Updated: Mar 27, 2022
What do a futon, a package of sunflower seeds, a medicine cabinet, stackable letter tray organizers, and a take-out box of earthworms have in common? … OK, give up? They are all things I’ve either given to or received from people in my neighborhood simply by posting in Rockwell Freebox, a 2,300+ member facebook group. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; a mint-condition waffle maker, beekeeping equipment, backpacking gear, cans of cat food, TV antennae, bolts of cool fabric, a sleeper sofa, watering can, coffee grinder, screen door, and even a used toilet brush! I could go on, but you get the idea, and I really do have a point to make…
The point is not to validate the well worn truism, “one man’s trash…”. Nor is it that each shared thing was spared a loveless existence collecting dust or rotting in a landfill. The point is that sharing stuff builds community; not just in the giving and receiving of stuff, but in the interactions: the small kindnesses, the coordinating of pick-ups, the lending and returning, the banter and laughter. And, it wouldn’t be nearly as productive or have the sense of community without the 12 admins that keep things running smoothly with firm and friendly enforcement of the group rules. What makes the magic happen is that people are motivated to get stuff or get rid of stuff and by doing so they interact (virtually) with the wider group when they post and with individuals (by direct message and/or in person) when they claim or pick-up an item. It’s a virtuous circle that, through thousands of interactions each year, forms new relationships and builds a stronger, more sustainable community.
I recognize that our neighborhood has certain ingredients (density, high levels of neighborhood trust, relative affluence, and high levels of social media participation) that make it fertile ground for free-boxing. I also recognize that social media and facebook aren’t for everyone. I believe there’s a strong case to be made for local government and nonprofits to work together to create conditions that empower every community to have a platform, whether it’s online or offline, to share their stuff, get to know their neighbors, and learn how to solve bigger problems together. In other words, the magic can happen anywhere, but in some places it might need some help.
Want more fun facts about Rockwell Free Box? It started in 2014 by Emily Lindner (so grateful to you, Emily!) After Emily moved, it was rebooted as Rockwell Free Box 2.0 in 2014 by super-neighbor, Blake Valkier, and group guidelines were overhauled. While there's no way to track it, the number of shared items is easily in thousands, according to Blake. At least three other local Free Box groups have been started since: Ravenswood Free Box (1,800+ members), Beverly Free Box (3,800+ members), and West Ridge/Rogers Park Free Box (1,900+ members).