Name: Paula Z. SegalHometown: Soviet Union; Italy; Boston
Current town: Brooklyn, NY
Job description: Rabble-rouser for social justice
Bio: Recently worked with Swoon on a project in collaboration with Sao Paulo Museum of Art; founder of 596 Acres; employed part-time at Rankin & Taylor, a law firm specializing in civil rights and criminal defense; law graduate from City University of New York ("I am looking to do sovereignty, land use law and everybody's crazy schemes for a long time to come."); developed Know Your Rights workshops at CUNY; adjunct professor in the English department at CUNY; former member of the Empty Vessel Project
Upcoming projects: Fundraising for another set of posters for 596 Acres ("We would love some money to fund our set of signs and to start to spread the model to other boroughs; it's tax deductible.")
Select links: "By Paula Z. Segal" (Occupy Writers); "A Ship of Freethinkers, Hemmed in By Landlords" (NY Times); Occupy Department of Buildings
How long have you been back in the States?
Five or six weeks.
Where were you before that?
I was in Brazil for two months working on a project with Callie. She left and I stayed and lived in Sao Paulo, in the context of the world of our project. Once the art part of the project was up and running on its own, I just lived in that other world and taught English classes in a squatted hotel in the city center, where there were 80 families that had been living there for a year with a group that's calling themselves the cultural nucleus - that's doing support work for the landless workers movement that's taking over these abandoned hotels and factories in the city center in Sao Paulo.
It's interesting because there's a lot of push and pull. Just like here. Gentrification is like a cog, a machine. So the same areas that have been emptied out of factory and industry, where there are no jobs, it's also an area that's slated for a big revitalization project. So we were staying in an abandoned hotel that had been purchased by a gallerist friend of a curator that had invited Callie to come do this show in the first place. Because he had the idea that in ten years or so, after the top down gentrification is done, he will renovate the hotel and turn it into a hotel for all of the people who are going to come see all of the new arts institutions in the city center.
In a really similar building, about 300 families lived there because it was empty. It was the old Hotel Columbia, and landless workers had moved into buildings. People who lived on the periphery, in the shacks, had come from outside the city because the [regions] they had come from didn't have jobs; they were commuting three hours each way to get to where there was work. They got organized while they were on the periphery. One day in the middle of the night, they had come to the city center on buses. The police were already there and [the workers] just picked an empty building at random. It's how they ended up in the Hotel Columbia. And they got inside. The law there is really different.
The police don't go inside; that would be trespassing. The police can keep people from going inside and they really try to. So the way that the landless workers movement organizes is that they have buses pull up, and the biggest dudes stand on the outside and take the blows, and the women and children go into the building through an opening. Once they're inside, it's like touching home base in baseball and they stay inside. As long as for first 24 hours of them being inside the owner of the building doesn't ask the police to evict them, they get to stay until a judge gets involved. The owner then needs a court order to force an eviction. A lot of the times the owners of these big buildings owe four decades of back taxes. So they don't get involved. So if [the workers] can wait out the 24 hours, they might win. The Hotel Columbia is a very similar building to the one we stayed in, the one that was slated to become a boutique. Just down the block from where we were staying, the people who lived there celebrated their one year anniversary of being inside that building, while we were there. And it looks like they're going to get to stay for a while. About a week after we left, they took 10 more buildings in the city center. So it was a really rich, energetic place to be.
How organized were the communities within those buildings?
Really really organized. There are buildings that are inside the movement and there are buildings that are independent. The movements are organized through general assemblies, and they're amazing to see. There's the Prestes Maia Building, which is kind of famous. It's the biggest one in Brazil that houses 1300 people. I saw their general assembly, which means at least one person for each unit. So like 500 people trying to make decisions together.
Yeah, pretty cool.
But the movement's been criticized for being super hierarchical and kind of taking on the same structure as political parties - even though they do have leadership floor-by-floor and have cultural coordinators for each building.
