Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Seeing Streets as Public Spaces: A Public Space Working Group without a name

Just a few weeks ago, a group of us got together.  Some of us worked together in Times Up!;
others organized in Occupy, Lower East Side Collective and Right of Way.  We were all interested in issues of public space – from gardens to pops, pipelines to poetry, streets to stories spaces. 

We met to hang out and plan actions.  Some wanted to talk economic justice.  Others wanted to read poetry in the streets and privately owned public spaces.  And still others wanted to perform and connect the dots between the destabilization of the city via pipelines and inequality.  We recognized that that the city streets need to be open for different kinds of uses, instead of a simple homage to the automobile, pollution, fossil fuels and the mechanisms of environmental erosion. We wanted to have short meetings, hang out, and plan actions.

We popcorn shot out names- New York POPS (People Owned Public Spaces), BABS (Barbara or bike or Brennan Action Brigade S), etc.  But nothing met consensus.  So we’d be the Public Space Working Group for now.  And until we come up a better name.

Yet, most everyone seemed concerned about what was going on at 96th street, where an elder man was arrested for walking to slow at a crosswalk, others had been killed and the police were busy cracking down on pedestrians.

By the end of the first meeting we had hatched a plan for an afternoon action organized around safer streets at 96th street, creating a safe friendly, neighborly space between the sidewalks and streets of the dangerous crosswalk.

In "Where the Sidewalk Ends."
Shel reminds us that “There is a place where the sidewalk ends”

In that place, the grass grows green, the sun shines, and the birds sing.

But what happens where it ends?  That place is far less idyllic, full of treacherous intersections, congestion,  And cars turning left and right over bikes and pedestrians alike.

In Here is New York, EB White notes:

"New York has changed tempo during the years I have known it. There is greater tension, increased irritability. You encounter it in many places, in many faces. A single run of a cross town bus contains, for the driver, enough frustration and annoyance to carry him over the edge of sanity: The light that changes always an instant too soon, the passenger that bands on the shut door, the truck that blocks the only opening, the coin that slips to the floor, the question asked at the wrong moment. There is a greater tension and a greater speed. Taxis roll faster than they rolled ten years ago- and they were rolling fast then. Hackmen used to drive with verve; now they sometimes seem to drive with desperation, toward the ultimate tip... the motorist is swept along in a trance... a sort of fever of inescapable motion...." EB White, Here is New York, 1949

That was 1949.  Sixty five years later, the pace has only increased, as has the road rage.  My friend was crossing Prospect Park West and a car drove through against the walk sign almost hitting her in the crosswalk, so we hit his car.  He got out, chasing her down the street. 

“Help, there is a crazy guy chasing me,” she screamed.  And he stopped. 

“I’m glad he stopped before he got to me,” she explained. 

Cars are containers for peoples’ rage.  They feel powerful inside, ready to plow down those in their way.  A brief review of the 173 pedestrian deaths by automobile last year bears this out.  Today, Cooper’s Law, named for a boy killed by a taxi while crossing 97th street with his father, taking away drivers licenses of those who injure, maim, or kill pedestrians, would slow this pattern.

Yet, the city can and has to change. 

Today, 96th street is a flash point in the struggle for safer streets.

So, we planned the action, going out for  over drinks and making props over the next few weeks.

What should we paint on the banners we asked at one prop making meeting in my basement.

Babs, JC, BS, Monica, and number two at the planning meeting. 

“Look out for each other” – no.  “Streets are for sharing”  my seven year old suggested, hanging around with us at the meeting.  That actually sounded good.  She drew a portrait of us at our meeting, dubbing it, “I Don’t know the name.” 

Over the next few hours, we painted banners and made valentines with messages for pedestrians, cars and cyclists.   Our message: we all have to look out for each other.   Our streets are also public spaces, where we take care of each other, share stories, help elders cross, and re imagine what public spaces can look like.  Do they really have to feel like places where we cower in fear on our trips to and from work.  Or can they be something else? 

Prop making.  Photos by Barbara Ross

Josh and I wrote a call for the action. 

Cross with Love

Why are we here?

