Foreword by Michael Kimmelman
The Occupy Wall Street movement, with its encampments in Lower Manhattan, Washington, London, and many other cities around the world, proved that no matter how instrumental new media have become in spreading protest these days, nothing replaces people taking to the streets.
Anybody who can recall New York City on September 11, 2001 and during the days after will remember that hundreds of thousands of people went outside to gather in parks and squares and on the sidewalks. They didn’t just retreat online. They sought out public spaces to be with each other. Our human instinct is to come together. People occupied those parks and squares and streets, hanging ribbons and photographs on fences, concocting makeshift memorials, gathering in clusters to talk and, in a sense, prove to each other that they belonged to a larger community, a greater city, that this community and this city endured, and that there was strength in numbers. They came together in public spaces to affirm solidarity in ways that online communication can’t.
We tend to underestimate the political power of physical places. Then Tahrir Square comes along. Zuccotti Park, until the protests, was an obscure city-block-size downtown plaza with a few trees and concrete benches around the corner from Ground Zero and two blocks north of Wall Street on Broadway. A few hundred people with ponchos and sleeping bags put it on the map. Kent State, Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall: we use locales, edifices, architecture to house our memories and political energy. Politics troubles our consciences. But places haunt our imaginations, so we check in on Facebook and Twitter, but we make pilgrimages to Antietam, Auschwitz, and to the Acropolis, to gaze at rubble from the days of Pericles and Aristotle.
I thought of Aristotle, of all people, while I watched the Zuccotti Park demonstrators hold one of their general assemblies one day. In his Politics, Aristotle argued that the size of an ideal polis extended to the limits of a herald’s cry. He believed that the human voice was directly linked to civic order. A healthy citizenry in a proper city required face-to-face conversation. It so happens that near the start of the protest, when the police banned megaphones at Zuccotti Park, they obliged demonstrators to come up with an alternative. “Mic checks” became the consensus mode of circulating announcements, spread through the crowd by people repeating, phrase by phrase, what a speaker had said to others around them, compelling everyone, as it were, to speak in one voice. It was like the old game of telephone, and painstakingly slow.
“But so is democracy,” as Jay Gaussoin, a forty-six-year-old unemployed actor and carpenter who was among the protesters, put it to me. “We’re so distracted these days, people have forgotten how to focus. But the ‘mic check’ demands not just that we listen to other people’s opinions, but that we really hear what they’re saying because we have to repeat their words exactly.”
“It requires an architecture of consciousness,” was Mr. Gaussoin’s phrase.
What happens when privatization and the marketplace conflict with the public interest? How does a focus on the public good intersect with the preservation of democratic spaces and institutions? These were among the questions that the Occupy movement raised by virtue of occupying Zuccotti. But it wasn’t just the simple act of occupation that elevated these questions beyond philosophy. It was the form that the occupation took. Much as it looked at first glance like a refugee camp, especially in the early morning, when the protesters were just emerging from their sleeping bags, Zuccotti Park became like a miniature polis, a little city in the making. That it happened also to be a private park is one of the most delicious and revealing subtexts of the story. Formerly called 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, with few restrictions on its use.
This peculiarity of local zoning law—a loophole for such a park that private owners and public officials have hastily tried to close in the wake of Zuccotti’s occupation—turned an unexpected spotlight on the bankruptcy of so much of what, during the last couple of generations, has passed for public space in the United States. 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, policed by their landlords, who find a million excuses to limit their accessibility. Zuccotti, as an exception, revealed 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). City officials are forever closing streets and parks for celebratory events—parades and street fairs—but try getting a park or street closed for a political protest. This is partly because we don’t really want these protests, not in our backyard anyway. Lisa Keller has pointed out that free speech in public space may be America’s most undemocratic and rarely admitted NIMBY (“not in my backyard”). People want their streets and parks clear and quiet.
But what is the cost to the public good, to public discourse, and to civic freedom if the only way to spread one’s message is to buy space? Occupy Wall Street, in part unintentionally, raised this question and others like it: where are the spaces in which we act as a community? Who governs them? Who decides on their design? Their use? And should we blur the controls, the boundaries, the authority, and the thresholds between public and private space, between streets and sidewalks?
One answer is that we need ambiguous spaces, multiuse spaces. Access to space breeds a feeling of ownership; ownership of empowerment, as Paul Broches has put it. But more than access, openness—or what Broches and others lately have taken to calling “sloppiness”—is the key to useful public space. From a design perspective, this means intentionally incomplete and at least partly unplanned spaces that are completed in different ways by different users. But how do we create them?
Significantly, of course, the Occupy Wall Street protesters did not select the High Line or Times Square; they went to Zuccotti Park because all spaces are also symbolic. Zuccotti was up the street from Wall Street, in the shadow, the protesters believed, of corporate authority, and it was relatively compact. Occupiers across the country tended toward places like Zuccotti—places that could looked jammed and bustling with just a few hundred people, as opposed to, say, the Great Lawn, where the same size protest would have seemed insignificant. The comedy of Mitt Romney speaking before the Michigan caucus during the 2012 Republican nomination process in 65,000-seat Ford Field before an audience of 1,200 illustrated the point. The power of space extends to the ways space itself conspires to market a certain message, or subvert it.