We built this temporary cultural space - which was a bunch of Callie's prints on shacks in different spaces that are designed to be like hang-out spaces or teaching spaces in this central plaza in the financial district in Sao Paulo. We invited these different groups that do work that's really innovative to work with us - garden interventions that teach people how to do it themselves, and also groups that are super organized. Like the landless workers who control all of these buildings. So we invited them to come be a part of our project, either by participating in the programming or by using it as a site of an action or whatever they wanted to.
At first, there was a lot of misunderstanding because it's the art museum and that gets really confusing for people really quickly. The people who are "occupying" - squatting - in these buildings have never been to the financial district, where the cultural institutions are. We invited a bunch of kids from [the periphery] to come to the museum, with free passes, for drawing and this and that. Because our project was talking about occupation, housing, surplus and space, I really wanted to be careful that I wasn't talking about people without including them; I really wanted them to be a part of that conversation and want it, own it, change it, and do whatever. And they did.
I was working in translation the whole time. Which is such an exercise in trust. I feel like all of my trust muscles got stretched.
There was an opening that was going to be a couple days later, and I wanted everyone to feel invited. Someone had said to me: "Come and explain it again." And I walked through a meeting, this was three hours after I had first said it to one person, where there were 15 people just sitting around discussing whether or not they were going to come, what they were going to bring and how they were going to get there - people I had never met ever. Then I was told that same meeting was happening in three other buildings and upstairs in a different cluster of people: "Okay, that's the question. Are we going to participate in this?"
And I was just kind of like, "Oh, I just tested out the machine." I didn't even know I was doing that. But this is how decisions get made. Totally horizontally, and in real time. It was really amazing to see it happen that fast. [snaps fingers]
What about disagreement?
That's the thing. I don't speak Portuguese. My friends who work and live there wanted to explain to me what their context was like. Their constant refrain was that there was some hierarchical control that eliminated the possibility of conflict. But there was conflict, and they dealt with some really hard issues. I heard a story about a woman and her son; her son was in a wheelchair. He had been in an accident and the buildings were just not equipped. She had to work during the day and the building decided what was best for everybody was that both of them had to move out, that there were other services for them and other places for them to go. That's so hard. But that's also the kind of decision that gets made.
How would you describe your everyday existence there?
I talked to a lot of people all day long. I did a lot of mental level organizing: "Here's a project over here, here's their need and what if we introduce them to each other?" We did a project with the autonomous group of waste pickers. They're called catadores in Brazilian Portuguese. They do all of Sao Paulo's recycling by hand. Ninety percent of the material that goes out as waste they turn into material and re-sell by the ton to shoebox manufacturers [and other industries that can use pre-used materials - like those "recycled plastic" park benches]. It's a shitty job. This particular group that we were working with were autonomous. They're not a charity. They're a cooperative. They're squatting under the freeway, like the space under the BQE here. They've been there six years and they're really well recognized; their founder teaches classes, but because they don't have an official space, they can't apply for grants. There's all of this funding that they're cut off from, so they can't buy equipment. One of the things that they really need to be able to do their work is a press [to] compress the material to make things more efficient.
One of the things that happens, because they're doing all of this, is they find books and sell them by weight, as paper to get pulped. We also worked with this cultural nucleus inside the occupied buildings that started a community library in every building. So we made this connection: the books from the catadores ended up going through our project into the community libraries of the occupations. We collected newspaper so they could then replace the books and still sell the paper weight and make the income that they were expecting.
How did people make money inside the occupied buildings? Was there a bartering system?
They had jobs. They used money. They're poor people. They're not radicals. They're organized in a really radical way, in that they're really fighting the oppressive conditions of surplus and gentrification with their own bodies. But they want to be part of the middle class. I would say a majority of the organizers have a political consciousness - and they do, too. A lot of their organizing comes from a political place and not from a practical place. It's not so structural. More and less. We were sort of bounded by geography because we had to work with people that were close enough to this very fancy museum so that what we were doing made some sense. Sao Paulo is gigantic. It’s 20 million people. It would take you two days to walk across.
As a woman, how do you stay safe in Brazil?
I didn't travel alone a lot. I was lucky because of the context of our project and the fact that we had gone down in June and had formed relationships with people. I worked really hard with maintaining them with the magic of the Internet while we were away. Callie and I spent a couple weeks living with an indigenous community that hadn't encountered white people until 50 years ago. I went to the rain forest and the beach with another friend of mine, who is an art teacher inside the movement.
