It’s not just about things

Posted on April 14, 2022 at 12:19 p.m. by West Side Rag

Laura Santos-Bishop’s Cake, the flowers are made of sugar Credit: Instagram @may_it_please_the_torte

By Sara Lewin Lebwohl

You might expect this article to start with an example of someone posting an unconventional article to give away, but this story has been done and misses the biggest and prettiest image of the “Buy Nothing Group” (BNG ).

Sure, we’ve had our share of wild “gifts,” some of which have landed the band on parody Instagram pages, but the real story is about neighbors building community.

“A lot of times people sign up for the free stuff, but stay for the community,” said Jennifer Mattie, one of the admins of the 5,600-member Buy Nothing 60-90 St UWS Facebook group.

“The Buy Nothing movement is a hyper-local gift economy that reduces our impact on the environment,” Jennifer explained. “If a person clings to something and realizes that someone else can use it, it’s much easier to give it away,” she said. “We also focus on lending and borrowing. There’s no reason every Upper West Side resident should have their own personal exercise.

When I told Jennifer I could write a book about all the stories I heard from the band, she said the original founders of Buy Nothing did just that. In BNG fashion, she stopped by the next day and gave me a copy.

Founded in 2013, the Buy Nothing project started with two women who wanted to reduce the plastic waste they saw in the ocean. They started a movement that now includes more than 6,000 Facebook groups, so members can reduce what they buy and recycle what they have and no longer use, by finding and gifting items between neighbors.

As the weather warms up, Jennifer looks forward to more community gatherings, like the ‘leaning cake’. What is Stoop Cake? When your neighbor’s kid is having a birthday party and there are tons of cake left, a message can be posted with a time and place to sit down and eat cake with your neighbors.

Laura Santos-Bishop is a well-known member of the UWS BNG because of what she brings to the table, literally. Laura, a lawyer, posted in the group that she was planning to make her own wedding cake, but her decorating skills needed a bit of work.

“I need to bake cakes, but I don’t really like [eating] them,” she said. So her neighbors happily took more than 30 cakes from her hands (see one above). She worried people would think it was weird, but her first post generated over 85 people expressing interest.

Bill Hyman has lived on the UWS for 32 years. When I met him at a 20th arrondissement meeting a few years ago, he was looking for a way to get more involved in the community. Now, he says, he has never felt more connected to his neighbors than with the UWS BNG. He finds it refreshing that “nobody has a bad word to say about each other and some of the stories are really touching…If anything, this group shows people that they don’t have to go through the lives alone.”

One of Bill’s favorite stories is about a woman who was going to a wedding and needed a dress. “Within hours, many people gave her dresses and cheered her on,” he recalled. He also likes the way the members of the group have become “specialists”. “We have DIY specialists, sustainability experts and even professional home organizers.”

Margaret Mustalish, has become one of the group’s multi-talented scholars, and often posts, thanking members who have contributed articles to her. These messages are called messages of gratitude.

Most of the objects in this room come from the group. Credit: Instagram @imogen.spring.

Margaret has transformed her apartment into a beautiful oasis for repurposed and discarded items. “It’s funny because I never would have found out what I can do [certain things], because I never had the money. I had never painted a mural before, because I couldn’t afford to buy paint. After posting in the group, Margaret received 20 cans of paint in different colors.

The Buy Nothing Group insists that all giveaways are of equal value and you don’t have to be “needy” to participate. “It doesn’t matter if you make a million dollars a year. If you’re looking for something and someone has it, you’re just as worthy of that gift as anyone else,” says Jennifer.

The UWS BNG has grown so large that the admins have decided it’s time to “sprout out”, meaning they will split into two groups, depending on location. They also created a sister group, called “Being Neighborly, UWS, NYC W60-90”, so members could stay connected, despite having separate BNGs on Facebook.

There is a screening process to enter each group, so it may take some time for your application to be approved. A series of questions that admins review to make sure you live in the listed area and will follow the rules, which include being a member of only your local BNG and no others in town.

Recently Margaret posted looking for a backpack for her daughter. “My daughter is on the autism spectrum and the backpack should have these interchangeable sequins which she finds very soothing,” she said. Within an hour, neighbors had offered a selection of backpacks. A neighbor even offered to drop one off, so she wouldn’t have to scramble to get her kids looked after. When the backpack arrived, her daughter said, “Mom, I love it.”

Every person I spoke to clarified one thing: it’s not the things they’re most grateful for, but the friendships they’ve built through the band.

As the UWS BNG prepares to “sprout”, the messages of gratitude are many, but also the saddest. I’m a member, so in part it’s a message of gratitude. I joined this group to unload some of my daughter’s Paw Patrol toys that she had outgrown. Not only did I gain extra space in my apartment, but also a community that I never knew would make me so happy.

Thanks to the grandmother who sends me photos of her grandchildren playing with my daughter’s toys. Thanks to the new mum who gave me a copy of a sleep training book for my eight month old, who quickly chewed it up in an act of defiance. And thank you to the young ladies who grabbed my pre-baby wardrobe and sent me pictures of themselves wearing the dresses (especially the Valentine’s Day one).

To find your BNG community, use Facebook search and write in Buy Nothing. Or you can use the links we just received:

Buy nothing 60-75 St UWS
Buy Nothing 76-90 St UWS

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