saving Union Square for all the people

Lucy Parsons on a soapbox, defending the people's park


Union Square absolutely must remain a place for public assembly and its park pavilion must remain open to everyone, as it always has been. Both must continue to serve the whole community, and for the pavilion that service must include its traditional and essential function as a podium for public speakers at gatherings which are not permitted anywhere else in this city.

The city came to Union Square instinctively immediately after September 11, 2001. We were there many times before and we've returned repeatedly since. There we shared and broadcast our feelings about war, threats to the Constitution and any number of other issues. But none were so important as the fundamental freedoms of assembly and movement and speech. The park was always there for us. Now it needs us. Today the site of so many rallies, visible and vocal expressions of unpopular popular opinion is barricaded behind a chain-link fence. If civic authorities and real estate interests have their way, we'll never get it back.

Central Park is already gone; it's been privatized and sanitized. No more rallies there: We've been told the lawn is just too precious for regular people. Bryant Park is a club. Union Square is all we have left.

Yesterday some of its defenders rallied inside the park, eventually taking their protest across the street onto the sidewalk in front of the large windows of the luxury W Hotel's street-level lounge. There civic and business planners were meeting to discuss the future of the park. They envision that future as one which includes the privatization of this classic people's "temple" (first constructed in the nineteenth century, rebuilt 75 years ago, and always intended as a public amenity), as well as additional appropriations of or incursions into the area below its steps which has served as a great open public forum for 150 years.

The rostrum of the park pavilion is in fact no longer available, since it's in the midst of the construction project already begun. Instead, General Washington, who had gathered his troops here in 1776, and who addressed the crowd first yesterday, stood on one of the half dozen sturdy soapboxes furnished by a crew of imaginative and industrious volunteers. The beautiful and indefatigable Lucy Parsons took it from there. Upon completing her own remarks she handed the baton to Emma Goldman, who was followed by Paul Robeson. Robeson ended his words raising his voice in song, before he turned to a very eloquent Norman Thomas. Dorothy Day completed the list of scheduled guest speakers. They were all pretty hot.

After a musical and tumbling interlude and some words from Rev Billy, a community leader from the 21st-century figure appeared. Rosie Mendez asked for and was given the rally's improvised podium and an electric bullhorn to read a statement to the crowd (our standards for public speaking have slipped). Mendez is the district's local Councilperson and just about the only local elected official who actually supports the current plans for the park. I had first thought that she had come to announce her conversion to the side of those opposing privatization, but her statement very quickly told us otherwise.

The commercial media doesn't seem to be interested in covering this rally, so I feel I have to at least mention that there were hundreds of people of all ages and sorts, some super graphics and props, young patriots wearing three-cornered hats, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a staged linked-arms-around-the-Park moment, and some really sweet anarchists with a great black sign.

Curiously, in so far as I could see, the police absolutely did not interfere at any time during the course of the rally.

I accumulated a stash of pictures from yesterday's very colorful rally. It began at 5pm with speeches from many of the heroes who once stood on this hallowed ground and the energy continued until just about 6:30.

UPDATE: I've added a Flickr set here with more photos of the rally.