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Occupy Wall Street and the Future of Urban Public Space

By Irwin Arieff

Which came first, the protest or the park?

Was Occupy Wall Street a smash hit national political movement from Day One that only incidentally ended up in New York’s Zuccotti Park? Or was setting up housekeeping in the park the spark that led to the movement’s success?

In “Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space,” OWS protesters, admirers and camp followers argue that both perspectives are correct: in essence, the movement and the space it occupied became inseparable, one and the same.

In this 400-page collection of 37 separate pieces — some in the form of interviews and scholarly articles, others in the form of essays, diaries and musings — the bottom line is: Without suitable urban public spaces, true democracy and free expression cannot exist; absent a thriving society that yearns to speak freely, setting aside public space is a hollow gesture.

“Social Movements are fundamentally about public space,” insists Benjamin Shepard, an assistant professor at the City University of New York, in one article. The Occupy Wall Street Movement “proved that no matter how instrumental new media have become in spreading protest these days, nothing replaces people taking to the streets,” adds New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, writing in the book’s foreword.

From the start, the editors of this project attempted to focus on the issue of urban space and its crucial role in American life. They shared a commitment, they said, “to the important role that public space, universal access, equity and design can play to enhance democracy and promote freedom of expression.”

“We do not focus here on the many diverse issues the Occupy Movement has raised in this country and beyond, but rather on the physical arena Occupy actors and all citizens perform from. We focus … in essence, on the right to fully exercise one’s democratic freedom,” according to the book’s introduction.

Sadly, the editors failed to inform many of their writers of their plans.

Too many of the articles dwell on the details of the occupiers’ daily lives — glorifying how they ate, read, drummed, promoted their various causes, communicated with one another, preached to passersby, laid their plans and managed their solid waste. On the issue of city spaces, these have little to say beyond a plea that we need more parks and they need to be freely accessible to, and suitable for, protests and protesters.

Going back to the beginning, the OWS movement was hatched in the New York City financial district in September 2011. Demonstrators gathered in the downtown area near Wall Street, biked and marched, voiced their concerns and decided to try to stick around.

The movement’s initial goal was one of protest. Despite the near-collapse of the U.S. economy and global financial markets a few years earlier, the wealthiest 1 percent of the population had come to control the reins of U.S. economic and political power, leaving the remaining 99 percent essentially powerless, the organizers lamented. The rich were getting richer and the poor poorer, money was dominating politics, and the banks were left free to incur further economic damage without fear of paying any penalty.

But in taking shape, the movement coincidentally put a spotlight on urban public space by taking up temporary residence in privately owned but publicly accessible Zuccotti Park. Soon, parallel OWS campaigns in cities around the world were following in its footsteps by taking over their own local gathering places and setting up camp.

Of course, it was almost a fluke that the movement chose Zuccotti Park. The police would not let them literally occupy Wall Street by, say, encircling or taking over the New York Stock Exchange or Goldman Sachs. So they found a park that, unlike New York City parks, was governed by a zoning quirk that left it accessible to the public night and day, with few restrictions on its use.

The protesters soon decided to eat there, sleep there, discuss and publicize their movement there, through demonstrations, signs, and speeches. Getting used to sleeping outdoors in a park, they began improving their milieu by getting into food preparation, sanitation, library services, electrical generation, sleeping and dancing.

With the New York City police keeping the encampment on a short leash, the movement soon began a subtle transformation, shifting from a campaign to defang Wall Street into a campaign to stay in Zuccotti Park, 24 hours a day, for as long as possible.

Alas, a year later, it appears that occupying the park didn’t really do much to deprive the 1 percent of their power and influence or create a lasting national movement. Unlike the Tea Party, OWS set out no political agenda, put forward no specific demands and recruited no candidates for public office.

OWS may have defined the battle, but it failed to follow through, and the 2012 election campaign has done little to strike fear in the hearts of the 1 percent. Some have argued that the movement mainly made it tougher for local office workers and shopkeepers to find a quiet place to read a book or eat a sandwich during their lunch hour.

And despite the outrage when the police ultimately booted out the protesters and shut down the park, a legal analysis included in the book — written by Arthur Eisenberg, the legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union — notes that bans on camping in public spaces and other such restrictions have been upheld by the Supreme Court in the past, even when protesters insisted their activities amounted to Constitutionally protected free speech.

