Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Hoop for Your POPS, Bike Rides as Social Movements, Community Gardens and Revitalized Public Spaces (among other adventures with urban space).

Over the last week, I've traveled back and forth from Brooklyn to Manhattan countless times.   Walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, riding back on the Manhattan Bridge, strolling from East Broadway to the streets of South Street Seaport, from the East side of the City to the West and back again.  Along the way, I constantly revel in the distinct geography of our downtown and its connection to the distinct neighborhoods of New York.  Of course, part of what makes these spaces feel so alive are the people, interconnecting cultures, and physical spaces from Chinatown to Wall Street, from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side.  The public spaces of these neighborhoods are in constant flux as we explored throughout this last weekend of talks, theater performances, walking tours through Death Alley, rarely used privately ownedpublic spaces open for occupation, and vacant lots turned community gardens.

Part of what made Occupy Wall Street so vital was the connection to a privately owned public space (POPS) just off Wall Street. This was a space where people could hang out 24/7.  There are hundreds - 525 if you're really counting- of pops throughout New York city, created as for zoning concessions.  For each square food of public space created in the plazas out front of buildings, they were allowed to increase height and bulk above. Yet, the building owners rarely wanted the public to fully access these spaces, at least this was the conclusion of Greg Smithsimon and my book, The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York's Public Spaces. 

Occupy offered countless joyous moments in the POPS, such as Zuccotti Park.
Photo by Giles Clarke

According to the Municipal Arts Society Advocates of the POPS (APOPS) site POPS are:
plazas, arcades, and other outdoor and indoor spaces encouraged by concessions offered to private developers by the City’s zoning resolution since 1961. POPS can make a valuable contribution to New York City’s livability given their location in some of the city’s densest neighborhoods.
In 2000, MAS, Harvard University urban planning and design Professor Jerold Kayden and the Department of City Planning, examined POPS in the book Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience.
Although the book described problems with the design, use, and management of some spaces, it also described many good spaces scattered throughout the city ...
Visit apops.mas.org to explore our “beta” website about New York City’s remarkable collection of 525 or so zoning-created plazas, arcades, and other outdoor and indoor privately owned public spaces.
Kayden's book, detailing the private sector's constant efforts to encroach upon these public spaces, one chair, barricade and bench at a time was a profound influence for my work as a public space advocate.  Over time, walking, pulling together events, riding bikes, organizing street actions, I saw public spaces continue to be erode after this book was published and New York became a security zone in the post 9/11 era.  The city changed and so did its people.  Yet, the craving for public space remained.  And New Yorkers continued to expand their agora, despite the pressures of real estate and security.  Gardens were bulldozed and created once again.  Parks continued to contested sites, as we learned with the struggles over the gardens and POPS used by regular people and social movements both before and after the occupation of Zuccotti Park. 
In the years since I started reading about the tensions over public space, these struggles only became more and more pronounced. When we organized Occupy Broadway off a POPS in the theater district, I assumed we would be back for another performance in another of the pops soon afterward.  But life got in the way, Occupy evolved, ebbed, flowed, while bike rides and performances took us on different routes, into different cul de sacs and vacant lots.  Friends and groups broke up; police repression escalated, and it would be another year and a half before we held another Occupy event in a pops.  In the fall of 2012, Brook Sweet organized an event called Hoop for Your POPS in a small POPS near Wall Street the city was using as a parking lot in violation of zoning laws.  Saturday, May 4th, we would build on this trajectory with another Hoop for Your POPS event joined by members of Occupy.  I posted on the facebook page:
Hey all! We are starting a campaign to reinvigorate the people's space utilizing Privately Owned Public Spaces, or POPS, (like our darling Zuccotti) this summer! This kickoff party will be filled with music, puppetry, story telling, games, games and more games, friends and potluck food! Your participation is desired! Come kick us of at New&Exchange on Saturday, May 4th from noon to 5pm! Keep the MayDay spirit flying all wknd! Bring a hula hoop, an instrument, food to share, a story, an idea...
The theme of public space would dominate the entire weekend of the action.  Friday night, I took part in a talk discussion after Monica's performance of Blondie of Arabia at the Culture Project, speaking on a panel with some of my favorite activists, some of my favorite people.  The play was born after a bike ride, as we shared stories, tea and coffee after a freezing bike ride.  I had spoken at other events around the play.  But this was was my first time speaking at 45 Bleeker since performing as a Deacon at a church of stop shopping in the spring of 2000.  The call for the May 3 event announced:

Go see Blondie of Arabia.