I found someone who has my father's same last name and looks like my grandfather, who's family history makes sense as an addendum to mine and who is also Jewish, who emigrated from Eastern Europe years ago. It's likely he's related to us. I went to the South with my friend, Daniel, who is the illustrator on our project, then went to visit some friends in Rio. I had to take a bus back overnight, by myself. and I woke up because the man next to me was groping me. So I punched him in the jaw.
Did he retaliate?
He kind of just grumbled and turned the other way. I was sort of speechless. I don't speak enough Portuguese and couldn't explain what the fuck was going on. But I think he knew that if he did it again, I'd hit him again.
You recently graduated from law school. Why law school?
I am really good at solving problems and we really need a lawyer - collectively. We need a lawyer for all of our hair brained schemes. Also, I really like being in charge of my own destiny. I was teaching at CUNY. I was an adjunct instructor, which is one of those silly budget lines that CUNY has that keeps you from feeling like you really have a job. But I had a job.
How would you describe law school?
Ugh, I don’t really want to talk about it. CUNY is a really idealistic radical institution that was started about 25 years ago, and it’s had 25 years of compromise under its belt. And that is a really hard place to be a student when your expectations are the ones that an institution puts forward. But there is no other public social justice legal education institution. Certainly not in New York. It's embattled and full of conflict. One of the amazing things is in my last year and a half, I was in the economic justice project clinic, first as a student and then as a student advocate, and then as a teaching assistant. I spent about a year and a half doing direct representation of CUNY undergraduates who were on public benefits, who were threatened with losing their benefits because they weren't complying with their work program requirements. I was doing direct advocacy for the students that I had been teaching before I went to law school. It was empowering.
I taught my clients how to be advocates for themselves and how to train their fellow students, and developed a Know Your Rights workshops that are really vibrant now. When I got out of the clinic, my first thought was: “Oh my God, it feels so good not to have clients.” Because I'd had a year and a half. This is sticky stuff, right? When someone is counting on their food stamps and then they don’t show up, then you get the phone call in the middle of the night. So it’s nice to not get those phone calls. And then, immediate regret: “Oh, I just gave up this feeling of being useful and really knowing how to do this thing." So that’s law school at CUNY. You don’t get that experience anywhere else.
What’s the key to surviving law school?
It took me apart and put me back together, and in the middle of it I’m not sure I’d say it was a good thing. But I know now that it was the right choice to make. I feel like I’m in the exact right place at the right time. I’m a very optimistic person. Law school is meant to make you risk averse. Since I don’t have that muscle to begin with, it’s fine. I’ll deal with it. How do you survive law school? You don’t. But keep doing the things that matter to you, even if that means engaging in a totally different fucked up holistic way with a fucked up situation - which law school is. Just do it. Do it completely. No reservations.
You're working for a law firm now.
I'm really lucky. My friends have a law practice. It's Rankin & Taylor. David Rankin and Mark Taylor. David and I have known each other since the Chunkathalon. I believe that's where we met. It was the first time I ever jousted along the waterfront where that awful state park is now.
Rankin & Taylor is a small civil rights, general law practice firm that mostly does a lot of litigation against the NYPD when the NYPD does terrible things to people. We do civil claims; if someone gets their arm broken by the cops, we sue the cops. Then we have a really big practice representing pedestrians and cyclists who are hit by cars, both representing them and pursuing injury suits, but also doing advocacy for NYPD investigation of that behavior on the roads. And then we do law for hair brained schemes. It’s a good place to be. They’re super supportive of me wanting to do sustainable economies work in the land use context. I’m getting to work on a bunch of different projects and cases, and seeing how the pieces fit together. I'm in this funny place where I’m there part-time, but I work on really good stuff. And one of the things that they’re letting me do, since I’m not admitted yet, is giving me an umbrella for 596 Acres so that if I ever need an actual admitted lawyer to do anything, I have six in my office that I could turn around and say: “Hey, would you sign these papers with me? Will you supervise me while I’m doing this?” So that’s really nice. And we do criminal defense.
