Private Space Gone Public at Wall Street


Friday, October 14, 2011

Occupy Wall Street protesters at Zuccotti Park Occupy Wall Street protesters at Zuccotti Park (Josh Rogosin)

Kurt Andersen and Michael Kimmelman head to Lower Manhattan to check out the transformation of Zuccotti Park, the plaza at the center of the Occupy Wall Street protest. Kimmelman is the architecture critic for the New York Times. The protesters haven’t built permanent structures, but Kimmelman believes they are creating a form of urban space. His article on the subject appears in the Times this weekend.

The protesters' use of the space has ancient roots, Kimmelman believes. "There's this wonderful passage in The Politics by Aristotle in which he talks about a polis shaped by the distance of a herald's cry — meaning a civic space, a city functioning in which people have the ability to meet face to face to speak with each other."

Zuccotti Park sits on private property. In the 1960s, the developer of an office tower (now called 1 Liberty Plaza) wanted to build nine stories higher than the zoning permitted, and a deal was struck to create a little outdoor plaza in exchange for those extra stories. "The most delicious irony of the whole thing," Kimmelman says, is "because Zuccotti Park is a private property, it isn't subject to the same rules as city parks. Because of a zoning variance it has to be open day and night, unlike a public park. Because it's a private park, it's more public."

Before this past month, Zuccotti Park was not really a place people lingered, and most New Yorkers had never even heard of it. It was just a bit of concrete that workers raced through on their way to the buildings surrounding it. Kimmelman thinks the park, now filled with people talking and exchanging ideas, is the nicest he's ever seen it: "It really works when it's occupied, when you really get a lot of people in it. The people make the place, as always."

What do you think? Is the use of public space by the protesters — on Wall Street and in your city — appropriate?  Tell us in a comment below.


Slideshow: On Location at Zuccotti Park

Occupy Wall Street Zuccotti Park
Michele Siegel

Zuccotti Park and some of the surrounding buildings on the morning of October 12. When it began to drizzle, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters covered their sleeping bags and belongings with tarps.

Occupy Wall Street Zuccotti Park
Josh Rogosin

The bronze sculpture Double Check by J. Seward Johnson has been in the park since the early 1980s. After 9/11 it became a makeshift memorial and now the OWS protesters have incorporated it into their camp.

Occupy Wall Street Zuccotti Park
Josh Rogosin

At first, the scene may look a little chaotic — with tarps, signs, and sleeping bags everywhere. But the protesters are actually keeping things quite orderly. The park is privately owned by the landlord of 1 Liberty Plaza, the office tower in the background. New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman called the zoning variance that keeps Zuccotti park open 24 hours a day "a delicious irony” because it isn’t subject to the same rules as city parks. Therefore “it has to be open day and night, unlike a public park. Because it's a private park, it's more public."

Occupy Wall Street Zuccotti Park
Josh Rogosin

A view from inside the park looking out towards the western edge. Police officers stand watch on the park's northwest corner.

Occupy Wall Street Zuccotti Park
Josh Rogosin

Kimmelman is struck at how "city–like" this small park has become. Protesters provide all kinds of services to each other including a library, a media center, generators to charge laptops and phones, and a kitchen. Note the signage about keeping things civil: "Kitchen Area, Help Out! Please keep clean neat and organized so we can work."

Occupy Wall Street Zuccotti Park
Josh Rogosin

A concrete bench in the park is now the kitchen counter for donated food. A protester helps himself to jam and bread.

Occupy Wall Street Zuccotti Park
Josh Rogosin

In an effort to limit their environmental impact on the park for all their living needs, protesters set up a system to recycle "grey" water. After dishwater goes through the system, it's used to water the plants in the park.

Occupy Wall Street Zuccotti Park
Josh Rogosin

While the protesters are using all kinds of technology to share ideas, most information at OWS is spread by word–of–mouth and hand–lettered signs. A handmade weather forecast sign hangs above the tarps.

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Michael Kimmelman

Produced by:

Michele Siegel

Comments [8]

NavyOne from California

A naval officer’s (and former bike messenger’s) take:

Oct. 30 2011 11:00 AM
Barbara from Queens

I agree with William O'Donnell 100%. I object to New Yorkers having to pay the tons of overtime that NYPD is chalking up. The Force has neglected major law and order issues all over the city because there is not enough police personnel to cover this teeming city.

Oct. 24 2011 04:55 PM
William O'Donnell

I cannot say what the values or political beliefs are of the occupiers, but guessing from their manifesto of a guaranteed living allowance, with working to earn it optional, and a free college education tells me they're probably not conservative. That leads to the question of if they were conservatives, in what ever they were trying to promote, change, or bring attention to, I would bet the house that Mayor Bloomberg would have used whatever force he could apply and have them run out, permanently. I also doubt Mr. Kimmelman would have invoked Aristotle if this was the case. I think he would have called it a sad irony, not delicious, that it is a private and not a public space. Yes, we have right of peaceful assembly but you still must have a permit to put on the St. Patrick's day parade. Remember the World War One veterans who built a camp in Washington D.C. in 1932 and demanded early payment of a bonus they were promised? President Hoover ran them and their families out. Two veterans were killed. If you want some real change, build a grass roots movement like the Tea Party did and get elected. When you do, then put in term limits for congress. Now that's some change we can all like.

Oct. 16 2011 02:37 PM
Brian from Boston

I agree with most of the issues brought up by OWS and have been inspired by finding YouTube videos and profiles of demonstrators.
It is an appropriate use of public space and I hope it spreads a lot more to spread the conversation.
We should deal with the issue of public cost, though. If these events create burdens for the cost of police, traffic control etc. then let's take responsibility for those costs before they become a justifiable excuse for political backlash.

Oct. 16 2011 02:35 PM
Empka from Brooklyn

I appreciate the discussion of the space created by OWS in Zuccotti Park - but you are wrong that this park was a nothing space before this protest. A lot of people, especially people like me who work in the surrounding buildings, actively used the space for lunch and relaxation and a break from office life. A place to sit in the sun or the shade with the breeze though the leaves. It was already a vibrant place.

Oct. 16 2011 02:24 PM
M.E.L. from North Bergen, NJ

The Occupy Wall Street protest and the American Dream Movement give me some hope that there's a chance to restore some economic balance in this country. We need to be aware of the provisions of the Dodd-Frank bill and not allow the banks and related institutions to bring us to our knees once again. All progressives and anyone else who is concerned about the dangers of growing economic inequality in this country must support these efforts.

Oct. 16 2011 11:27 AM
Zane Fischer from Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Occupy Santa Fe situation in Santa Fe, New Mexico (currently adjacent to a Bank of America branch and preparing to move on the state capitol building) has received uncommon sanctioning and assistance from local city government and police.

It has had its challenges to be sure, the city council members and the mayor's office are doing what they can to respect, understand and enable this important expression of voice. They accept that this local manifestation is part of a critical, national expression and, although there is the occasional bureaucratic choking point, our elected leaders have understood the need to facilitate this rather than repress it.

And if our community can get that through our representatives and through our police department, other communities can--and that translates to diverse buy-in or at least the tolerance or a radical range of voices.

Oct. 14 2011 10:24 PM

Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Oct. 14 2011 09:16 PM

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