Join us after the show for a talk with Monica Hunken, Wendy Brawer (Founding Director of Green Map System), and Ben Shepard (author, professor and organizer with Time’s Up! and ACT UP), moderated by Keegan Stephan (organizer with Time’s Up!), to discuss bicycles as vehicles for social change. Talk is included with ticket purchase. You can also bring your ticket stub from a previous performance of Blondie for free entry.

Monica'ss post show panel with Keegan, Monica, Ben S, Wendy, Jen at a Bike Panel at the Culture Project photo by Josh Bisker

Keegan started the event at 45 Bleeker.  "I'm on stage with an incredibly effective group of activist, a professor and social worker, the founding director of an international system of map-making, a highly respected activist actress and educator, and an internationally acclaimed artist, photographer, and blogger," he explained.  "Yet we're here to discuss bicycles - something most American's consider toys for children, or a mark of a revoked driver's license. Why do you guys see bikes as vehicles for social change?"

Cyclists and environmentalists have long collaborated.

Listening to Keegan, I reflected on my first experiences riding and becoming aware of public spaces and what they teach us about the city. Much of Hunkens' play, afterall, is about the specter of difference and how people relate to this in public space.  I saw the street from an entirely new perspective when I first started riding bikes rides through suburban Atlanta and Dallas in the 1970's.  One could see the treasures among the ruins of the streets, the vines winding out of the sidewalk, places where people smoked, lots were left abondoned, and we helped transform neglected spaces into places for bike adventures, races, and play.  It was also a place to see the ways bodies intersect, conflict and co exist in urban space.  Riding my bike through these spaces offered a unique vantage point with which to consider the struggles over difference in public space, including first encounters with police who pulled myself over with a friend, who was Black, as we rode through the streets of Dallas.  Here was the dark underbelly lurking beneath most southern cities.  Yet, what are differences in the way we see people in public space.... a white blond women riding her bike through in Saudi Arabia or an African American teenager riding with friends and profiled by police in a Dallas suburb or a Black body dancing on roller skates in Washington Square Park?  Riding is a way to see a few images of really going on in a city and what we need to change.  It is also a way to imagine that we can change it. Over the years, taking part in Critical Mass and Times Up! rides, I saw that riding is a way to engage in a dialogue with this difference, It is a way to transform space,  reshaping it from a route to work, a means of necessity, into a space for imagination, connection and play.  

View of rubble beneath the Brooklyn Bridge from the East Side Bike Path.

Riding bikes is an experience in joy.
With cyclists joining and supporting movements from socialism to feminist, post 1960' s anarchism, environmentalism, and public space activism  - this practice is really about bodies in space and the ways they impact the streets and public spaces of our cities.  It is about a clash of ideas and sensibilities.  Cyclists took part on bike blocks defending gardens, scouting and doing comm for movements from global justice to Occupy. 

The map for the May 12 action anticipating Occupy.
The bike bloc helped coordinate the communications.
May 12, 2011, cyclists helped coordinate communication for arally downtown with labor, environmental, and health movements joining downtownand marking the beginning workings of Occupy.  I was pulled into the organizing by a group of AIDS activists from Health Gap and ACT UP who called to ask if  Times UP!, the group I work with, could coordinate a roving bike-block/communications team to report on the conditions of the labyrinthine streets of Lower Manhattan, as we had done during the convergence actions of global justice movement’s peak years and continue to do the last Friday of every month during Critical Mass. While teachers marching downtown from City Hall had a permit, the same was not true of the other groups who intended to converge on Wall Street to push the bankers to pay their fair share. Using walkie-talkies and a text message loop, we hoped to help everyone know which streets were blocked off and which tributaries remained open.

 Cyclists were celebrated by the Situationists as a means of challenging automization of cities, colonized by the privatizing means of cars.  Cyclists offered a means to remap the city.  The Situationist response to the privatization of public space included a series of guerilla activist tactics, including interventions termed "detourne" and "derive".  “Detourne” refers to the rearrangement of popular signs to create new meanings, while "derive" involves walking tours throughout the city.   Through these gestures we create new maps for urban living.

The Situationists: Guy Debord, Michèle Bernstein and Asger Jorn

The Situationists inspired countless groups including the Provos, who helped imagine and create the DIY bike infrastructure, as well building occupations which would shape Amsterdam. Our free play as well as bike program owes a great deal to the Provos.  "If the very scale of New Babylon’s ambition ruled out its realisation, the vision of a city devoted to play directly inspired later movements like the “Provos” of Amsterdam, who set out to revolutionise the city on a more modest level, with free bikes and the occupation of abandoned buildings."

