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Since our libraries were closed for the last four months, we were on the lookout for organizations that were acting in the spirit of public libraries. We found one! Listen to an audio portrait of the food justice movement happening on street corners across Brooklyn. And we'll be back in your feed again in September for Season 3 of Borrowed.

Want to learn more about the topics explored in this episode? Check out the following links.

  • Visit one of the community fridges across New York City, and follow this Instagram page for updates.
  • Listen to oral histories collected from Brooklynites living through the pandemic.
  • Visit us in person (only to pick up or drop off books) -- check this map to find the closest branch open for service.

Episode Transcript

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Hey, Adwoa.

Adwoa Adusei Hey, Krissa.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, it’s been a while since we recorded a new episode — a lot has been happening at the library! So we thought we would give a little update to our listeners … Adwoa, what have you been up to?

Adwoa Adusei I’m actually back at one of the branches, getting ready to start up lobby service.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras What’s lobby service?

Adwoa Adusei So, lobby service is a paired down resource that we’re offering to patrons so they can return their very loved books over the last four months at one of our designated locations. And they can also pick up holds that they’ve placed over the last four months.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras What’s it like being back at the branch?

Adwoa Adusei So far it’s pretty quiet, since the public can’t be in the space, but we’ve been busy weeding, which is when we check our shelves to make sure nothing old is on the shelves. And we’ve also been doing inventory which serves the same purpose, but basically we’re beefing up the shelves so that they look good when the patrons come back.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So that we know what we’ve got right?

Adwoa Adusei It’s like a census of the stacks.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras A census of the stacks! What Adwoa’s talking about — that lobby service model — we started back in mid-July with seven branches and we’ve got another ten opening up for lobby service this coming Monday. So for me, on the digital side, it’s been a pretty wild couple of weeks. In this new universe of really limited service, we’re kind of learning how different neighborhoods use their local branches. Since reopening, some branches have been inundated with book returns and pickups — we have these epic photos of an entire room full of bins at Kings Highway in South Brooklyn — but pickups and returns at other branches like New Lots were much lower, because you know, though it was a super popular and busy branch in before the pandemic, it was really getting used for laptop loans and teen space and GED classes … none of which we can really offer right now. So while we’ve got all of this thriving, virtual services and programs and ebook lending, reopening these seven branches, soon to be seventeen, it’s been really illuminating, and humbling. 

Kings Highway Library after three days of returns in mid-July.
(Juana Flores, Brooklyn Public Library)

Adwoa Adusei So Borrowed is going to take a bit of a break while we sort out how to be a new kind of library in a new kind of world. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In the meantime, we are digging into research for season three! We’re going to have have an episode about what Adwoa and I were just talking about, how libraries have changed in the past few months. And we’re going to have another one about the racial equity issues at the library and in our communities. 

Adwoa Adusei One of the episodes will be focused on the history of East New York, and in particular the New Lots branch, which Krissa mentioned before, because it sits next to a once-unacknowledged African burial ground … and in another episode, we’ll be taking a look at two early 20th century female librarians who passed as white in a predominently white profession. All of that will be coming to you in season three, when we start back up in September.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras But we wanted to leave you with a little sound portrait, a snapshot of Brooklyn as our city slowly reopens and readjusts to a new normal. Since our libraries were closed for the last four months, we were on the lookout for organizations that were acting in the spirit of public libraries.

Adwoa Adusei Right — and one of the things on the rise in Brooklyn and across the country are mutual aid groups. One of our volunteer interviewers on the Our Streets, Our Stories COVID-19 project, Zoe Grueskin, documented the experiences of several Brooklynites who were involved early on in groups like Bed Stuy Strong and South Brooklyn Mutual Aid. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras For this episode, our producer Virginia met up with members of mutual aid groups across Brooklyn who were all involved in setting up and running community refrigerators. These are fridges plugged in outside homes or businesses and stocked with free food for anyone to take.

Millicent I have eggs for you, I have milk for you. It expires on the 6th. I have these vegetables — this is mainly cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, and celery ... and I’m going to do a sweep. Do you need any more oats?

Adwoa Adusei On a hot, bustling street in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in July, a small group of volunteers stood outside Bread and Life food pantry, waiting to pick up food that wouldn’t be used that day.

Thaddeus Tomorrow we’re expecting to get two pallets of eggs. That’s over 22000 eggs. [Laughter]

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s Thaddeus. He is a member of In Our Hearts, an anarchist network in NYC, and an experienced dumpster diver. He was one of the first people to set up a community fridge. These days, he spends most of his time biking around to pantries and grocery stores, and helping coordinate a network of community fridges that have popped up since the pandemic started.

Thaddeus The first one went up in Feburary, and one of the local news channels saw our Tweet and just showed up, and I talked to them and told them about the fridge and since then, it's just been like — the ball has been rolling. Things have been happening. We went from being a core handful of volunteers to over 150 right now. 

