Don’t Tread on Me: Could Occupy Wall Street Save New York’s Neglected Privately Owned Public Spaces?

It's Public. It's Private. It's Complicated.

Welcome? (Matt Chaban)

The city will gain what amounts to a permanent, open park in the heart of one of the most densely built-up areas in the world. It is principally because of this public benefit that the commission has viewed this application with favor.

—City Planning application No. 20222, adopted March 20, 1968

Except for the highly intrusive police fencing lining a handful of streets and the occasional thrum of a drum circle, life goes on in Lower Manhattan. Tourists clog the streets in front of Century 21, craning to get a look at World Trade Center construction and the new 9/11 memorial beyond. Analysts and traders puff on cigarettes on the granite plazas outside their towering offices. Strollers abound.

The protests known as #occupywallstreet might better be called #occupyzucottipark. The plaza two blocks from the street of the protestors’ ire is well-known by now, a square to rival Rockefeller Center or the Apple Cube of Fifth Avenue in its current popularity.

Walking through the space, with its granite risers, sunken lights and giant red Mark di Suvero sculpture, the crowd looks like a bizarro street fair. Yet it is surprisingly organized, with a kitchen, media area, information kiosk, a library and the general assembly, where debates, discussions, airings of grievance are held each night—all conveniently mapped inside The Occupied Wall Street Journal. The park has even been rechristened by the protestors as Liberty Plaza, the name it bore before the space was rehabbed in 2006 by next-door landlord Brookfield Properties, which renamed the space for its U.S. chairman.

Not since Bowling Green served as a cattle market for old New Amsterdam has there been this much organization in a city park. Or at least since Streisand had her happening in Central Park.

For at least the past week, Brookfield has been trying to put an end to the occupation. “For more than two weeks, protesters have been squatting in the park,“ declares a company statement, the latest of many, released on Monday. “Brookfield recognizes people’s right to peaceful protest; however, we also have an obligation to ensure that the park remains safe, clean, and accessible to everyone.”

And yet there has been a surprising amount of push back. Not from the protesters but the NYPD. The park, which is a bit under an acre, was built along with neighboring 1 Liberty Plaza, the old U.S. Steel Building, in the early 1970s, and it is not actually city-owned but instead the product of an obscure section of the zoning code known as a privately owned public space, or a POPS. In exchange for the plaza, which was in decline even before it was destroyed on 9/11, the building’s original developer got a whopping 304,000 square feet to add to its project, or what turned out to be a considerable nine floors.

Tour the POPS of Midtown >>

The N.Y.P.D. has so far refused to act, and the reasoning seems clear: by keeping the protestors confined to the park, they are easier to corral and monitor. If they were to be pushed out, they might well end up on the sidewalks or dispersed throughout the neighborhood, making their movements more difficult to track. And because Brookfield is responsible for the property, the department can easily defer. “The owners will have to come in and direct people not to do certain things,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said last Wednesday.

Thanks to the legal gray area created by many of these POPS, the rules and jurisdictions are usually loosely defined. Often times, that is just the way the developers and building managers like it—they can enforce the rules as they see fit. (Brookfield has yet to act on its own to show the so-called squatters off, despite posting new rules to discourage them from staying the night.)

But were it not for this POPS known as Zucotti Park, the occupation of Wall Street may have withered long ago. Would they really be so successful on the Battery, where camping is explicitly forbidden? And the police certainly would not have tolerated them camping out on the sidewalk, or if they were to, as Adbusters initially suggested, “flood the streets.”

As the City Planning Commission made explicitly clear when it approved this POPS in 1968, this was a public space very much in demand, and it remains so to this day.

POPS have had their fair share of critics over the years, almost as many as the Occupy Wall Street protestors have. Aimless as they may be, even if the protesters fail to ignite a national movement that taxes the rich at a higher rate, ends corporate welfare orconverts the country into a legion of vegans, the occupation could well awaken New Yorkers to the tiny public spaces scattered about the city that they often ignore. Occupy Wall Street may finally lead New Yorkers to occupy POPS instead.

Don’t Tread on Me: Could Occupy Wall Street Save New York’s Neglected Privately Owned Public Spaces?