New York owes a great deal to these anarchist inspired bike activists.
Bike activists specifically look to the theatrics of the Provo and their masterful anti-capitalist, anti-establishment antics; the result often combined riots and laughter. While the immediate effect of the pranks were viewed as minimal, the group’s “white bike program,” aimed at decreasing car traffic on the streets of Amsterdam in the long term, offered bikes, painted white, free of charge as a transportation alternative. These playful pranks presented students and activists a vision of an alternate way of organizing urban life, while serving as an uncomfortable reminder of idealist dreams for the liberal government. For many, the aim of movement organizing is to create not only an external solution to problems, but to create a different kind of community of support and resistance. Here, play supports a prefigurative community-building dimension, in which activists seek to embody the image of the better world they hope to create. Inspired by the Provos’ willingness to act on their views of political hypocrisy, a new wave of wildly imaginative political actors entered politics with an appetite for direct action and a distinctly rambunctious view of political hypocrisy. The prank political campaigns of the Provo, who ran for political office on a whim, produced a wide number of movement outcomes, the most strange of which was that a number were actually elected into office. Once there, some continued the antics. Others influenced the political discourse and public policy. The City of Amsterdam’s extensive network of 249 miles of bike lanes, which make bike commuting a safe alternative to driving, is the both the legacy of this activism and the envy of bike riders the world over.
On the panel, Wendy pointed out that when the war began against Iraq, cyclists placed signs on their bikes declaring: "Bicycling: a quiet statement against oil wars." In this way, cycling supported efforts to limit the environmental and political damages of fossil fuels.  Through cycling we help fashion a different kind  of sustainable urbanism born of non-polluting transportation. 
Jean Hillary, who was in Paris when bike share began, suggested that such cyclists changes cities, particularly with programs such as bike share which infuse the streets with thousands of cyclists, slowing traffic, demanding safety and security and support.  Cycles also help us retrace our engagement with city, expanding a conversation about urban living, transportation, labor, and safety.  Through it, we put our bodies on the line, acknowledge others, trusting them to acknowledge us, hopefully without fear of negating themselves.  Yet, this is sometimes hard.
Along the way, we help engage within a dialogue with difference, as Hunken's play reminds us.  It happens every time we chat, with other cyclists, pedestrians, drivers, and others in the streets.  In this way it is a space for conversation, as well as a means to break down barriers.  As a model for imagining a new way of living with a rapidly warming, increasingly congested world, cycling is a precursor to changes in urban space, several panelists concluded. 

"Its really about public space," Keegan noted. 
"There is so much more we could have discussed!" Monica noted after the show. "Generator bikes at Liberty square and recovery work after Sandy and on and on, each of you individual fascinating projects and lives.  I want to hear more!"

The human power of bikes, of energy bikes, are many noted Brennan later in the weekend.
Finishing the talk, we walked over to Noho Star and hung out into the night, but not too late.  The next day's adventures would be many.

The theme of public space would churn throughout the weekend.
Battling the Pipeline

Cowboys warming of a train ahead. Photo credit: The Imaginative Beauty of New York's High Line
Saturday, I woke up early, grabbed my cowboy hat, put on my boots and rode up to the West Village to play a cowboy in an environmental walking tour organized by Occupy the Pipeline dubbed: The Secrets of Death Avenue in Manhattan.  The organizers for the event noted:
Change is essential to life, and the West Village has been an incubator for change. A vibrant blend of immigrants, artists, lefties, financiers, gay and straight, young and old, affluent and hardscrabble, this area has been one of the world's most fertile spawning grounds of creativity, social change, and protest. Through conventional exposition, street theater and song — your participation is welcome! — you will learn about how the clash of commerce with humanity once earned a West Village street the name "Death Avenue". Now an unseen danger lurks beneath that same street. What would Jane Jacobs do? What can you do? Join us and find out.

Photo and caption by Erik M. The Secrets of Death Avenue Walking Tour - Day 1 - Death Avenue Cowboy © Erik Mc Gregor — with Benjamin Heim Shepard at FREE The Secrets of Death Avenue Walking Tour.
Meeting the organizers at the Pain Quotidien kiosk located at the southern end of the small, triangular plaza just north of 14th Street at 9th Avenue, Manhattan, I noticed my cowboy hat, a hat an old college buddy Kelly Foote had warn decades prior on trips from Austin to Prague and Dublin, San Francisco to Chicago - it was gone, to the universe.  You can't carry too much, can't handle or hold too many memories, I concluded.  And  we headed out.
I joined the other cowboys on bikes down on Gansevoort Street just south.  When the umbrella went down, we joined the tour, circling around the group, re enacting the warnings cowboys used to bring to about the dangers of trains and construction.  " By state law, for safety, each train had to be preceded by a man on horseback holding a warning flag or lantern and popularly known as a “Tenth Avenue Cowboy.”  Yet, instead of trains we were warning everyone about the danger of the Spectra Pipeline. 

