DonChristian Jones took over a dilapidated former laundromat in Crown Heights this past summer. Just a few months later, the mutual aid organization known as Public Assistants has become an important fixture in the community.
But now Public Assistants faces an uncertain future. Last week, Jones, 31, and his team found out that developers plan to turn the property into a gourmet supermarket, with demolition beginning in the next 20 to 50 days. While Public Assistants asked to negotiate for the lease to the space months ago, Jones said those requests were ignored.
“We are kind of in this fraught and precarious scenario where the community is obsessed with us, we are in love with the community and the property developers don’t know what to do with this because they are trying to figure out how to make returns on this space,” Jones said.
“We could probably find more adequate space somewhere near, but we do recognize that us simply being here is a stance against gentrification.”
Public Assistants has several initiatives — among them a bike repair and donation program, a garden, community art projects — but Jones’ larger vision was to include BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ artists, historically sidelined and unwelcome in other spaces. The space fills regularly with people writing poetry, screen printing, painting and making apothecary items. Public Assistants also recently began a community archiving project, where it documents and digitizes photos for people in the community.
There’s only been one meeting in eight months and Jones prides himself on the lack of hierarchy in the nonprofit. He says he’s informed about the organizational structure — or lack thereof — based on work as an educator in corporate, governmental and nonprofit spaces.
“To me, they all mirrored on another. I’ve worked extensively on Rikers Island and in public schools, and so much of what I saw did not seem that different from one another,” Jones said “So much of respectability politics and notions of professionalism go hand in hand with white supremacy, so I just wanted to bask and create in space with members of my tribe.”
In a gentrifying neighborhood, Public Assistants represented a way to hang on. “There is something so magical and special about this corner laundromat,” Jones said. “You turn the corner and you see all these murals. It’s just inviting in a way that I’ve never experienced.”
How you can help: Public Assistants is scoping out other properties in Crown Heights and adjacent neighborhoods if it has to leave the current location. Know a spot that might work? Let the team know. You can also donate to fund Public Assistants’ initiatives @public-assistants on Venmo or $PublicAssistants on CASHAPP.
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