Wednesday, March 12, 2014

RIP Matt Power: A Tree Climb for the Gardens and a Lasting Image in Time

Photo More Gardens Coalition 

Last night I rode up to the NY Public Library.  There I ran into my friend LA Kauffman, who was busy working with the Illuminator project. She gave me a hug and mentioned Matt Power, a New York City garden activist.  She had just learned he had just died.  We both bemoaned the loss of another wild exuberant activist, willing to put his body on the line when a gesture of courage was most needed.  

Power, of course, was most famous for his iconic climb of a tree in City Hall Park in 1999 during the peak of the garden struggle in New York City when the city planned to sell of 112 community gardens to developers. Comparing the garden struggle with that of the Zappatistas, Power explained that he would not climb down from the tree until Giuliani promised to save the community gardens.  Brad Will, another lost hero, was with Power at the time, as were others from the More Gardens Coalition.  Each made their mark in time.  Power’s climb caught the attention of the world.  It infused a high octane dose of power and theatrics into the garden movement.  

Images of Matt's famous climb by Bill Times Up!

Interviewee after interviewee referred to Power’s gesture in my research on garden activism.   The following excerpt from Play, Creativity and Social Movements, refers to Power’s famous climb.

Throughout this period, activists dressed as parts of gardens and converged on City Hall. They interrupted hearings with songs; they released crickets; they lobbied the state attorney general dressed as tomatoes. And at one point, a garden activist wearing a giant sunflower outfit climbed a tree in City Hall Park and refused to leave until the gardens were saved. “Matthew Power climbing a tree in front of City Hall. That was like a big moment,” Joe Tuba remembered.

If there is one iconic moment when activists and the general public alike seemed to sense that the garden movement had come of age, it was the moment when 24-year-old Matthew Power brought his defiant love of the gardens to the city’s most public of public commons, City Hall Park. And he would not leave. “They took him out with a boat, some boat on top of a truck, and they dropped him into the truck,” Shenker recalled. The scene was a very strange effort to pull him out of the tree. “This is a real war; it’s just like Chiapas. We’re going to see Giuliani out of office,” insisted Power, still wearing his sunflower headdress before the police took him away (quoted in Ferguson, 1999B). In interview after interview about the garden movement, this story comes up. There was something about the smiling garden creature, the defiant sunflower, comparing his struggle for gardens with the Zapatista struggle. And the theater of delight pulsing through the garden movement made it to prime time. The police didn’t know what to do. Can I arrest a flower? Can I arrest a tomato? Joe Tuba recalls that few other garden activists ever got the coverage that Matthew Power got. Combined with the puppet shows and the songs and the other theater, the garden model succeeding in creating a new model for disruptive protest.

And more than that, it helped save many of the community gardens in New York City. 

It took the police ages to get Power down.  In that time, media all over the city connected the garden struggle with battles over land use and public space at the center of the then ascendant global justice movement. Aresh gave me permission to photocopy and scan a few of those images from the climb.  Photos by More Gardens Coalition.''If you have a surplus of $2.1 billion, you don't sell off gardens for thousands of people,'' Mr. Power bellowed as police officers pondered how best to remove him from the tree, at the corner of Centre and Chambers Streets. ''The gardens must be saved!'' Power screamed at the NY Times from the tree. 
The story was in the following day's Daily News, as well as the New York Times. 

In the years after the climb, Matt stayed involved with New York’s chapter of Reclaim the Streets and other public space groups.  I’d run into him from time to time.  But never got to hang out with him, like we all did with Brad Will who celebrated his birthday in New York before his final trip.  There was no goodbye for most of us for Matt.  Like Brad Will, he was a part of a generation of activists who believed in direct action, using it to support an affirmative and joyous message for the world.  Of course, he died the way he lived.  Its painful to watch the bravest, most audacious, adrenaline loving souls of our generation shuffle off before their time.

Brad Will, another fallen hero, seen here in esperanza community garden. 

Power’s gesture had a long lasting impact on the garden movement and gardens here, which his act helped preserve.  They say the best form of flattery is imitation.  A decade after his climb, activists with Times Up! Borrowed a page from his playbook, climbing a similar tree in city hall park when the gardens were once again in danger.  And once again the gesture got results. 

Thank you for leading the way Matt. 

Celebrate Matt Power!

Plant a tree for Matt Power!

Matt Power Presente!


A few months before Matt passed, a journalist asked him what books he loved and  influenced him.  Matt confessed that he loved the book My Side of the Mountain.  We've been loving reading it as a family, reveling n the feeling of adventure in each page. As a child my mom read the Narnia Chronicles to us.  We read together, hanging out in our imagination. The same experience is happening with this book. Each day we read it, this writer feels closer to Matt, a lovely gift and a reminder of a lost friend who gave us so much.

Thank you for this gift Matt Power.