Zuccotti Park's Burgeoning Micro-Neighborhoods May Indicate Deeper Divisions

11/09/2011 04:33 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2012

NEW YORK -- Protesters at Occupy Wall Street insist that they are a completely leaderless movement with a purely horizontal structure. But where some see simple diversity -- a self-proclaimed goal of OWS -- others see the creep of an insidious hierarchy, most clearly seen in the emerging micro-neighborhoods in Zuccotti Park.

At the northeast corner of the park is one of the tidiest regions of the Occupy Wall Street movement: the People's Library, with more than 3,000 volumes and staffed largely by professional book handlers. Just south of the Library, the General Assembly -- the evening meeting where collective decisions are made -- is held, close to many of the working group stations that are dominated by college-educated professionals.

Travel west, past the People's Kitchen, and the animal zone of "occupy paw st" -- sleeps 5 dogs, 6 people -- and you hit Camp Class Warfare, an anarchist group's table and tent: "We've got the only serious set-up this side of the park," said Brendan, 22, working the table.

Also residing on the west side: more anarchists, the drummers, the spirit circle and a mass of private tents, which some say have harbored and encouraged extensive drug use, assault and theft. For their part, many of the west-end dwellers object to the increasingly bureaucratic organization emanating from the east.

Most occupiers say that the divisions in the park are a reflection of society at large, and that the issues that occupiers face are the same that confront city planners and co-op boards across New York City. And like the city, Zuccotti Park isn't just a two-level society. Inside the 33,000-square-foot cement rectangle in downtown Manhattan where protesters have now been sleeping for 54 days lives a multidimensional world with increasingly specific foot-by-foot divisions, reflecting increasing divides among protesters.

"There's a hierarchy. I think it generates from that tent over there" Ed Ryan, 51, said, gesturing to the mass of tarps covering the information center, some 100 feet north. Ryan arrived two days ago and is camping by the Spanish information booth, on the far southern edge of the park by the food vendors. "If you can break into their circle, you can get involved, but that means you've got to be upbeat about the whole scene."

"It's subtle and depends whether you follow it or not. I think it comes out in personalities." said Nick Gehrls, 28, who sleeps a few feet from Ryan in a neighborhood that covers roughly 10 feet, named The Vanguard.

Gehrls, a telemarketer, has been living in The Vanguard since the evening of October 5, when, exhausted from his journey from California, he chose a free spot and lay down. But the neighborhood only acquired its name more than a month later, some ten minutes before Gehrls began chatting with Ryan -- likely less time than it took city real estate agents to rename Midtown Manhattan "MiMA" to increase the area's residential appeal.

Gehrls calls himself a floater, someone who doesn't participate in any one working group but works where he's needed: cleaning, helping out in the kitchen, sorting clothes, rolling cigarettes for anyone who asks.

"This side of the park and that side are like polar opposites," Gehrls said, looking back over his shoulder as he walked west down a pathway dubbed Main Street, which winds its way between the mass of small private tents that dominate the west end of the park. (Main Street has no sign, but smaller, shorter stretches of free concrete do, with a strong Russian Revolutionary bent: Trotsky Ave, Bakunin Ave.)

Last weekend, the General Assembly approved funding for 20 military frame tents, each the size of a small studio apartment, that many hope will address the crime in the park and bring people closer through communal living. Another hope: to ease the tension between the two ends of the park.

"The more serious people are on the east side," Gehrls continued, pausing in front of one of several cigarette rolling tables stationed throughout the park. This station replaced the old cigarette rolling station -- which Gehrls described as being "sponsored." They accepted money, Gehrls explained, from Occupy Wall Street's communal pot.

"Down here," Gehrls said, exhaling smoke into the brisk air, "these are the people who are like, 'Disband the General Assembly. Are you a liberal or a revolutionary?'"

There are revolutionary types, but there are also occupiers more inclined to party than to put together proposals on how to dismantle the two-party political system or fix the banks.

Twiggy, 22, lives in a silver tent with a "Z" taped to the side in a neighborhood he calls Zugg Island.

"All the magic magic ninjas live there," he said, pulling his parka hood up to cover his forehead. Twiggy has been living in Zugg Island for a month to protest "the fucked-up Government." He helps out at the comfort station sometimes, and sometimes, he says, "I just sit in my tent and smoke weed."

Twiggy is himself a small neighborhood -- for "woodland creatures," as he calls them. Inside his parka live three rats: two albinos and one grey pregnant female.

Mandy Henk, an occasional weekend librarian at The People's Library -- and full-time librarian at an academic library in Indiana -- has never visited Zugg Island, even though it is only 200 feet from where she sleeps, next to the boxes of books which are packed up around 1:00 a.m. each night.

"Here, we're very busy," she says, reaching for one of the People's Library book stamps, across a small table where several librarians are eating lunch. "We have an enormous number of enthusiastic patrons."

When she comes to Occupy Wall Street, she rarely spends much time outside the library, there is so much work to be done; but she does take frequent walks around the park. This is her third visit. She first came after seeing a story on the Internet that posted a wish list for the library. One of the things they asked for was a librarian.

The divisions in Zuccotti Park are echoed in the controversy over the creation of the spokes council, a recently formed organizational structure made up of "spokes" from various working groups who serve as mouthpieces for their groups and work to address logistical and financial needs inside the park. Some occupiers see it as an efficient way to make important decisions, others as the end of the leaderless movement and the beginning of true hierarchy.

"I think through the spokes council process, working groups become organizations and they become parties," Georgia Sagri, a member of the direct democracy working group, said at the spokes council's first meeting. "What's the reason for us to marginalize ourselves?"

"In the park, we're dealing with the same kind of stress that anyone does, except here it's very raw," says Robert Adams, 57, a marriage councilor who spends Thursday to Sunday in Zuccotti. "Yes, there are some social cracks. It's inevitable. But in a way, we need these people that congregate on the west side, because they've been living nomadically for a long time. They're probably tough enough to survive whatever comes at us."

The most intimidating force approaching is winter itself. Many inside the park are as -- or more -- occupied with preparations for surviving the coming freeze than they are with addressing the issues that brought them to the park initially.

But for expert observers, the growing tendency of many in Zuccotti to focus exclusively on sustaining life in the park may be a bigger concern for the larger, historical question of the Occupy Wall Street movement's sustainability.

"Defending the park is very important right now, but to the extent that it becomes a full-time job, then the movement will, at a certain point, lose its larger purpose," said Jeff Goodwin, a sociology professor at NYU who specializes in social movements and has been involved in a variety of Occupy Wall Street working groups and endeavors.

The key, in Goodwin's mind, is to keep the protests spreading, with other forms of organization, like organized labor and student groups, and through other tactics, and to build on the momentum in downtown Manhattan.

"When someone writes the history of this movement 20 years from now, we can judge its success by how important Zuccotti Park is in that story," Goodwin added. "If that history ends up being just the story of Zuccotti Park, to me, that means the movement failed."

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