Happy Hour on the Fringe: Global Pandemics and Art with Philadelphia Tenants Union
During the global coronavirus pandemic, FringeArts is pivoting the focus of our podcast to checking in with our artists, our audiences, and our community partners during these unprecedented times. Since we can’t gather, we’ll chat remotely about how we respond to this crisis, and how the role of art during a pandemic shifts.
In this episode, FringeArts Community Engagement Manager Tenara Calem chats with Christina Gesualdi of the Philadelphia Tenants Union. They explore the priorities of the Philadelphia Tenants Union during this time, the importance of organizing your neighbors on a foundation of trust, and how Christina’s experience as a dancer intersects with her work in the union. Scroll to the bottom for additional resources from PTU.
Tenara: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. My name is Tenara Calem and I’m the Community Engagement Manager here at FringeArts in the wake of the global Coronavirus pandemic. Many of us, particularly those of us in arts organizations, have had to reflect on ways to do our work despite dramatic external disruptions. I can’t speak for any of our listeners, but social distancing measures have made me personally think long and hard about how to engage communities when we can’t be in the same room together. One thing that FringeArts is excited to continue doing is connecting our audiences with our artists and community partners through this podcast. So during the global Coronavirus pandemic, you can expect more frequent episodes of Happy Hour on the Fringe. These episodes will range in topics from how artists are responding to the pandemic, the intersection between art and public health, and how community partners are working to meet the specific needs of their constituents. We hope that every one of our listeners and those they care about remains safe, healthy and positive during this time. We’re committed to continuing our work in whatever way we can while prioritizing the safety of our city. In the meantime, you can check out our website www.FringeArts.com/covid-19 for updates to our public programing schedule. Be well, be safe. And as always, enjoy our fascinating conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Christina, thank you for joining me on this very different episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. The question that we always ask and that we’ve taken to continuing asking even during this time, it’s like remote pandemic working is that, you know, this podcast is called Happy Hour on the Fringe. And so we always ask what you’re drinking. And there’s really no judgment if you are drinking alcohol at noon on a Thursday or if you’re not drinking alcohol at noon on Thursday. So. Christina, what are you drinking? Christina: I’m currently drinking nothing. But I was, my roommate, David has been making iced coffee and I don’t even really usually like iced coffee. But it’s been delicious. We’re making the best of the coffee that we are stockpiling. Tenara: Yeah, absolutely. Very necessary. I’m also, I’ve just finished drinking my coffee and it feels like the little things that make us all feel normal are really worth it in this moment. Yeah. So do you want to say really quickly just to introduce yourself who you are and what organization you’re representing today? Christina: I’m Christina Gesualdi and I’m representing the Philadelphia Tenants Union. Tenara: Amazing. So given the really unprecedented global health situation that we find herself in, particularly as it intersects with housing and all of us needing to stay in our houses, can you tell me a little bit about what Philadelphia Tenants Unions like highest priorities right now are during this like Coronavirus time? Christina: Sure. I think one thing that’s been echoed throughout all of the very kind of like rapid fire talks and meetings and do meetings and things that have conspired in the past couple weeks has been especially related to housing. But generally COVID-19 is a community crisis and not an individual crisis. And is a social problem. So it demands social solutions. So then there yeah, there’s been a lot of talk and bringing a lot of our members to the table, not even bringing a lot of our members have been coming to the table even in this time of social distancing to figure out, so, OK, what does that mean? Where does the Tenants Union fit in fighting for people to stay in their homes and some of the prongs or the like? Always the high priority things of what we’ve been doing. One that’s come out is a guide for organizing your neighbors, or I mean, honestly, that scale of neighbor goes from like roommates in a time when I think that even in that way, there was a lot of conflict, perhaps could be a lot of conflict, both related to rent payment and people losing jobs, in a time when like I think more than half a million Americans have filed for unemployment. There’s gonna be so many people who just simply, you know, have been living paycheck to paycheck. And that is past reality. And now just cannot pay rent. So building layers of trust, that’s something that we have been doing amongst, you know, roommates, amongst neighbors, within a building, and some like larger many unit buildings as well. Christina: And then within neighborhoods and blocks. And of course, that feels like a really tall order in a time when, like, you really can’t