Good to know.
We’re very affordable.
Tell me about 596 Acres.
596 Acres is a little project that I started. I’m organizing with a couple friends now that is an organizing advocacy project to share information about municipal holdings and vacant lots with people who actually live in those neighborhoods, and gives them the tools to organize both for control of that space, but then also beyond that control, organizing for access to resources and other people who might be interested in other sustainable, community spaces.
It started out as a pilot project this May. I was working on getting access to this nearly two-acre site in my old neighborhood that's now called Myrtle Village Green. It’s on top of Water Tunnel No. 3, which is the largest public works project in New York City history. It’s going to be the third aqueduct responsible for bringing water into New York City. That’s a huge project that’s been going on for 50 years. Myrtle Village Green is on top of it; there are these giant shafts that go 800 feet down from where workers can access the tunnel and the Green is actually a big vacant lot on top of one of the access sites. It was a neighborhood that was on a boundary line so it had unequal representation. The City Council is sometimes interested in that and sometimes it's not. I lived on that stretch of Myrtle for about 10 years, and things have changed a lot in those years. I was super curious about this huge piece of land on an entire city block. I started asking questions about it, and found out it was on top of the water tunnel, that it was supposed to have been a park in 2004. There was a community group that had been organizing around it since the 1990s and not a thing had happened.
Last April, because I had amassed all this information and I didn't know how to share it, I called a community meeting over there in one of the schools. And like 100 people came out to talk about this piece of land.
So that organizing effort has momentum and the Department of Environmental Protection has agreed that they're going to give the community access to it. Starting the second week in January, we're having our first more formal General Assembly meeting now that we know we're going to have access to this site. We need to set up governance and we're going to try a horizontal way. It's going to be difficult because it's dealing with a ten-year way of organizing in that neighborhood, and trying to make sure that everybody's views are represented. But it's the right place to do it. It's complicated. This is a good place to experiment with good conflict resolution techniques.
So while working on that I got my hands on data on vacant public land in that neighborhood. Just to have a map to be able to talk to people in a more concrete way about the context what Myrtle Village Green was in. We were collecting petitions, and I ended up connecting with the Center for City of Brooklyn. Which was a great resource. They study Brooklyn. They're mostly mappers and GIS people, and if you ever need a map they've used them for other projects. I got them to make me a map and in that process when I realized they had access to all this data: "Hey, would you make me a map of all of Brooklyn?"
And they did. Then I said: "Is there a spreadsheet that goes with that?" So they gave me a spreadsheet.
I was invited to do something for my friend, Elizabeth, who used to run Food Shed, which is a market in the Commons on Sundays, was doing a booth for the New Ideas Festival at the New Museum. And she invited me to make a poster. She had said: "Please please please, do something." And I had this data and the graphic representation of this data. I collaborated with my friend, who's a visual artist, and we made a poster for this booth. We printed like 200 of them and they were gone in a weekend. I had placed a sign on the board figuring out ways to work with elected officials and sharing information with people. I knew that I had been kind of amassing this field of knowledge and expertise. Once again, the question is always "Once you have talked to all these people and have this information, how do you share it?"
I am not going to be able to have a meeting with all of Brooklyn. That spreadsheet has over 800 entries. Some of the lots are tiny and pointless. Some are gigantic. And some of those are huge broken promises and the community should know about them.
Once that first round of maps was done, we did a redesign based on user feedback from the first set during the first New Ideas Festival.
Julia and I made a new map. IOBY.org let me do the world's fastest fundraiser. We raised the money we needed to print 1,000 of them in a day in a half. We did the world's fastest fundraiser and then we started making those big signs out of the newsprint. We printed 1,000 of them. they're all gone. They're out in the world. We've labeled only about 25 lots, but out of those 25 lots that have been labeled, four are actively organizing and three are into their lots - plus Myrtle Village Green. So that's four. And then there's one that's about to have a hearing before the community board and they'll get approved. So that's been since last May and I was out of town for two months.
So would you say that obtaining access to that information and mass distributing and making that all transparent, has been as seamless as it sounds?
It sounds good when you say it.
