Quote of the day

The plaza of Zuccotti Park.

The plaza of Zuccotti Park.

Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times used the ongoing occupation of Liberty Plaza (Zuccotti Park) in New York City to discuss the political degradation of public space in America as well as, but less obviously, the local political community which formed in Liberty Plaza during the occupation:

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 reasons corporations shun pure public space should be obvious. Public space is part of the commons, and few corporations consider every citizen of a country to be a member of their target markets. Indeed, they typically seek to control access to their quasi-public spaces because they fear so many, and seek to exclude them as unworthy of entering space they consider to be a part of their domain. Some of these quasi-public spaces are little more than cordon sanitaires meant to separate the safe space within from the dangerous space without. Liberty Park is not a cordon sanitaire but an economic convenience given by the city to a private corporation, one which a fraction of the public could put to good public use!

The polis endures!

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