go, like, knock on someone’s door and go into the living room and talk to them as their neighbor. However, there are ways we’ve been leafleting. There is the tenants of New Age Reality who are actually, that has been a campaign that has been organizing and bringing all of those tenants together. And so they have organized a demand letter about kind of like everyone in no one out, kind of a thing of like really asking for, yeah, having demands around rent payments in this time. So some of the highest priorities have been creating ways for people to organize their neighbors using the skills that we’ve already had with other building organizing so that folks can do that now in this time. There’s also, like, we really need our city officials in this time to do more than they’ve already done. You know, there has been an eviction on moratoria– or sorry– a moratorium on evictions. So at least right now until April 4th, which is coming up I think that’s next Monday coming. Everyone can stay in their home, but that is just not at all enough. Tenara: Right. Christina: You’re calling for it to be like two months out from after the crisis. Tenara: Totally. Totally. Christina: Yeah. So that’s some of it. Also, you know, right now there hasn’t been anything about rents, rent, forgiveness or a moratorium or even a pause on rent and so landlords are, I think, you know, hoping that, like, I feel like the message from that side is, well, communicate with us on an individual level, but who knows from our work and any tenant who’s had to fight or really any activist who’s had to fight knows that an individual level really doesn’t get the goods, it doesn’t get what is needed for everyone, especially the most vulnerable. So, yeah, we’ve really been focusing on how to come together and have more leverage to get what we need so that if there is one in our building or, you know, in our same people who are paying to the same realtor or management company, that that person’s not left out. Tenara: By the wayside. Christina: Yeah, exactly Tenara: Totally. So knowing that this is like– you’ve touched a little bit about the ways that you’ve adapted the– like work that you were doing previous to the to the pandemic crisis and shifted it or pivoted it to be a little bit more specific to pandemic. But can you talk a little bit about like how the work that you’re doing right now for the Coronavirus crisis is connected to that, like general goals of the Philadelphia Tenants Union? Christina: So Tenants Union had a few or has a few big campaigns that we were working on before Coronavirus began and those have proved to be even more necessary now. Of course, we’ve had to kind of quick in our reactions. There was a lot of media calls and many, many like probably a 200 to 300% increase of maybe more of tenants reaching out and asking. But those big campaigns, I’ll just kind of talk about them and then talk how that like relates to what we’re doing within this crisis. One is the New Age campaign, which is something that there’s a lot. New Age has properties all over the city. One thing that makes it easier target is that they advertise on the properties that they have. There’s lots of green signs all around the city. So that campaign, yeah, has been in the works for a long time for a while of organizing those tenants and bringing them together and seeing what kinds of, well, basically what they’re facing, what they’re dealing with, if they’ve had any issues. And that’s the kind of building, organizing or PTU has for a long time tried to have locals of our big Philly wide organization. We’ve tried to have locals like neighborhood wise or we’ve talked about that as a way and have tried toward that. And it’s it’s tricky to do like to have a South Philly local of PTU, so this feel the New Age and having it under people’s management company with some of the bigger management companies that have some pretty egregious already problems. And especially that like I know New Age is like in the Drexel area and, you know, functions on, kind of bringing in college students and also in an area in northwest Philly where communities have been for a long time and kind of flipping some of those houses and neighborhoods, which is unacceptable and, you know. So that is one campaign that has only accelerated and gained momentum with the crisis and will prove to be useful. I think really useful and in its action are other campaign. Rent control kind of stemmed out of the– and this is last time FringeArts was a community partner with PTU, was strengthening the Just Cause Eviction, the Good Cause Bill, which basically tightens the possibility. Right now, it’s only for month to month evictions, but it makes it more difficult hopefully in a lot of scenarios for a landlord to just decide, you know, hey, I’d like to, for any kind of discriminatory reason or predatory reason, I’d like to just evict a family or a person. So that was one kind of pillar of tightening tenants laws and kind of like helping them bolstering, I guess, tenants law. And so then now rent control feels like the other side of that because what Good Cause doesn’t prevent is, you know, when someone does– when a landlord does want to get someone out, even if they don’t evict them, right now, there’s no restrictions on them. You’re saying like, oh, well, you know, I’ve raised your rent by 30 percent or something totally unthinkable, and so the way that that relates to