This is the fifth in an occasional series examining the recession's impact on culture, The Recessionary Arts. Find out more about the series here.
NEW YORK -- Last Friday, below the vast ads and bright lights of Times Square, artists, actors and musicians transformed a public plaza into a space for interaction in the classical Greek mold. The performers conducted sing-a-longs, delivered impassioned monologues, and even swallowed and regurgitated needles as a form of "creative resistance" against the kind of unregulated consumerism blamed for the recession.
The 24-hour-long takeover of the space, Occupy Broadway, was the first action of the Occupy Wall Street Performance Guild, a movement couched in the same anti-commercial philosophy that guides Occupy Wall Street. More than 70 acts appeared at the protests, including The Foundry Theatre, the Church of Stop Shopping, Rude Mechanical Orchestra, NY Labor Chorus, The Yes Men, The Living Theatre and Bread and Puppet Theater. Most of these groups might be described as off-off-Broadway -- lesser-known performers for whom subversive, politically minded theater is not unfamiliar territory.
"Good demonstrations are good theater," said Ben Shepard, one of the organizers of the demonstration, which unfolded in Paramount Plaza a week ago. "If you don't have a good stage set, a good story, a little bit of drama, audiences won't be compelled to participate or be moved by your point."
The point? To reclaim the more than 500 privately-owned spaces in New York that have been created for public use. Paramount Plaza is one such property, as is Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street protesters camped for three months until their eviction by the city.
Known officially as Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) and colloquially as “bonus plazas,” these spaces were envisioned by the city as respites from the claustrophobic cluster of skyscrapers in Manhattan. The city requires them to have a certain number of tables, chairs, trees and trash bins -- basic amenities to make them usable. But they’re often made unusable by the developers who build them, some of whom even bar the public from entering.
"They were supposed to be public spaces because they were constructed in exchange for really valuable real estate," said Greg Smithsimon, a professor of urban sociology at CUNY Brooklyn College who, with Shepard, co-authored a book on the city's privately owned public spaces. "That means the plazas ought to be every bit as valuable to the people of New York as public spaces."
The movement comes at a time when the city is again looking at the 1961 resolution that brought these plazas to New York in the first place. At the time, urban designers feared that increasing development would lead to a rapid loss of open space. The resolution introduced "incentive zoning," whereby property owners are allowed to make their buildings taller and bigger than ordinarily permitted by the city, so long as they maintain a space for the public nearby.
To mark the resolution's 50th anniversary this year, the city released historic documents about its creation on their Web site and held a daylong conference in midtown Manhattan on its future. At the same time, the Occupy protests have been highlighting its current flaws.
It was at a reading of Smithsimon and Shepard's book on bonus plazas, "The Beach Beneath Our Streets," that the idea for Occupy Broadway was born.
After the reading, Andy Velez, a 72-year-old Bronx native in the audience, raised his hand to pose a question: What if they used one of these bonus plazas to stage a theatrical performance?
"It was one of those moments where the light bulb goes off," said Shepard, who went on to help organize the Occupy Broadway demonstration.
Last week's demonstration drew curious tourists and seasoned protesters to Paramount Plaza, which the movement re-christened "The People's Performance Plaza."
"We have a billionaire mayor who bought his way into a third term and he's saying, 'You don't have to participate, we'll leave this to the experts,'" Shepard said. "We're trying to say, 'We are all part of the show of democracy in New York City.'"
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THE VALUE OF SPACE
The same anger that inspired Occupy Wall Street in the wake of the recession -- anger against economic inequality, against the corporations, against the government -- lies at the center of the Performance Guild's push to retake the bonus plazas and turn them into cultural hubs. As of 2000, when these spaces were last surveyed, permission to build more than 20 million square feet of bonus office and residential floor space had been granted to developers in return for plazas.
"If you were to assume an average financial value of $250 for each bonus square foot [of real estate], then you're talking real money, something in the neighborhood of $5 billion," said Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning at Harvard University who helped conduct the survey. "That should be compared to the cost to the developers of providing the 503 public spaces, which is not even a close call."
In 2000, Kayden worked with the New York City Department of Planning and The Municipal Art Society of New York to write the first and last comprehensive study of the city’s bonus plazas, “Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience."
Of the hundreds of plazas that existed in 2000, Kayden found that 41 percent were of "marginal utility" -- or, as he puts it, "useless," due to reasons ranging from poor design to neglected upkeep. Fifty percent did not comply with the required legal standards for such spaces.
To reduce noise and trash, as well as for aesthetic reasons, some developers have taken advantage of lax city enforcement to keep the public out of their plazas.
These developers favor three illegal tactics, according to Kayden: Simple denial of access (such as a locked gate), annexation of public space by adjacent private uses (as when a restaurant lets its tables flow onto public space, so the space can't be used without some form of payment) and reduced amenities (taking away tables and chairs, for instance).
Many plazas also include features such as large pools of water or big fountains, which take up space without providing comfortable seating, and make it difficult for passers-by to congregate.