What have been the challenges? Has there been opposition from city officials?
I'd like to say it's seamless, but I'd be lying. Because it kind of is. It's more seamless than you'd expect it to be. This is more of a general statement of being a lawyer, and being somebody who has access to what other people don't have access to. Sometimes it's really frustrating and I have to check in with myself about the fact that people have a lifetime of experience of not having access to information, access to counsel, and the right information. If you're the one with the information, then people start seeing you as part of the system. And that's more universal than 596 Acres.
So what's seamless and what's not? The tactic of actually hanging signs and communicating with people directly and having the faith and the trust that you hang a thing and people walk by and read it - that's seamless. Because they do, not all of them, but maybe three. And they will all do whatever it is that the signs says because they have been walking by that lot for 20 years and absolutely nothing has happened there. And then all of a sudden there's a sign that says: "Hey! this lot is owned by Housing Preservation and Development. They're pretty nice people over there. We've talked to them. You want to call them? Here's their number. You want more help on how to do this, you can email us." I will reply back pretty quickly. People will actually follow up.
I get these wonderful emails from people that say: "Whoa, I've lived on this block forever. I had no idea. I assumed it was some developer of warehousing property in my neighborhood. I didn't know that this was the city. I didn't know that this was something I could do." That's an amazing story - even if nothing happens. Because what happens from that moment forward is that person has to organize with their neighbors. I introduce these people to each other. These signs work well for that….This is actually just a pretty ridiculous "Meet Your Neighbor" project. At its core, that’s what it is.
You have to start small, right?
You have to start where you live.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in the former Soviet Union and then shortly thereafter my father denounced our family's citizenship and participation in the Soviet project. And then we lived in the Soviet Union for the next seven years. I was an undocumented person. My parents worked on the black market. They traveled at night. I don't know why this works but it does. You needed to have internal visas to travel inside the Soviet Union. My dad would somehow get away with taking night trains. He must have known or bribed somebody.
The KGB would come to our house like every six months and go through everything and trash it. I grew up being very used to upheavals. Which is funny because I feel like this past year I've moved so many times, that finally I just didn't bother living anywhere for a couple of months. I said, "I think I'll just house-sit. It's fine. People have pets. They travel." I did that for four months. I think it made me calmer than I've ever been in New York City.
But now I'm glad my room is unpacked. We can go look at it if you want. I feel really good about it. But the house that it's in is in the middle of foreclosure proceedings. Maybe that's why I feel so calm. We're going to get kicked out. I just don't know when.
The house we're sitting in right now?
Tell me about your brother.
We emigrated so [my brother] grew up speaking English mostly in the suburbs of Boston and those are all of his memories. And I grew up in the city in the Italy, Boston, and eventually the suburbs. I spoke Russian until I was 7, Italian for a little bit, and then learned English. Our parents are the same humans, but they were very different people living in a very different context than when we were children. So that's been a big imprint on our relationship.
He is a photographer for Thrasher. His name is Dan Zaslavsky. He travels around with teenagers doing tricks on skateboards for a job. He's cool. He sent me an awesome care package last week. It totally made my day. He's never done this before. he sent me a bottle of home brewed beer that he made himself; five different kinds of herbs from his garden; some mint soap; hand warmers, the kind that activate when you open them and shake them; a little set of plastic cards that teach you how to make the 13 most useful outdoor knots; some moisturizer; some sun block; an avocado; and a Thrasher magazine; and a little Neutral Milk Hotel button. So my brother is quite a bit younger than me, and I feel like now that we're grown-ups we're finally negotiating a shared space.
What kind of kid were you?
I was always on the outside. And then I was always put into funny situations because we lived on the black market. I wasn't registered in school under my own name, and there were these after-school classes. My mom got me into some ballet class under somebody else's name because somebody did her a favor. It was all very nice. She was recently telling me the story and it clicked in my head. There was a class that you had to audition for, but I had never taken a ballet class before and didn't know what the fuck I was doing. But she got me into this class because it was the thing to do,and she could because she knew the teacher. I was like five years old, and I was so out of my league because these other little girls had been doing ballet since they were 2 and auditioned into this class. It was this awesome privilege to be in this class, but I totally hated it. And I've never been able to keep my left and right separated. I remember that was the worst.