COVID-19 or one of the ways that that relates is we need even stronger no loopholes at all in this Good Cause Bill, especially in this time. And also we are calling for a rent freeze. You know, whether there will be rent forgiveness or not from the city. And I hope that there will be. But a rent freeze is like the very least in this time that could happen because that needs to happen because it’s scary to think that, you know, gentrification and displacement that has already been happening can go on as usual after this pandemic. Tenara: Yeah, after people’s sources of income are just entirely disrupted. Do you have any examples of successes for tenants’ rights, both in response to the pandemic or or maybe just generally that you’ve seen either in Philadelphia or around the country or even around the globe? Christina: Yeah, definitely. Philly Tenants Union is a part of the Autonomous Tenants Union Network, which is a grassroots tenant organizing organizations all across the country. And I think it includes even some maybe in Canada. Kind of back to the second question. We were already planning to come together and have a convention and having monthly calls and sharing like the different successes and failures and learning curves of each tenant organization and so that network, it’s called ATON, that’s the like acronym, has only ramped up both internal inward facing organizing amongst all of the groups and also outward facing. So for example, there are some calls, maybe for this podcast airs, but I’m sure there will after which I can share the link for anyone to call. And they’re also translated in Spanish. And who knows? By the time the podcast airs, there may be even more comprehensive call so that the information about organizing both in cities and also I mean even last I was checking in with the Autonomous Tenants Union Network, there was talk about even how does organizing happen in more rural areas. So that kind of information sharing and agitating of folks all over the U.S. and beyond is definitely a thing that is happening. And I will post the link. I think also mutual aid as a thing that’s been happening from tenants unions within their own cities, like I mean, I definitely know from PTU and I imagine that this is, kind of transfers to other tenants unions through in different major cities that are already having a list of folks of members that we have phone banks and are in extensive communication with of other members like ourselves. That list and that communication, like not having to start that from scratch in this time, yeah, that’s really big to call and check in with each other and offer mutual aid, whether it’s groceries or just having someone to talk to. Yeah, that’s been really huge. Well, I do know there’s a great article that just went up that has some stuff from Philly Tenants Union and it also has some quotes from someone from Stomp Out Slumlords, which is the DC based group of tenant organizers. And they’ve organized individual buildings before in the past, before COVID-19, and so they have a very clear sense of like if a building that is already organized goes on a rent strike together, they choose to do that as, you know, their escalation. Then the tenants who can pay can put their rent into an escrow account in solidarity with those who can’t. So my point in bringing that up is just that, I think that across the country, more groups who’ve already organized buildings and the tenants are already organized, they’re going to have much more leverage than trust, like a connectivity of trust, as far as really standing by, the folks who absolutely cannot pay come, it’s already passed, but April 1st, you know, and ways of that are all lest we I guess with that leverage comes less risk. There’s already a lot of risk involved, but it comes less risk because, you know, if you’re actually threatening to really hurt a landlord’s bottom line, their bread and butter, which everybody’s bottom line is affected in this, but really threatening it in a large scale way, both the landlord and also the city is the pressure is much more to actually do something and actually pay attention and not sweep this under the rug or kind of individualize the fact that those who just can’t pay will eventually end up in eviction court. And, you know, we can’t sit around and watch that happen. Tenara: Yeah. I mean, it’s just it’s like a moratorium on mortgage payments obviously helps a lot of people who are individual homeowners who might not be able to pay their mortgages because they’re out of work. But it also just what it effectively does, like I can speak as an individual tenant myself is that my landlords don’t have to pay their mortgage, but I still have to pay my rent. And so I’m afraid. It’s interesting, like all of the ways in which this situation is highlighting inequities that like we’re already under immense pressure before a global pandemic, you know, erupted. And now we have, I think what it’s exciting is that we have opportunities to really dig deep into them and like rapidly respond in a way that saves the most. Christina: Oh, absolutely. Tenara: So you are a dancer and an active, you know, artist within the Philadelphia community. So can you talk a little bit about the connection that you see between your artistic practice and the activism that you’re a part of, you know, through Philly Tenants Union? Christina: Sure. I mean, I guess that’s something some