So how vital to modern urban life is public space? And how can we as a society ensure that there’s enough space — and  the right kind of space — to ensure a vibrant and egalitarian public life in our communities? There are no easy answers in this volume.

Much is made of the irony of Zuccotti Park, although privately owned, providing greater freedom of use than the city’s public parks. But in New York City, neither private nor public spaces are entirely free from regulation. If you want to organize a march or a rally, you need a permit, and it’s up to the police to decide whether or not to grant one, and on what terms.

And the irony goes only so far. New York lacks enough space, not only for protests and occupations, but also for picnics, jogging, strolling, softball, birthday parties and making out on a park bench.

“No urban park since their invention in the nineteenth century has been intended to have people camp in them,” writes noted landscape architect Laurie Olin. On the other hand, it is also virtually impossible, he adds, to design a space meant for protest. “I conclude that it is in the nature of protest to be contrary, and that attempts to say, ‘protest here, but not over there’ are met with scorn and withering sarcasm. People vote with their feet.”

While it is a city’s duty to provide open space for people to meet and confer and speak out, you can’t create an “occupy park” with running water, tents and other facilities, or no one would go there, agrees Jonathan Rose, a visionary green real estate developer. “It loses its effectiveness,” he writes.

So how can a city ensure that public space will be available when its citizens need to vent? To New York City architect David Burney, it is the city’s duty to facilitate protest and, above all, to forget about preventing it. Ease up on the rules, and construct more band shells where public debates can take place between music performances, he argues.

To Peter Marcuse, an emeritus professor at Columbia University, however, the key is to give the public a voice in the decisionmaking when the usage of a particular space is being decided.

For New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, the key to creating more public space in tight urban areas is to make dual use of city streets as “dynamic livable spaces” for both vehicles and the rest of us.

Creating special spaces for citizen protests may not rate high on her list of priorities, but she has created a mini-revolution in the city with her drive to carve pedestrian and bicycle islands out of the city’s sea of cars and trucks. Until the mid-1960s, notes Lance Jay Brown, a New York architect, New York’s streets were its open spaces. “With 30 percent of New York’s land area used for streets, it was a luxury for a while,” he writes. But today, those streets are choked with cars, whether parked or moving.

Other authors deal with how to ensure that people have the chance to participate in community activities taking place in a park. Some would-be protesters are simply too busy working or taking care of their families to get away for a demonstration or neighborhood meeting. For others, the bus ride downtown might just take too long. Some of the logistically excluded might be minorities living in remote impoverished suburbs without good transportation options, when all the good demonstrations are in distant downtown parks.

Yet others might be left out because they might not be welcome in a park. “The obvious problem is balancing the need for unfettered public access with issues of inappropriate uses, gathering by homeless persons, and antisocial behavior,” writes New York architect and urban parks designer Richard Dattner.

On the supply side of the equation, some of the writers come up with novel new ways to envision urban public space.

Lawyer Paula Segal insists that we make better use of our wasted urban spaces, “to build community and so to exercise governance over our individual and collective lives.” She founded 596 Acres, a group that mapped all the vacant lots in Brooklyn and posted them on the Internet, to encourage locals to adopt them.

Finally, Michael Sorkin, a distinguished professor of architecture at the City College of New York, proposes that New York make better use of its sidewalks by putting each and every block in the city under the control of its own Block Committee.

“Sleeping on sidewalks shall only be permitted by permission of the Block Committees on application of no less than one day in advance of bedtime,” he suggests.

Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space
Edited by Ron Shiffman, Rick Bell, Lance Jay Brown and Lynne Elizabeth with Anastassia Fisyak and Anusha Venkataraman
Publisher: New Village Press, Oakland, California
Publication date: September 2012

Irwin Arieff is a retired New York writer and editor. He served as a Reuters correspondent for 23 years in Washington, D.C., Paris, New York and at the United Nations before leaving daily journalism in 2007.

One Response

  1. If ur interested in politics, check out “The Nature of Life” by Anton Glotser, its very informative and has great political analysis and commentary.

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