Scenes from Death Avenue Walking Tour.
Caption from FREE The Secrets of Death Avenue Walking Tour:

Theatrical walking tour by your favorite fractivists!
Did you know 10th Avenue used to be called "Death Avenue"?
Did you know cowboys once rode through the west village by horseback to protect the citizens?
Did you know carcasses hung right over the sidewalk leading to Death Avenue?
Did you know one female activist named Jane Jacobs "duked it out" with the city and protected our beloved city from being turned into a giant highway?
... Did you know underneath the new Whitney Museum of American Art, there lies the beginning of a fracked gas pipeline?
And do you know what YOU can do to change the future of our city to create renewable energy for now and help shut down the fracked gas coming to all 5 boroghs?

Join this fun, interactive walking tour. We are hoping to reach an audience that doesn't respond to marches or flyering by offering a super fun way to learn about the history and mystery of West Village around the MeatPacking District.

Come one, come all. Invite your moms and dads, friends that may not be engaged with the fracking issue yet, work colleagues etc. We promise good, clean fun!
9am on May 4th and then to repeat at 3pm on May 5th
Throughout the tour, we meandered through the changing streets of the West Village looking at the histories of struggle, arts, clashes of culture, the intersections between meat packing and leather, labor and public sex, prostitutes and frat boys, trannies of flaneurs, sex workers and voyeurs, leathermen and financial speculators, harm reductionists and drinkers, Italian fashionists and artists, act uppers and socialists, public space advocates and car loving developers, lusty shoppers and preppies - all o f whom have at one point or another made their way through the neighborhood, leaving their mark. 
Moses and Jacobs duking it out. Photos by Erik McGregor

As we walked to the highline, Robert Moses greeted us from above.  Monica was there in boxing gloves to channel Jane Jacobs to beat back Robert Moses.
She led the tour for a bit.

We met Barbara Streisand singing ''Don't Reign on My Parade," artists, and storytellers of the neighborhood's past while remembering where the city has been and what the city would become after the looming the Spectra Pipeline.  Standing beneath the hotel at the Highline, Monica noted people looked to the health of the city, their friends, and neighborhoods to fight Robert Moses' plans to put up a super highway across the village.  They didn't just live in towering hotels and towers, ignoring what went on beneath them.  Instead of turning  away from what was happening beneath the streets of their city, artists and regular New Yorkers looked at what the city was doing to itself and fought back.  Hunken's point, of course, was that we can do the same, even if it is not easy to fight back developers.   
The Spectra Pipeline itself and the fossil fuel fools promoting it.

Bottom photo and caption by Erik M from The Secrets of Death Avenue Walking Tour - Day 1 - Robert Moses © Erik Mc Gregor — with Joseph Jonah Therrien at FREE The Secrets of Death Avenue Walking Tour.
Finishing the tour, we ended at the Playground pier on the Hudson, opposite Jane Street, where Kim talked about the health risks of the pipeline.  There are alternatives, she reminded us - wind, solar, etc. which we can all embrace as part of an ever expanding model of sustainable urbanism. 

As the walking tour ended, I thanked Kim and Monica and Morgan for their amazing work, suggesting Monica channel Jacobs' life story for her next one person show.  But that's another story for another day.  Some of the gang went for more rehearsal or for margaritas. 
Hoola Hoop for the POPS
Leaving, I rode down past Christopher Street, past an old adult bookstore where I used to organize sat vacant.  Turned left and rode to ABC No Rio in the Lower East Side. There, Judy helped me pull out the Times UP! sound bike.  Brennan helped us hook up the battery.   And off we rode to Exchange Place and New Street for the action. 
Judy meandered down, from the Lower East Side, trying to follow an out of date google map, from the East to the West side of the labyrinthian streets of Lower Manhattan.   We could not just ride due West, we had to zig zag up and down Nassau, over to Broadway, down and around to Exchange Place just down the street from Zuccotti.