Right now, you're in a neighborhood where more and more New Yorkers are getting killed while crossing the street. The police department has cracked down violently… but on jaywalkers, not deadly drivers. So it’s up to us to remind each other: our streets can be safe and joyful public spaces. 

So smile at cyclists, wait for pedestrians, let cars keep to their lanes. Reimagine what our city can look like. Let's take care of each other as we’re moving, and make our streets places for travel, culture, and interaction.

So smile at cyclists, wait for pedestrians, let cars keep to their lanes. Reimagine what our city can look like. Share the streets with love

Join us to revitalize our city streets as. Enjoy a poem, dance, hoola hoop, instrument, or valentine as we help remind our neighborhood's.

Love your crosswalk, love your street and all your public spaces!

Josh sent out a simple invitation to the action:

This neighborhood has endured a lot of sadness - recent pedestrian and cyclist deaths -- and a violent police department crackdown on jaywalkers, rather than on deadly drivers -- to invite you to join a community solidarity event called Love Your Street where many parents, activists, and concerned citizens will gather to reclaim our city streets as safe spaces for people to travel and interact. This will be a jubilant, kid-friendly event, and a perfect way to use creativity to speak out for your neighborhood.

Please join us at 3:00 pm Sunday February 16 at the corner of 96th Street and Broadway to celebrate our streets. Volunteers will hand out valentines to walkers, bikers, and drivers, asking all to look out for each other. Bring a poem, a dance, a hoola hoop, an instrument, or a valentine. Our mission is to counteract the sadness and intimidation of uncaring drivers, deadly vehicles, violent police officers, and a city that too often blames victims for the crimes they've endured -- and to replace them with fun and mutual compassion.  

Friday, we went to an event called Unlovable: A Smiths Valentines Party at the Bell House, complete with a Smiths cover band.  A quarter century since I’ve listened to this music, it was heartening to see how many people still wanted to “Reel Around the Fountain”  singing along to one homage to the ambiguities of love and heartbreak after another.  “In this life, why do I give valuable time to people that I’d much rather spit in the eye?”  That’s the million dollar question I thought, looking at the legions of fans rushing the stage to embrace the Morrissey impersonating singer.

Unlovable - images by Karina Gaige  

Throughout the week our action plans continued with talk about the ways we could expand the coalition for the new group to extend to others who wanted to get involved.  The good folks at Right of Way helped draft a press release and promote the action.

Crackdowns alone will never work,” noted Keegan. “We need to love and respect each other and our public space.”

He continued:
Just giving you the heads up that we are celebrating Valentine's Day with a Love Your Streets action on 96th and Broadway, where 8 year old Cooper Stock was killed by a driver who failed to yield right of way earlier this year and the NYPD subsequently cracked down on jaywalkers. 

We are going to protect pedestrians from drivers who fail to yield with banners painted with "love each other" and other fun slogans, play music, read poems, and just generally encourage people to love their public space that is the streets.

There are of course police stationed at that intersection. Our goal is to work with them to ensure the rules of the road are upheld, and to protect the rights and will of the people.


When:Sunday, February 16th at 3:30pm

Where:96th St and Broadway, Manhattan

New York, NY: Two days after Valentine's Day, at the intersection of 96th & Broadway, near where 9 year old Cooper Stock was killed by a driver failing to yield and the NYPD subsequently ticketed pedestrians for jaywalking, advocates for public space will perform a theatrical direct action to create the livable streets they want to see.

They will protect pedestrians from drivers failing to yield with banners painted with slogans encouraging drivers and pedestrians to share the road and share the love; and they’ll encourage people to enjoy this intersection and their streets as public space rather than driving with impunity or crossing in fear of being assaulted by a driver. They will create space for theater, play music, read poems, and more.

“New York City streets should be not only safe, but joyous intersections of culture,” said organizer Monica Hunken.

“Livable streets are much more than streets free of carnage. They are streets full of joy,” said Keegan Stephan, an organizer with Right of Way.

The day of the action, we made a few more valentines at our house, adding final touches to the banners, and mixing up some hot co-co for pedestrians.   And Monica and I met at the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge.  And we rode across the bridge and up to 96th street, talking all the way. 

