Sunday, January 31, 2016
"In Protest, the Power of Place" by Michael Kimmelman
In Protest, the Power of Place
United Press International
OHIO, 1970 Tear gas against protesters at Kent State
Michael Kimmelman is the architecture critic of The New York Times.
NEW YORK, 1967 Central Park protest against the Vietnam War
THE ever expanding Occupy Wall Street movement, with encampments now not only in Lower Manhattan but also in Washington, London and other cities, proves among other things that no matter how instrumental new media have become in spreading protest these days, nothing replaces people taking to the streets.
Another reminder came late last week when the landlord of Zuccotti Park, where the demonstrators in New York City have settled, at the last minute withdrew a request for police assistance in cleaning up the park. This, at least temporarily, averted a confrontation in front of the global media over what protesters regarded as just a pretext to evict them.
We tend to underestimate the political power of physical places. Then Tahrir Square comes along. Now it’s Zuccotti Park, until four weeks ago an utterly 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 have put it on the map.
Kent State, Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall: we clearly 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 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” the other 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 method 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’s like the old game of telephone, and it is painstakingly slow.
“But so is democracy,” as Jay Gaussoin, a 46-year-old unemployed actor and carpenter, 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 apt phrase.
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).