times I feel very confused about, or if I’m really transparent, I’m kind of I don’t have a clear like connect the dots line connection, but I trust that it’s there. It was kind of, not kind of, it was making a dance piece with others that actually brought me to the Tenants Union. I’m part of Mascher Space Cooperative and I was making a piece there. This was years ago, probably like three years ago and had a walking practice, which it’s interesting now in this time of social distancing, because walking feels like a thing that for the most part can, as long as it’s socially distant walking, can still happen. Little easier than like what can’t happen is like go to a studio and dance around and roll around on the floor. So walking still feels pretty relevant. But at that time, at that point, we’ve since moved but was in like I’m sure it was gentrifying when it 10 years ago or more when I became a member of Mascher within an area of Kensington that very clearly was, and had been, gentrifying and that I’m sure Mascher was part of that, you know, in complex ways. So for me, the walking practice, which sounds very academic, walking practice, but walking and noticing and letting go and then like moving front, moving inside of the studio from walking and walking, coming from moving inside of the studio and writing like that kind of a practice is sort of what was weaving together this piece and doing it with a few other people. So it wasn’t a piece about that practice, but they definitely came from doing that practice. And so I definitely was thinking about how residential that area is. It was amazing walking in a rehearsal that was at like 2:30 or 3:00 and seeing how many families and kids coming home from school and all of that like got me really thinking about residential properties and families and change in neighborhoods and displacement. And you know that it’s a little bit thicker, deeper than just like rolling my eyes at like condos that are going up, anything like that, that the layers are much deeper. And also I was reading, which I highly recommend in this time of isolation there is the social distance. I was reading Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind [Editor’s Note: The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination]. It’s an awesome book. It’s actually it’s about the AIDS crisis. And then also related to the erasure and the literal like, I guess coincidental, but how messed up it is of that sitting side by side with the East Village and New York being gentrified. And that was happening before the AIDS crisis and then during it, the absolute erasure of bodies, gay, queer people, and just sweeping a lot of things under the rug. In a way, that is, yeah. Really not OK. So I was making a piece. Those things were on my mind. And then in a very like ‘I’m trying, but I’m not sure how this is happening’ connection was just like, oh, well, I’ve heard about the Philly Tenants Union. They were in the midst of a fight with the Penn Wynn building, like a tenant fight there. There was a eviction at the Penn Wynn building and I went to like one demonstration, just like showed up because I saw it on Facebook and was deeply inspired by just what I saw as the tenants that were there and the folks who were standing in solidarity with those tenants. I just was deeply inspired. I don’t really come from any other kind of activism. That was my first real experience. I would say with uber activism. And so then I made one of the like evening performances of that show that I did, like benefit the Tenants Union, which felt like, you know, a way to sort of get involved and then going to meetings just so I could figure out how to get them the money from the performance. And then was totally drawn in because the work just felt urgent and necessary. And I guess one other thing I’ll say. Last thing I’ll say about it that feels like it relates to my dancing and also my teaching, and I teach yoga but I teach in general, is just the way that I think activist organizations that I really care about finds it really important to hand over the mic to not have the same savvy leaders always leading. That’s actually not doing much. That’s not doing much. And it ends up serving only those savvy leaders. There is something about PTU and other organizations that I’ve gotten to know through PTU that really has a commitment and built right into the infrastructure and the way that your organization works that is very much about letting leadership grow out of those who are ready to fight, those who need to fight, letting it be of tenants and by tenants and that’s inspiring to me. Tenara: I think like it’s kind of liberating as an artist to be like, I don’t really know how my activism fits into my artistic practice, but, you know, the fact that I’m doing both means that there must be a connection. My last question for you, Christina, is for folks who are looking to put their energy in to aid and help. What might they be able to do to help the Philadelphia Tenants Union in this time? Christina: Well, I think the first thing I would say is that if you’re a renter and you’re looking to get involved, you’re a tenant, try to be in touch with and organize– also, the I’ll include the organizing guide, that a few PTU members made, that I think is really dense and also amazing and useful. But I think that that is maybe the first step if you’re a renter, to not discount your own, even if you