Blue My name is Blue. I’m going to uptown today to go to our Harlem fridges, our Bronx fridges, our Washington Heights fridge, and likely our Bushwick fridge too, because that's the one that is definitely high traffic right now because of its location on Knickerbocker. Today we’re here getting donations from a food pantry, but a lot of the purpose of the community fridges, especially moving forward once we’re out of a pandemic, is that it’ll be about the community surrounding the fridges to make connections to their local restaurants and grocery stores, and even making the connection within themselves of, when they go grocery shopping, can they afford an extra dozen of eggs or an extra half gallon of milk and drop it at the fridge on their way home? Cuz that’s what’s going to make it  sustainable.

Adwoa Adusei Once Blue’s car and Thaddeus’s cargo bike were loaded with eggs and milk and veggies and pie crusts, they set off to refill various fridges. Thaddeus biked back to his house on Van Buren Street to restock the community fridge plugged in outside of his apartment. On the way, a few of his neighbors came out to help.

Neighbors help restock a fridge on Van Buren Street in Bed-Stuy.
(Virginia Marshall, Brooklyn Public Library)

Kristie I’m Kristie. I live pretty close to where the fridge is in Bed-Stuy. I read about the fridge and I was like, "hm, too good to be true." And I biked by and nope, it’s real. It has a beautiful sign that says, "Free Food." So it’s been a really great way to supplement my fridge, and then also giving back, and helping out with restocking and packing.

Neighbor We’ve got sunflower seeds, chicken, quinoa, pie crusts, milk, pasta ... What's nice about the fridge is there’s always an amazing mix of produce, and usually organic produce, which is great because a lot of people dont have access to that in this neighborhood. But then there’s also baked goods and milk and your staples. And one hour it’s stocked, and three hours later it’s empty. so people definitely make use of it.

Neighbor This should be blessed, I keep telling them. They have to be blessed by whoever. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That last voice is a Queens resident who works in Bed-Stuy as a home health aide. She takes a bus every day that drops her off at the corner, and she’s been coming to the fridge to take food since February.

Neighbor Every morning, early in the morning because this is where I get off. When it’s not time for me to work, I sit right there and I just come around and check.

Raymond My name is Raymond. In the community, they call me Papa Ray. I live one block over. We do have pantries in the community, we consider this an extension. It also gives an extra opportunity for community members to bridge together and converse. So I’m taking advantage of this opportunity to shout out to all members of Bed-Stuy community to step high, step forward, bring your appetite and enjoy the offerings of the outdoor fridge.

Adwoa Adusei It’s not just in Bed-Stuy — as of this week, there are 34 community fridges set up in the New York City area — and more are popping up in other cities, too.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Virginia biked to another free food fridge, this one outside of Abracadabra Magic Deli in Bushwick where another volunteer, Chris, was unloading packaged meals for kids into the community fridge.

Chris The first drop off I made was OJ and eggs, and immediately a five-year-old girl ran and grabbed eggs and OJ, and she totally scored, she was so happy. Well, I’ve been protesting since the 90s, and I was involved in queer liberation, gay rights in the 90s and I was involved in Occupy Wall Street, and I’ve been heavily protesting the last couple months with Black Lives Matter. It’s really intense, theres a lot of confrontation with police, and I wanted to find a way to get involved with mutual aid, and do something that wouldnt be as confrontational sometimes. And I saw this on Instagram. I think people are really turned on right now to the idea of mutual aid. It's something the Black Panther party embraced, and I think people are, in rediscovering that history, the Black Power movement of the 60s, theyre rediscovering mutual aid.

Delara So after the pandemic, lots of people lost their job and lots of people, they don’t have paper and they didn't get their unemployment. So, they were hungry.

Adwoa Adusei This is Delara — she works at Abracadabra Magic Deli. A few weeks ago, the deli was asked if they would be able to host a free food fridge outside their store.

The Friendly Fridge plugged in outside Abracadabra Magic Deli in Bushwick.
(Virginia Marshall, Brooklyn Public Library)

Delara We said of course, and we would like to support too. Not only we give food, but also we give free lemonade to one who donates. I think every neighborhood should put one. There is so much food wasted and also so much people they want to help and give, and so much people who need food. Not only in Bushwick, in every block there should be.


Adwoa Adusei You know, hearing these stories, it definitely sounds like these free food fridges are being operated in the same spirit as public libraries — seeing a need and finding a way to fill it. We’ll put a link in our show notes to a map of all the active fridges in New York City so you can visit them, take food, or help out.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, you can listen to your fellow Brooklynites by exploring our archive of oral histories called Our Streets, Our Stories. Staff and volunteers have been collecting interviews from a wide range of people throughout the pandemic — it’s really impactful to go through and listen to the different experiences across the borough. You can visit bklynlibrary [dot] org [slash] osos to see them all laid out on our interactive map. Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Krissa Corbett Cavouras, and Adwoa Adusei. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website. 

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed will be back in September, though the library is continuing to offer all kinds of great services virtually as we also slowly reopen our spaces. Until we’re back in your feeds, stay cool and wear a mask.

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