Traversing the often congested city, one is forced to contend with the congested chaos of streets, full of garbage, soiled snow, double parked police cars in bike lanes, and memories of those, such as artist david Wojnarowicz who’ve wandered the streets before us, reveling in the dying, decaying structures of the city.  Reading his biography the last few weeks, his story of struggle against trauma, creating art which connects activism and wanderlust, bubbled through my mind.  Looking at the city, the streets, the parks, even the lights, an eerie beauty looms within this chaos or car horns and congestion.

images from artist david Wojnarowicz

Monica talked about where activism has been over the last decade, between Occupy and Times Up! and the ways we continue to make our way through our life within the city, while hoping to impact it.
Looking at all snow along the park, we talked about the Trans Pacific Partnership and climate change rapidly changing our city.

And for what seemed like a first, we got to the action early for a planning session and a pie. 
Some of us just needed to warm up, while coordinating who would carry banners together, speak out, pass out valentines, and how we would hold the space for an hour. 

We set displaying the banner, bringing stories, engaging those on the streets, who shared the experiences there on 96th street.  More and more people kept on showing up.

Some spoke out, sharing their experiences on the corner; others moved on.  And some took pictures.  

I talked about Shel Silverstein, Monica read some Jane Jacobs and Sarah recited a poem.
And the hour for our first action was over as soon as it had began.

Sarah regaling us.  Photo by Owen Crowley

Some of us ate, talked about what worked and what did not.  Saul Alinski always advised that organizing groups look back at what works and does not work with each action.  SO we did.  But we also gossiped.  Sometimes the post action hangout is more fun than the action itself.

And we rode home feeling good that we could organize something that simple, which got the word out,  on our own terms, letting our friendships, rather then non-profit status or institutional ties propel our activism.  That, of course, is the point, endpoint, and process.   The ever expanding city of friends.  This is the world we are striving to create.

The post action conversation continued online and in the press. 

“As reported on WNYC this morning,” Keegan reported. “We held a successful action on the corner of 96th and Broadway yesterday. Many local residents participated, echoed the claims that the intersection was dangerous and they wanted a redesign, but also that they simply wanted to stop living in fear and enjoy their streets. We protected them with banners and tried to facilitate this with hot chocolate, poetry, music, and a speak-out. The police were relatively friendly and failed to cite us for jaywalking as we protected elderly New Yorkers who were slow to cross the streets.

Peace and Love Ride & Love Your Streets Action! 2/16/2014

Photo by Antonio Rivera

He and others  later chimed on our Love the Streets facebook invite.
“It occurred to me during the action, safety is often thought of as a prerequisite for vibrant street life, but vibrant street life itself can be a tool for creating safer streets,” wrote Keegan. “People populating an intersection - talking, shopping, going to work, enjoying each others company - can completely change the culture of the streets.”

“That was good fun,” noted Gil LopezIt was nice hanging out in my old neighborhood. I wanted to promote the idea of having the Public Space Working Group call itself Reclaim the Streets. Although there are many other public spaces, like parks, plazas, etc. that re will surely take our tactics to.”
Monica chimed in about poetry, posting a link of Allan Ginsberg reading his poem America.
"Some of my friends and I have been talking about the increased need for poetry in our lives right now. As language becomes sound bites, twitterized and text chopped and as attention spans shorten and shorten, we can look to poetry to reopen those spaces in our minds. Late last night I had my own listening party of poems read aloud. One that struck me was Ginsberg's "America" which I had always read on paper with such dark tones but Ginsberg's recitation is like a brilliant comic. So much humor and light in this! Have a listen! It might brighten your lunch hour. And then try Howl."
We need more poetry in the streets.  And the public space working group already has a Shakespeare birthday poetry ride planned for April.  But if people want more. We might organize an earlier event in a basement or garden or on pier looking out at the city.  Its up to us and our ever expanding public space working group without  a name. 
Its going to be a big ongoing conversation. But that’s what public space is all about.
We’re meeting regularly.  Please join us if you’d like to create and re energize more public space for the people.

No comments:

Post a Comment