Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why Public Space? Why a Public Space Party? Notes toward a manifesto for a public space party

Scenes from a conversation about public space. People's Puppets 2015 Fundraiser,
November 11, 2014, Secret Puppet Lair,
Dumbo, Brooklyn, NY
©Stacy Lanyon
 — with Nadette StasaRobynne Libelulle WardlawBenjamin Heim
Paul Steinand Mecca Banski.
Top two photos by Jerry Levy.
Middle photo of Garden defense action 2010 by Jamie Favaro

Prop makng party with public space party November 17th, 2014. 

Last night during  Monica and I were having a conversation about public space during a prop making party. We talked about autonomous and their hactivism.  A friend is in St Louis, where she notes, the city is expecting, not only a 'shit storm' of activism, but a 'shit tsunami'.  The police have called the national guard and the governor has declared a "state of emergency" because of the "possibility of expanded unrest." The story has been in the papers everywhere as the world prepares for word from Ferguson. The news reports rampant efforts by the state to curtail people's constitutional right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.  But what about public space?  What about the right to free speech and expression?

Monica suggested I jot down some notes.

Is public space a place to party or do we need a party to defend public space?

In recent weeks, the sites and scenes from public spaces of New York have included:

A group of kids on a subway arrested for performing.

            A woman arrested while standing on a sidewalk waiting for her son.

            A man arrested for lewdness at a naked bike ride in the west Village.

            An African American man killed by the NYPD after selling “untaxed” cigarettes.

            A mass climate rally is pushed to end at the West periphery of the city instead of in the center of town.     

These are some of the sites and struggles, over the contested use and restrictions on public space in New York this year. Here, activists and police step forward and backward in an ongoing dance of the dialectic between repression and resistance, as advocates of social control vie with supporters of fun, freedom of expression, and democratic interaction.   Recent years have witnessed a great contraction with access to public space increasingly filtered.  New York seems to have lost  a great deal of ground in terms of access to public space.  Look no further than Paris, where on a recent trip, we saw people hang out at all hours of the night, watching the sunset with a glass of wine, stroll to a sex shop, and take park in a Critical Mass Ride – all things now restricted and hyper controlled by NYC.
Comparatively, New York seems a paragon of puritanical zeal, full of restrictions on usage.
Yet, for every Comstock or Giuliani that the city creates, another advocate for public space pushes back putting a little joy into struggles for social justice, as the tension between exclusion and inclusion continue.

Today, a range of movements are organized around notions of public space, as people push back to reclaim the commons.  Many of us take heart in the work of activists such as Jane Jacobs who suggested New York was at its best when it was by everybody.  “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” 
Others of us take inspiration from public space groups we’ve worked with such as Reclaim the Streets, Times Up!, Occupy, Lower East Side Collective and Right of Way.  So, we became a public space party.  Public Space Party is a practice and a group dedicated to supporting democracy, fun, joy, justice, and full participation in a vibrant public commons.
As Keegan explained after our first action.

“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.”

Flyer for our first action.

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 had a Shakespeare birthday poetry ride in April.  Next year we’ll do the same. Its up to us and our ever expanding public space working group, our public space peeps and Public Space Party. 

Others talked about Queer Nation. The group sought to apply ACT UP's grassroots tactics to transform public sexual discourse.  Public space needed to be safe not only from discrimination but for demonstration, spectacle, and joy (Berlant and Freeman 1993,198).  Queer Nation utilized once ordinary space for rituals capable of transforming a culture (Turner 1969), queering hostile public space with fun and merriment.  The group built on ACT UP's successful work of occupying unfriendly geography, challenging what had been assumed was heterosexual space.  One project involved planting a billboard with the slogan, "Fags and Dykes Bash Back" on top of Badlands, a gay bar off Christopher Street, facing the West Side Highway.  The sign stopped traffic (Marcus 1992,488-9).  Within such actions, Queer Nation broadcast the totaling problem of compulsory heterosexuality dominating public space (Berlant and Freeman 1993,198-201, 205, 207, 208).  Ths was part of an effort to transform understandings of public space. 

It’s going to be a big ongoing conversation. But that’s what public space is all about  – from gardens to pops, pipelines to poetry, streets to stories spaces.  We meet to hang out and plan actions.  Some wanted to talk economic justice.  Others want 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 recognize 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 have short meetings, hang out, and plan actions.

Why is public spaced important?  Why is the public commons important?  First, because without access to public space, questions about democracy basically go out the door. Second, without it we see the social imagination restricted.  We forget about creating public art, be ins, or making music together as they do in the stres of Paris.  Without the commons, our imagination is restricted, cordoned off just like the streets of our increasingly blandified cites.  Its worth watching today to see how the new urban regime treats questions about access to public space.  Without it, we are left without free form spaces outside the glare of the panopticon, the surveillance of the internet, and the containments of capitalism.

Peter Linebaugh expanded on this notion of the Magna Carta as commons. He wrote:

 In one of his communiqués from the Lancandon jungle of Chiapas Subcomandante Marcos, the spokesman of the Zapatista indigenous people’s revolt that burst upon the world in 1994, referred, of all things, to the Magna Carta. Why the Magna Carta, an eight-hundred-year-old document from Medieval England?

Marcos went on to describe how the ejido, or traditional commons of Mexico enshrined in the national constitution, is being destroyed. He invoked the Magna Carta not only to assert the protections against state power that we associate with this famous English document, but to emphasize the right of people to claim common resources as well.

For eight centuries, the Magna Carta has been venerated for its establishment of political and legal rights. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution quote its language. Eleanor Roosevelt in her 1948 speech to the UN urging adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, expressed the hope that it would take its place alongside the Magna Carta and the U.S. Bill of Rights. The document has been deemed the foundation of Western democracy and invoked by many, including Winston Churchill, to glorify Anglo-American world dominance and empire building.

Greg Smithsimon suggests we think about the public space as a commons.   He suggested we consider the ways public space expand and contract with movements from Occupy to the People’s Climate March.

We ride bikes, hang out in community gardens, organize dance parties, read poems in publicly owned private spaces. In other words, we see public space as a place for democracy. Everyone is invited to take place in this public space party.

For those of us in public space party, public space connects the commons with ideas and spaces and ways of thinking about cities. Here spaces for bike lanes connect riders with community gardens, and other sustainable spaces where people walk, share, ideas, and exist free of harassment, free from police, from being stopped and frisked. 

Public space means a right to peaceably assemble. Public space means interconnection  among bodies, lives, cities, political actions, outsiders and rebel friends.  

What do you think?  Can you let us know or  join us? 


Organized by Public Space Party and Bike Bloc NYC in support of Union Square rally.
#FTP #PSP #BikeBlocNYC #ferguson #mikebrown #ericgarner

NOTE: DAY is still TBD

What: Bike Bloc for Justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner

When: TBD, expected to be mid-November.

Where: Tompkins Square Park NYC

Time: 6 PM, we will ride together to rally at Union Square

Grand juries are hearing evidence in the police murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY. On the day that each of these grand juries announces their decision, whatever those decisions are, we will take to the streets that evening all across the country.

Bring Your Bike!

RIP Eric Garner

RIP Michael Brown

RIP Kimani Gray

RIP Shantal Davis

RIP Ramarley Graham

RIP Amadou Diallo



  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on public space party, I liked this post. My brother is planning a surprise birthday party for her fiancé and he wants to book a nice event space nyc. Could you provide any recommendations for that?

  2. Nice article!! I found your blog very interesting!! Hey, do you have any idea about party space rentals in Brooklyn where we can use some props for our party?