On a Sunday evening in October, I found myself on a plane to Vienna to join a delegation of people I did not know, spending a week in a city I had never been to, learning about social housing, something I knew almost nothing about. What was I thinking? I am a theater director – a story-teller. I know that the best stories are the most personal ones. So this is my story of the Vienna Trip – my outsider’s view of what happens when you send fifty Americans passionate about housing to the center of housing innovation.
The seeds of my participation in this group started with a conversation Andrew Friedman (co- founder of The Action Lab) and I had with Michael Rohd, one of the wisest people working in the field of community-engaged art and social practice. Michael said to us, “No matter what you are doing, put an artist in the room. You will be surprised by what might happen.” So there I was, more than a year later – the artist in a room full of the most incredible group of activists, organizers, tenant advocates, elected officials, policy makers and academics.
Our group included state senators and NYCHA residents, people who had been making noise for decades and people who have just begun to discover how loud they can be. We were a fractious bunch, with a lot of questions and even more opinions. The joy in the room was palpable as we tried to understand the nuts and bolts of how something seemingly utopian – a housing system with guaranteed life-time tenancy, affordable rents, green spaces and nearby childcare – could be how more than half of Vienna actually lives.
It was a busy week. We visited many social housing developments, starting with one of the first — Karl Marx Hof — which has been a model since it was built during the Red Vienna period immediately after World War I. We hung out on the roof-top of a new co-housing building, marveling at the herb garden, community kitchen (filled with the scent of freshly baked bread) and children’s play space, complete with climbing wall. We stood next to the outdoor pool on the roof of a development from the 1970s (one of 14 pools in that complex) and squeezed into its neighboring sauna. A few of us paused in the massive underground garage of that building for a brief, spontaneous dance party.
We talked with – and sometimes tangled with – academics, developers, and representatives from the government of Vienna, struggling to understand how it all actually works and trying to figure out how we might be able to bring some of this back to the US. It was inspiring – maybe we can have these nice things too?
We had an emotional meeting with one of the leaders of Black Voices Austria, hearing stories of the profound challenges of being Black in Vienna – stories that echoed the experiences some members of our group had during the trip. Some of us went to the Jewish Museum and services at the Orthodox synagogue. All were reminders that, in many ways, Vienna isn’t paradise; the struggle for justice and freedom is happening everywhere.
It was an incredible learning experience for everyone. But that was not all it was. One of the most magical parts of the experience in Vienna was how this incredibly diverse group of people – some who knew each other, but many who did not – truly became a community. While we were there, our WhatsApp group was filled with photos of people in cafes, on Ferris Wheels, dancing in salsa clubs, at the Opera. We took care of people who were sick or feeling unsafe. We made sure that everyone got back to their rooms at the end of the night. And since we have returned to the US, this energy of care and connection has not waned. I marveled this week at an exchange unfolding on the group chat. One tenant organizer was at her wit’s end, trying to get heat and hot water for a neighbor as the weather turned bitter cold. She turned to the group, and, within minutes, she had the phone number for someone at HPD who might help.
This exchange made me see the trip in a new light. #WheninWien was so much more than a journey through the weeds of social housing policy. By making this trip happen, The Action Lab and Housing Justice for All created something rare and wonderful, beyond policy and politics – an opportunity for people from radically different backgrounds and experiences to come together and forge lasting relationships that make everyone’s lives better and richer. In our small way, we truly were making the world we want to live in.