Hoola Hoop the POPS.
RECLAIM Public Space.
Today, cars are parked in this privately owned public space.
Tomorrow it will be our commons.
Reclaim this public space with stories, art, music, and hoola hoops.
Bring your performances, food, art, and hope for a public commons for us all to share and enjoy.
Public space for the people.
May 4th come chill out off Broadway.
The itinerary for the day was simple. 
12- Greetings
12-1:00 hooping/dancing
1:00-1:30 Hoop to Howl Stanza and hooping contest.
Who can read the most stanzas of Allen Ginsberg's legendary poem while hooping?
1:30 -2:15 Poetry
2:30 OWS Puppetry Guild
3:00 physical story telling and games with Monica Hunken
3:30 POPS as a public commons Greg Smithsimon
but all times and plans are tentative. you never know what happens in our agora
While the action plan seemed simple enough, the action was anything but easy to organize.  The energy of Occupy is elsewhere.  Instead of working with wind in our sails, many are coping with a changing landscape in which the revolution they envisioned has not come to fruition.  Still, the need to fill public space remains; the need for authentic democracy born of simple public gatherings remains. 
Arriving at Exchange place, we ran into friends.  And made our way to the lonely POPS. 


I could barely recognize it from our event in the fall. But I finally found the sign declaring this was a public space.  This slab of pavement was supposed to have three trees and lined seating but none was to be found.

Photos of our transformation of the POPS from a cold plaza into a place for play. Photos by Stacy Lanyon.
 Friends came and went.
But there was enough room for hoola hooping and poetry.  And hoop we did, just like the kids did at Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles. 

Mat Plendl at the Santa Monica Pier Side Show
Some read poetry while hooping.


Others recited poems without hoops.

Others performed.


And still others got twisted up in a game of Sequestor, from May Day.  

After all the crazy worrying, it was turning out to be a fun day out there.

Jennifer and Babs brought the hoola hoops and got us started.
Photo by Barbara Ross.

Greg and Monica showed up around 3 for more games and stories.  Smithsimon regaled with a short talk on the history of the hoola hoop and the POPS.  And a few of us chalked in the space. 
Greg suggested we all move forward with other occupations of other POPS.  Already security guards citywide know they have to let us use these spaces unlike only a few years prior to Occupy.  The lessons of Occupy are many.  Its legacy lingers.  And now we have a blueprint for other artful creative occupations.
I finally thanked everyone.

And a few of us joined Greg for a walking tour of the POPS, check out 55 Water Street where one has to navigate a sign prohibiting "rallying or demonstrations."   This seems highly dubious on first amendment grounds for a public space.  Still the sign remains, probably designed after Occupy. 

Photos and caption by Barbara Ross
Times Up is constantly on the look out for POPS to ensure the owners keep them in compliance. This beautiful public space has a sign "No Performances or Rallies." We need to research if this is legal. It certainly is not an artist-first amendment-friendly public space!
Walking through the "the “elevated Acre” at 55 Water Street that they’ve tried to make better, and has a good view of Brooklyn over the water," Smithsimon noted a wedding was taking place, "a demonstration of love" he suggested the security seemed to think was fine.  He suggested the new rules for the space seemed to be a direct response to Occupy.  But were they legal?  That was another question.   

The signs in front of the POPS seem to be getting more and more restrictive post Occupy.  Here is another at 8 Spruce Street.

The Frank Gehry building got some increased height and bulk out of the deal to create the POPS below.  But are the rules too excessive or beyond the spirit of the zoning law?

After all, as Greg Smithsimon points out the regulations which govern most plaza signs prohibit multiple prohibitions.  Chapter seven section notes:  

37-752 Prohibition signs

Most of these signs violate these regulations.  After all Greg points out Chapter seven, 37-752 notes “All #public plazas# shall be accessible to the public at all times, except where the City Planning Commission has authorized a nighttime closing, pursuant to the provisions of this Section.”  Accessible at all times means accessible at all times. 

From POPS to Gardens
The blueprint lays in the space between the sidewalk and the plaza, in the legacies of these practices of reclaiming public spaces,  including gardens, such as the Nothing New Garden, where we meandered Sunday.

Legendary gardener Adam Purple has honored Nothing Yet Community Garden.
  Even walking through the streets from the Lower East Side to Williamsburg to get to Nothing Yet, involved an experience a flaneur could love.


The 596 Acres folks met with Times Up! to talk about what we could do to help keep up our good work.  And the movement to reclaim vacant lots and public spaces for and imagination, stories and bike rides continued for another weekend. 


No comments:

Post a Comment