A CONTESTED RESOURCE
By creatively resisting in bonus plazas, which are required by law to be open to the public, the Performance Guild is taking advantage of the unclear rules surrounding their use -- an attitude the founders say they've copied from Big Business.
"We're basically using a loophole, like they use, back at them, which is amazing," said Ben Cerf, an Occupy Broadway organizer. "These corporations have been abusing this power. They follow the money, the bottom line. Using these bonus plazas in the way that we can is pushing back against the machine in a creative way they never imagined."
Paramount Plaza does not feature a raised stage, so protesters used chalk to draw a box delineating their performance area. Though the police who stood by monitoring the situation forbade the demonstrators from lying down during the 24 hours they occupied the space, no scuffles broke out. Instead, the participants took the restriction as a sort of theatrical challenge, rolling into balls on the ground, leaning on each other, and resting in other ways that don't literally involve lying on the ground.
Until Occupy Wall Street occupied Zuccotti Park, bonus plazas were not known as potential protest sites.
"The mere fact that they are protesting doesn't justify a rule excluding protests -- the issue is if the activity prevents other people from enjoying use of the space," said Kayden. "It's a live and let live sort of rule."
In the case of Zuccotti Park, the Manhattan Supreme Court found that it was reasonable for the park’s owner, Brookfield Properties, to prohibit people from erecting tents and sleeping overnight in the park. The explanation put forward by Mayor Bloomberg and the city law department cited public health and safety concerns.
"For the first week they were a novelty, the second week they were interesting, the third week they were a tourist attraction and by the fourth week people were tired of them," said Mitchell Moss, a one-time advisor to Mayor Bloomberg's 2001 campaign, and the Henry Hart Rice Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at NYU. "They're trying to occupy places other people want. They don't have a moral claim on space that other people value."
Still, Moss agreed that many of these spaces have been "poorly maintained, under-maintained, ill-used," and "barren."
"There was never any express idea of preventing groups from gathering in them," Kayden said. "Groups had never gathered in them, because no one had thought to gather in them. Occupy Wall Street put on the table a group occupation, which simply had not been contemplated before."
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THE NEW AGORA
But the Performance Guild is not as concerned with the finer points of zoning regulation as it is with upholding classical ideals of democracy against the commercial culture they credit with sinking the country into recession.
Every 20 minutes at Occupy Broadway, a new act took the stage, with occasional performances by audience members who were inspired by what they saw. Every hour, organizers read out the First Amendment. Much like the movement itself, theater and a dedication to direct democracy were inextricably intertwined.
"It's been my experience that you feel that when you're walking around, you can't stop anywhere without having to spend money," said Claire Lebowitz, an Occupy Broadway organizer who returned to the US after teaching theater in Afghanistan. "If those in power own everything, then it's in their best interests to keep you buying things. It's difficult to have a strong democracy when people can't assemble and gather and think about the world they want to have."
It's an idea that goes back to ancient Greece, which the movement says represents a time when direct democracy, and public theater, actually had the power to influence the governance of the people.
"The idea of the agora, or the square, is sacred to every culture. They all have it, we just lost it," said Fred Kent, program director of the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit devoted to maintaining public spaces. "When you don't have them, you have to occupy an empty plaza or Zuccotti Park. That's kind of sad."
The atmosphere within the makeshift agora was anything but sad on Friday evening, when comedian Mike Daisey, of "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," launched into a 25-minute-long monologue railing against the dangers of consumerism. At one particularly heated moment, Daisey tore his shirt off and challenged Mayor Bloomberg to a Mexican wrestling match, to the delight of the cheering crowd.
FILLING THE PLAZAS
According to the urban planning experts The Huffington Post spoke with, the city isn’t opposed to bonus plazas doubling as great street centers. But the huge amount of work involved in building upkeep -- such as elevator repairs and code enforcement -- leaves the city drained of the resources needed to monitor and police the hundreds of plazas harnessed to the buildings.
The city has not received any proposals to better these plazas for public use. Kayden, who first collaborated with the city to study them, is working with his non-profit to create a webpage with phone applications that would enable city residents to submit eyewitness information about specific plazas.
"City planning has an opportunity to ride the momentum of public interest in these plazas," said Smithsimon. "This is what social movements do."
Though the Performance Guild has not had any discussions with the city about their use of public plazas, they plan to continue bringing their brand of theatrical protest to them. Lebowitz says their next demonstration, Occupy The Holidays, will be a puppet show that moves from plaza to plaza, telling the story of “Mayor Bloomscrooge.” The group has already started a Kickstarter page to raise $999 to pay for a studio, materials and transportation for the puppets. Though nothing more has been announced, the guild plans to continue performing in public spaces across the city for the foreseeable future.
Watching the crowd during the last few hours of Saturday's demonstration, Lebowitz noticed pedestrians wander accidentally into Paramount Plaza, and stay, to join the protests.
"People are excited about this ugly, not-very-feng-shui bonus plaza because we're using it," she said. "I want to inspire people to go out in the streets to perform, to think about ways to do things for free, to be in public space together, to somehow have a very old school revival of democracy where we can imagine the world that we want to achieve."