My best friend and I went back a couple years ago [and] saw [where] I had carved my name and he had carved his on a wall. But he didn't start talking until he was five and he and I had a secret language. That's the kind of kid I was.
So what brought you to New York?
Honestly, this is such a dumb answer. Grown-ups live in New York City. I didn't even know what it was exactly. I just knew that grown-ups live in New York City, and if you wanted to be anywhere this was the place, and that it would make sense once I got here.
It's interesting talking to people about that topic because some people would say that New York is a place for people who either have a lot of money or people who are single. And then some people move to the suburbs to start families, to be "grown-ups." But I guess it depends on what you consider grown-up.
We used to visit a great aunt who lived in near Brighton Beach. Both of my grandfathers passed away this past year, but before they passed away, she was the only one relative in my family who died in this country. She's buried in Brooklyn, and there's something about that, too. I've visited her grave once. We used to visit here while I was little and was so impressed and scared of the city.
My first memory of New York City was waking up in the back seat of my dad's car and driving through Central Park, and it was snowing. All the lanterns were on and I thought I had woken up in Narnia. I was 9 and it wasn't some stupid fantasy. I was sure. I was so convinced. And then we drove out of the park, and there were these gigantic buildings and bright lights. It was Christmas time, and then coming back and getting lost on the Bronx Expressway, and then that being horrible and then getting through it...
When did you move to New York?
And what's your idea of happiness?
Jesus Christ, really?
So last week at our office's Yankee Swap, I totally got a radio controlled helicopter. That is my idea of happiness. I jumped up and down and squealed. The possibilities. It's really simple.
Sometimes seeing the future is really difficult. Or trying to imagine, trying to plan.
Are you more of a planner or a spontaneous non-planner?
Oh, I'm a planner. I wish I wasn't. I like to keep people around me who aren't.
Is it harder to start or finish something?
Harder to finish. Then again, I'm a collaborator by nature and I know these things about myself. So I like to work with people who are better at the second part.
If you could have more of something, what would it be?
I would have more opportunities to interact with people of different ages - children and old people.
I would definitely have less police, please. Just less.
What's your greatest fear?
I don't have any. I really don't. I am not bragging. Sometimes I wish I did.
Are you kidding?
In the middle of all that direct action, police raid, riots and all of that stuff that happened November 15, 16, 17th, this man walked up to me in the middle of a meeting and was like, "Hey, we need someone to do a street law training for these other people across town." So I took a cab with him across town to do a training. Yes, just like that.
That's kind of romantic.
What's tragic? Oh, come on, hatred, just watching the amount of violence going on in the streets - sanctioned violence on the streets and the criminal justice system. The things that we work with everyday. I can't even talk about it. We represent teenagers who are beat up by truancy officers, you know? I spent a lot of last year looking at the records of people who are locked up in juvenile detention, who were getting clobbered by their corrections officers. Meaning, 13-year-olds who were getting beat up by adults in an institutional setting. That's boring and it's tragic.
How would you describe your eating habits?
I wish they were better. I really like cooking. I really like growing my own food.
What do you like cooking?
I make a really good sauerkraut. I make kombucha and other fermented things. I like making pot pies and borscht, but I don't do it enough. I always have breakfast: a lot of yogurt; coffee; almond milk.
I was a vegan for a long time though. I'm allergic to cow dairy, but I like a good burger that's had a good life. I like to imagine it's nice life. Cannibals say they only eat the enemies that they're proud of, the enemies whose souls that they want to ingest. And that's how I feel about eating meat. I want to eat the meat whose spirit I want to ingest. I think my body likes it.
Politics. And then I learned more about processed food.
And what would you be doing if you weren't doing what you're doing?
Running a scuba diving shop.
In any particular region?
I've always said Isla Mujeres, which is obnoxiously near Cancun. But I kind of just fell in love with Brazil. Somewhere near the Equator. I would totally be running a scuba diving shop and full-on excursions underwater. I did that one summer and it was so awesome. I was a scout.