As Jeffrey Hou notes, there are ultimately two kinds of public spaces: institutionalized spaces and “insurgent” spaces. Public space, Hou adds, must be “enacted” —occupied, used—for it to be truly public. It is this act of using it that makes it public, that makes it a real place. At the same time, any place can be occupied, taken over, despite the best attempts to design it so that protesters won’t gather in it. A highway can be occupied if protesters really are willing to stop traffic. So can a bridge. The real question is not can a place be designed to prevent occupation but can a place be designed specifically for protest, or does the very designation of such a place as an official, sanctioned site for political action undercut its political and independent function? A healthy city has a robust diversity of public spaces: it needs destination places like Central Park, but these don’t touch the daily life of most people the way neighborhood squares do. It happens that the grid that has defined and in many ways given birth to New York City’s urban vitality had almost no squares or parks in its original plan, and generations of New Yorkers have had to carve them out of the grid, wrest them from its monotony. To the extent that the city has become more livable and humane in recent years, the improvement is attributable to the improved quality of the parks and the spread of public space along the waterfront and elsewhere. Public health and public space go hand in hand.
Living in Europe for several years, I often came across parks and squares, in Barcelona and Madrid, Athens and Milan, Paris and Rome, occupied by tent communities of protesters. Public protest and assembly were part of the Western European social compact that promised decent health care, housing, transportation, cultural programs, and schools in return for higher taxes. Maybe the difference in the United States, taxes aside, has something to do with our long-standing obsessions with automobiles and autonomy, with our predilection for isolationism, or with our preference for watching rather than participating. In Europe, the protests were about jobs, government rollbacks, and debt. As the euro crisis spread, they had increasingly to do with austerity measures, threatening the compact. That the message of the Zuccotti Park occupiers was fuzzy somewhat missed the point of the Occupy protest, I think. The encampment itself seemed to be the point to me.
“We come to get a sense of being part of a larger community,” as Brian Pickett, a thirty-three-year-old adjunct professor of theater and speech at City University of New York and another of the protesters, put it to me. I found him during one afternoon sitting among the neat, tarpaulin-covered stacks of sleeping bags in a corner of the park. “It’s important to see this in the context of alienation today. We do Facebook alone. But people are not alone here.” And as a result, demonstrators also revealed themselves to each other. Egyptians described this phenomenon at Tahrir Square. Tea Partiers have talked about it, too. As with the post 9/11 gatherings, protesters don’t just show the world a mass of people. They discover their own numbers—people with similar, if not identical, concerns. Imagine Zuccotti Park, one protester told me, as a Venn diagram of characters representing disparate political and economic disenchantments. The park was where their grievances overlap. It was literally common ground.
And it was obvious to me watching the crowd coalesce over several days that consensus emerged urbanistically, meaning that the demonstrators, who devised their own form of leaderless governance to keep the peace until the whole experiment fell apart, found unity in community. The governing process they chose was a bedrock message. It produced the outlines of a city, as I said. The protesters set up a kitchen for serving food; a legal desk and a sanitation department; a library of donated books; an area where the general assembly met; a medical station; a media center where people recharged their laptops using portable generators; and even a general store called the comfort center, stocked with donated clothing, bedding, toothpaste, and deodorant—like the food, all free for the taking.
That’s where I found Sophie Theriault sorting through loads of newly arrived pants and shirts. A soft-spoken twenty-one-year-old organic farmer from Vermont, she had already spent many days and nights working as a volunteer. “We may not have all come here with the exact same issues in mind,” she said, “but sharing this park day in and day out, night after night, becomes an opportunity for us to discover our mutual interests. We meet every night to talk about how to keep this place clean and sober, to keep it an emotionally, physically safe space for everyone. Consensus builds community.”
Patrick Metzger, a twenty-three-year-old sound engineer and composer, echoed the thought: “From Web posts, you never get information about race, class, age—who people really are. Fox News talks about flakes and mobs. But you can see how complicated the mix really is: students and older people, parents with families, construction workers on their lunch break, unemployed Wall Street executives.”
There were a few flakes, too, as at any political rally, and their numbers grew as did the agitators looking to undermine the occupation. But Mr. Metzger got it right. The protesters’ diversity, at least for a while and during the day, was intrinsic to the protest’s resilience. Not since 9/11 had so many people been asking, “Have you been there?” “Have you seen it?” about any place in Manhattan.
The occupation of the virtual world along with Zuccotti Park was, of course, what jointly propelled the Occupy Wall Street movement, and neither would have been so effective without the other. That said, on the ground was where the protesters built an architecture of consciousness.
Michael Kimmelman is the chief architecture critic of the New York Times and a contributor to the New York Review of Books. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and is the author of The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (2006) and Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre and Elsewhere (1998).