For two months last fall, activists and anarchists occupied a park block in Lower Manhattan, where they modeled new ways of practicing politics and public life. In an article published today on Places, we discuss how Occupy Wall Street mashed up street protest, social media and direct democracy to advance a new form of open-source urbanism. Here we present a related facet of our research: maps of Zuccotti Park, drawn at six time points, that track the transformation of a staid corporate plaza into a testing ground for radical ideas about the reorganization of state and society.
Zuccotti Park is a three-quarter-acre site in New York’s Financial District, owned and managed by a commercial real estate company but accessible to the public under city law. Damaged by the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the park was redesigned in 2006 by Cooper, Robertson & Partners. It spans 300 feet from Broadway to Trinity Place along a slight downhill slope, 100 feet from Cedar Street to Liberty Street. Pink granite pavers, benches and fixed two-seat tables are arranged in a skewed grid that tracks diagonally across the long axis of the park. Fifty-four honey locust trees and some 500 inset uplighting strips laid out along this grid provide shade and light, while outlets in the tree-wells and two spigots deliver power and water.
The benches and tables form clusters in the northeast and southwest corners, where retaining walls enclose the park and moderate its grade. Steps at the outer ends of these retaining walls curve clockwise and die into the slope, reinforcing the grain of the park by establishing a diagonal central walkway. This path is marked at both ends by public artworks. J. Seward Johnson’s bronze sculpture of a seated businessman, Double Check, sits in the northwest corner of the park on a bench that encircles a struggling London plane tree. Joie de Vivre, a seventy-foot-tall bright red steel sculpture by Mark di Suvero, anchors the path’s opposite end. The central walkway is reinforced by three planting beds, two circular and one oval, that channel pedestrians away from the seating zones.
Soon after occupiers claimed Zuccotti Park with blankets and sleeping bags, reinforcements arrived with tarps, bins and the tools necessary to sustain an urban encampment. As participants organized themselves into the working groups that would keep the camp running smoothly, they divided the park — restored to its historic name, Liberty Plaza — into functional zones.
In the northeast corner, a retaining wall and stepped bench held the book bins of the People’s Library, while card tables and folding chairs created a place for reading. An adjacent, larger space framed by the retaining wall and three tables was claimed by members of the Legal, Media and Outreach groups, who created a hub for knowledge-work and public relations marked by a series of flags rising from the planter atop the wall. Umbrellas and tarps intermittently stretched over this area to shelter its occupants and their electronic equipment.
The west end of the retaining wall culminates in a low plinth where the Sanitation crew stashed buckets, brushes, brooms and bins of cleaning supplies. They set up freestanding installations nearby for recycling, composting and gray-water processing. These were fed by the People’s Kitchen, a partially enclosed enclave formed by stacking boxes, crates, tables and bins on and around three benches. The ad-hoc kitchen walls were tallest near the pantry at the northwest end; on the other three sides they formed low counters and basins for preparing and serving food. The long northeast bench served as a buffet, with hungry campers (and others drawn to free food) lining up in the direction of Trinity Place, while the southwest bench accommodated the scullery and some bins with rocks and water-plants to filter dishwater.
Across the main walkway, at the Comfort workstation, bins and rolling racks held clothing, bedding and other supplies for the occupiers’ daily needs. The Medical zone abutted the Cedar Street retaining wall, where a large white tent opened onto a square forecourt that served as an open-air sick bay. Between these two zones a pair of tables formed a makeshift internet café around the Freedom Tower, a slim, ten-foot mast that held antennas and a router to create an independent wifi hotspot. In the southwest corner, tables at the top of the Cedar Street steps served as a hangout area, while another segment of the stairs hosted a collection of drums that turned the expanded Trinity Place sidewalk into a dance floor and performance zone.
Occupiers made the park’s diagonal thoroughfare their primary path of movement, and they established a network of secondary paths through other areas. The northwest end of the central walkway was reinforced by a staffed information table that welcomed journalists and visitors; at the southeast end the path opened up into a more loosely defined area used for General Assembly and a flex space for short-term art installations. A second information table was located on the Broadway sidewalk near Liberty Street. The bench circle surrounding the London plane tree became a “sacred space” for solitary meditation and prayer. The di Suvero sculpture served as a meeting place until it was closed off by NYPD barricades after someone climbed up it.
Between and around the social area, internet café, medical zone and comfort station, the southwest area of the park was largely given over to living and sleeping space for permanent occupiers. The blue tarps, flattened cardboard boxes, sleeping bags, pillows, and bags and bins of clothing were sparse at the east end of this wedge-shaped zone. They gradually became denser to the west as campers exploited benches, tables and the retaining wall to drape tarps, fill in partially enclosed areas, and claim spaces in small groups. A people’s cigarette-rolling station moved around but was always located in this area of the park.
