards for his work, including the Rockefeller Foundation’s Jane Jacobs Medal for New Ideas and Activism.
Freilla is part of the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s “Lab Team New York.” In each of the nine cities visited by the Lab, a new team convenes to develop ideas around the theme and help design a roster of public programming. For an overview of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, click here.
Much of your work takes place in the South Bronx, which is also where you grew up and are currently based; the Lab is on Houston Street on the border of Manhattan’s East Village and Lower East Side. How do you envision the Lab engaging New Yorkers from all the boroughs, including those who typically don’t go to that area or visit the Guggenheim?
A lot of it will depend on the Lab’s connections with local partners — in other parts of the city and even here on the Lower East Side — to encourage residents who aren’t the traditional museum-going crowd to come engage with us. There’s a massive list of local groups that the team leaders and the Guggenheim are reaching out to in an effort to get their constituents to come to the Lab.
The activities that we are presenting cover a wide range of issues, including hot-button topics like gentrification, transportation, affordable housing and environmental justice that a lot of community groups, non-profit organizations and advocacy groups have been organizing around or struggling with. This will be a great opportunity, a great space, for people to come in from every walk of life and participate, have a conversation and engage in issues that are relevant to them. We are organizing programs for all ages too, from very young kids on up.
We have a game at the Lab, Urbanology, that's a mix between Red Light, Green Light, 1, 2, 3 and civics class.
Some of the programs you are leading at the lab concern “alternative” communities operating within a greater urban society. How do you predict tours of sustainable alternative economies and worker co-operatives will impact the average New Yorker? And how do you think this type of education “confronts comfort”?
Most of us live in our own little bubbles. We know the world that we walk in every single day. But there are so many innovative things that are happening in New York. Whether it’s urban farming, community gardening, working with alternative energy sources, creating cooperatives, creating land trusts or participatory budgeting — to have a space where people can come and learn about any of it, all of it, is a great opportunity.
While some of that information can probably be found online, it is only accessible if you go looking for it. A physical space provides opportunity. You might come by with an interest in one particular issue, but then you flip through the catalog or look at our list of events, and suddenly you begin to engage with new topics on different levels.
We have this game at the Lab, Urbanology, developed by ZUS and the firm Local Projects, that does a great job of engaging people in conversation. It’s kind of a mix between Red Light, Green Light, 1, 2, 3 and civics class. It looks at issues of environmental sustainability, livability, transportation, how healthy the city is, how affordable it is, how much money the city has, the impacts of all kinds of policy on the prosperity of the city. Whoever is in the space is asked a series of questions and the answers determine the next component. If I say, “I want the city to invest in creating green businesses,” that’s going to have an impact on the wealth of the city and on environmental sustainability, so you see how that plays out. It is easier to get a sense of the game if you visit the Lab. But it really gets people to rethink what their priorities are for the city, and what the city’s priorities should be. It’s very rare to accomplish that.
Most of us live in our own little bubbles. We know the world that we walk in every single day. A physical space provides opportunity for people to engage with new topics on different levels.
What role do you think citizen activism can play in contemporary urbanism? Do you think that partnerships with cultural institutions like the Guggenheim or corporations like BMW can create new platforms for activist groups, and are there any problems with such collaborations?
Well I think that this is a great example of how institutions that have traditionally been ivory towers in a certain way can collaborate and create spaces that address the needs of people who are living on the ground. The BMW Guggenheim Lab does a great job of that.
The Lab is really just one big space for conversation, built on a network of partnerships and the creativity of the participants in developing the workshops, films and programs. It is a space that community organizations and activist groups can utilize, to have conversations about city policy, to build consensus, to share ideas and expand thoughts around any number of issues, whether it’s affordable housing, the environment, economic equity — anything. We just want those conversations to happen, and to engage as many people as possible.
The lab is sometimes worded as “occupying” its site. There are plenty of problems that plague communities in the city as a result of architecture that occupies the neighborhood without any input from residents. Do you think a temporary structure like this one can provoke more local agency and public participation in the development of the built environment?
This one certainly has. The Lab structure was built in collaboration with the residents of the block. The Guggenheim has been working closely with the East First Street Block Association to figure out what the neighborhood’s desires are and what can be done with the space after the Lab is gone. The Lab structure is not permanent, but there has been an incredible amount of prep work on the property so that what was a vacant lot, rubble-strewn and full of rats, has been cleaned up. What will be left is a platform, a space that people can use for any number of activities. The City hadn’t done anything with the lot for years, so the local residents saw this as an opportunity. They encouraged the Guggenheim to use it.
Do you think that, as a result of the conversations and activities of the Lab, this kind of development can be a model for other areas in the city?
Definitely. This is a good example of a large institution working with a community to create a space that enables and encourages conversation between local residents and the wider city, and that leaves behind an improved space that people in the area can then utilize for their own endeavors.