can pay rent, even if you’re working from home and financially, your situation has not changed to use this time to pull out your lease, make sure you’ve got a picture of it on your phone to use this time to say like, like look up. There’s some quick searches that you can do in like five minutes of looking up like, you know, what other properties does my landlord own? If it’s a company, I heard one of the lawyers from Teryn say this, that like there is a human somewhere behind, no matter who your management company, realty company, there’s a lot a lot of times companies have shell organizations so that they can have multiple properties and disperse the risk or so I don’t fully understand. But something like that. But there are ways to figure out and it’s something that everyone can do. And PTU is happy to help and support you do that. To really know who else is paying a check to the same person you’re paying to and figure out ways to be in solidarity with those people. I mean, I can use myself as an example that I’ve been a member of PTU for two years and I’ve lived and rented in the same house for 10 years. And never once did it feel urgent to me or feel like important for me to actually organize amongst, like my own property, the person who owned my property, my landlords. And I thought that my landlords were like, like a mom and pop kind of landlord that owned three properties, and when I looked it up and actually got in touch with the other neighbors, which I just did in the past couple weeks, I was shocked to find out that that’s actually not the case. It’s like a pretty big operation, which, you know, it has nothing to do with the personal, like whether the landlord is good or bad or otherwise or whether I can pay or can’t pay. It has everything to do with just building layers of trust so that there’s strength in numbers and power in numbers. So that’s that’s like the first thing I would say people can do to get involved. I think especially in the arts, there tends to be leaning toward charity- -like thinking or nonprofit-like thinking, which is often like outreach is always like looking out to be like, who can I help from this place? And I guess I would like to challenge people listening to this, to especially in this crisis, but after it, after it over in like or dealing with the fallout of it to…you know, there can be justice. So that’s one thing. And then, I mean, PTU is getting tons of calls. We’re trying to phone bank our membership and that takes time. And this it takes energy to really talk to people. There is a research team that can you if you’re really good at computer research and like looking all of this stuff as information is changing. And coming up quickly, we can absolutely not just use but we would love to have anyone on board that can help. And we’ve been kind of getting people into the fold as quickly as possible. And so people can get involved in that way for sure. And then also putting pressure on city council, putting pressure on Governor Wolf, putting pressure in all the elected officials in official kinds of ways. I mean, even there is not a lot of times when PTU has been like, let’s work in solidarity with the landlords. But okay, homeowners and landlord property owners are also reaching out to elected officials. And I do think that there is some amount of need that needs to be expressed on all ends, right? With the power in numbers and the solidarity, tenants can get what they need. I do think that art like especially in this case visual art, but I wouldn’t limit it to that. I do think that PTU is having a real time trying to come up with ways to express ourselves since like protest, like putting bodies on the line is challenged right now. So I do think that art images, things that can be shared in that way is something, design, anything like that is something that PTU can use more hands on deck with. So if there were people that are inclined in that way to get involved, that would be great as well. Tenara: Great. Well, Christina, thank you so much for joining us in this conversation. It is so good to hear about all of the incredible work that’s being done in this really tough time. You know, just it’s very it’s it’s heartening and energizing for me even just to listen and chat with people. And so I hope that I hope that we’re able to connect PTU with folks who have skills and resources at their disposal that they want to. Yeah. To to put forward into this joint fight of solidarity. Christina: Yeah. Thank you. Tenara: I’m sure that this will not be the last time that fringe audiences are connected with you. So thank you again. Thank you for listening to Happy Hour on the Fringe. We hope everyone remains safe, healthy and optimistic during these troubling times. For updates to our programing schedule, visit our website at www.FringeArts.com/COVID-19 or follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat or download the FringeArts app to receive up to date information. Stay safe, stay well and don’t forget to sing “Jolene” when you wash your hands. Additional Resources from Philadelphia Tenants Union:
Join us in calling, emailing, and tagging our legislators to cancel mortgage payments, rents, and debt. Our state must suspend evictions and foreclosures for at least 6 months and take immediate action to house the houseless. We called for public housing and rent control before this crisis began and we need it now more than ever.