The Lower East Side Looting
“People are good and trustworthy and generally just concerned with getting through the day. If most people are good and their needs are simple, all you have to do to serve them well is build a minimal infrastructure allowing them to get together and work things out for themselves.”
—Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist.org
It is a scary time to be young, but Craigslist has been good to me. As an over-qualified, under-skilled, somewhat directionless graduate of a non-vocational Masters program (the 99 percent!), it has been my go-to for employment. I have Craigslist to thank for all the unspeakably bizarre ways I have been able to support myself in New York this past year, for the upwards of three part-time jobs I have juggled at once. At a time of economic uncertainty, Craigslist has, for better or worse, allowed me to embrace uncertainty and flux as a viable mode of existence, by connecting me to the people who need the services that I can provide.
I like to think about Craigslist as a radical platform of economic exchange and sociality, one that occupies a lively space on the edges of the faltering job market. By making and keeping classifieds free, it has democratized access to buying and selling services, and connected strangers in every imaginable way. The site, of course, has both its risks and its dark sides, and has indeed been the subject of much controversy, in light of accusations that it facilitates criminal activity. However, for most of us, the over forty million unique users of Craigslist every month, it is an innocent resource, if one that also has to be filtered scrupulously. As Craig Newmark suggests in the quote above, the website’s underdeveloped features and basic interface reflect the humanistic simplicity of the vision. Today it is a worldwide phenomenon, and most people I know have stories to tell about their encounters with Craigslist strangers, fleeting or sustained, that have stuck with them as some of those bizarre and beautiful moments in urban life.
Like the night before I moved out of my Lower East Side apartment last summer, when after weeks of posting and reposting ads in an attempt to sell all the things I couldn’t take with me, I listed everything in the “free stuff” category. Immediately the emails came pouring in, and within a few hours I was sitting alone in a bare apartment, in near darkness (at some point someone had come for the halogen lamp I had bought for $5 from Craigslist when I moved in).
My series of encounters with strangers that night felt particularly surreal. One woman arrived from the Bronx with her daughter and ex-boyfriend. She had just kicked him out but wanted to help him get set up on his own, so they needed my silverware. Another woman came with her drill, and for over an hour we were sweating together late at night in the August heat taking apart my kitchen table. The curious, silent man who I helped down the stairs with a couple of chairs emailed me every day for the next week, wondering if there was any chance I might like to meet for a drink.
If the whole process of moving and dismantling my little world wasn’t emotionally destabilizing enough, here, entering my home one after another, were stark reminders of the insanity of this city I call home, where some of the wealthiest people in the country reside within a couple of miles of those who browse “free stuff” and are willing and eager to heave a used twin mattress and box spring down seven flights of stairs at midnight.
These kinds of transactions, within the Craigslist informal economy, are built on a mutual blind trust. We rely, if cautiously, on Newmark’s conviction that people are, just like us, “good and trustworthy and generally just concerned with getting through the day.” Of course, what Newmark leaves out of this equation is the legitimacy that Craigslist provides as an interface. It is the users, not the features that make it function the way it does.
If you have not found employment on Craigslist, chances are you have bought something, sold something, found a roommate, posted a missed connection. And since, for most of us, daily life involves routine routes and familiar people, I would like to believe that these fleeting encounters with strangers rupture, if in small ways, our steadfast assumptions and patterned motions through life.