Zuccotti Park lacks toilets, so participants relied on nearby restaurants and sympathetic businesses. They petitioned the city for permission to install portable toilets but were denied. After occupiers forged stronger ties to unions, the nearby United Federation of Teachers headquarters became a staging ground for some activities, and three portable toilets were installed, along with a security guard, in the UFT rear loading dock.
In the second week of October, the occupiers intensified their cleaning efforts in order to forestall a threatened clearing of the park for power-washing by sanitation crews — an eviction attempt by city officials. 1 The camp mobilized supporters to hold the ground it had claimed. They tidied and cleaned, and for a time they roamed the park wielding brooms and dustpans in an ostentatious performance of responsibility. The tactics succeeded, as the site owner, Brookfield Properties, backed off on clearing the camp.
As part of this stewardship campaign, the General Assembly adopted a Good Neighbor Policy — a set of rules for self-governance that included “zero tolerance” for violence, abuse, property destruction, and drugs and alcohol. Transgressors were banished to the outside world, sometimes to police custody. These policies increased the authority and responsibility of working groups dedicated to Sanitation and Security, creating tensions in a community steadfastly opposed to hierarchy. Similarly, a policy limiting drumming hours activated sociological differences within the collective. Drumming supporters, including some members of the Occupier group and the People of Color caucus, argued that drumming was integral to liberation movements around the world and should be encouraged. Others, including some members of the Coordinator group, wanted to curtail noise complaints that had aggravated the Manhattan Community Board and threatened to justify a police crackdown. 2
In late October a cold snap brought unseasonable snowfall. The Fire Department seized biofuel stores and five generators that had been supplying power to the occupation, since Brookfield had turned off the park’s electrical supply. The camp got colder, darker and less networked. Participants partnered with a radical cycling group to build bicycle generators for powering accessories and charging batteries. They also began to winterize the encampment by installing tents, which previously had been discouraged in the spirit of radical openness and because of security concerns. Occupiers held vigorous debates about how to handle the oncoming winter. Disband until the spring? Leave the park for enclosed spaces? Build new structures for collective living? The colder weather, intensified by the stress of sustaining a two-month occupation and the difficulty of negotiating the complex regulatory terrain of New York City, challenged the ethos of openness and transparency cherished by many participants.
Soon individual camping tents filled the park, densely covering not only the southwest area but also much of the previously open territory to the north and east. These privatized environments undermined the collectivism of the movement and its efforts at self-policing, since they could shield violence, drugs and weapons. Tarps webbed tautly over the kitchen and draped loosely over umbrellas and other supports at the administrative station next to the Liberty Street wall. Large military tents, some reserved for the exclusive use of women or queer and transgender folks, provided communal dwelling options as Occupy Wall Street responded not only to the needs and preferences of its members but also to the narrative of decline reported in the media and escalating confrontations with police at Occupy Oakland.
Throughout the fall, the police kept the public sidewalks and perimeter clear of all Occupy activities. Lining the four curbs with barricades and leaving openings only at the corners of the block, the NYPD penned in visitors, and officers required people to keep moving in these perimeter zones. The entire periphery of the park became a permeable interface between occupiers and visitors. Demonstrators stood or sat with buttons and signs — sometimes in costume — on Broadway and Liberty Street. Along Trinity Place, the police set up a double line of barricades separating the portion of the sidewalk closest to the street (reserved for through-traffic) from the Liberty Plaza dance floor. The Cedar Street sidewalk was quieter and more commercial, hosting a line of food carts and other vendors.
The police themselves occupied public and private spaces adjacent to the park in order to survey the camp and control access. For the duration of the occupation, NYPD closed off Liberty Street to create a police zone along the northern border of the plaza. Parked vehicles, blue- and white-shirted officers, and polo-shirted community liaison officers with baseball caps were stationed on this wide block, anchored at the Trinity end by a Skywatch portable surveillance tower. By parking and standing elsewhere in the area, and by regulating traffic along Broadway and other streets, the police linked their Zuccotti Park encampment to permanent bastions of state power such as City Hall, the multi-block closed zone around One Police Plaza, and the extensive area of Wall Street, Exchange Place and New Street that has been continuously occupied and controlled by police since the terrorist attacks in 2001.
In the early morning hours of November 15, 2011, nine weeks after the occupation began, police in riot gear cleared Liberty Plaza, enforcing an eviction notice from Brookfield Properties that claimed conditions had become unsanitary and hazardous. Texts from the Occupy mobile alert system started just after 1 am: “OccupyNYC: URGENT: Hundreds of police mobilizing around Zuccotti. Eviction in progress!” They concluded around 6 am: “Liberty Plaza is cleared. General Assembly under way at Foley Square.” Two days later, tens of thousands gathered to commemorate the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. They filled the Financial District. They occupied the subways. They held mass rallies at Union Square and Foley Square, then filed across the Brooklyn Bridge, beneath “bat-signal” messages projected on the side of the Verizon Building: “This is the beginning of the beginning.”