On Public Space and Protest
Interesting article from the New York Times Sunday Review examining the idea of public space in the Occupy Wall Street protests. Zuccotti Park, the protesters’ base of operations over the past month, is a private park, aptly enough, named for a corporate leader.
Much as it can look at a glance like a refugee camp in the early morning, when the protesters are just emerging from their sleeping bags, Zuccotti Park has in fact become a miniature polis, a little city in the making. That it happens also to be a private park is one of the most revealing subtexts of the story. Formerly Liberty Park, the site was renamed in 2006 after John E. Zuccotti, chairman of Brookfield Office Properties, the park’s owner. A zoning variance granted to Brookfield years ago requires that the park, unlike a public, city-owned one, remain open day and night.
This peculiarity of zoning law has turned an unexpected spotlight on the bankruptcy of so much of what in the last couple of generations has passed for public space in America. Most of it is token gestures by developers in return for erecting bigger, taller buildings. Think of the atrium of the I.B.M. tower on Madison Avenue and countless other places like it: “public” spaces that are not really public at all but quasi-public, controlled by their landlords. Zuccotti in principle is subject to Brookfield’s rules prohibiting tarps, sleeping bags and the storage of personal property on the site. The whole situation illustrates just how far we have allowed the ancient civic ideal of public space to drift from an arena of public expression and public assembly (Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, say) to a commercial sop (the foyer of the Time Warner Center).
The article misses an opportunity to elaborate in greater detail about the commodification and privatization of public spaces, but that’s been documented in other places, albeit not for most mainstream audiences. At the very least, these protests are provoking some important and overdue debates.