privatizing and sanitizing Union Square Park - again

come back tomorrow and there'll be a lovely restaurant here instead
(Emma Goldman speaks to garment workers about birth control in Union Square, 1916)

Some folks have the strange idea that Union Square Park, historically (and continuingly) the site of social and political activism in New York, should remain the park of the people. Others have been trying for years to reduce or eliminate the "troublesome" more open public plaza areas to the north, west and south of the greener areas of the park. These same people also think some of its public space should be handed over to private business. These operatives include tin-pot mayors, tin-whistle police, certain tin-eared planners and a number of tin-horned businesses.

It's about Free Speech, as much as or more than anything else.

In the past it was basically only about controlling the rabble; the latest campaign to destroy the park appeals to "gentility" and comes supplied with the irresistible attraction of money as well.

New York's public parks have become Business Improvement Districts [BIDS], or at least that's true of those located wherever there's real money; the others are just left neglected and dangerous, since they are viewed by both public and private authorities as "unprofitable",

The City and the Union Square Partnership Business Improvement District plans a costly renovation plan for the north end of Union Square Park. The plan, currently being held up because of a lawsuit filed by the Union Square Community Coalition would take away thousands of square feet of potential playground, community and free assembly space to accommodate an exclusive year-round restaurant.

This amenity would be located only steps away from dozens of eateries of every description already serving the neighborhood. Union Square represents nothing like the isolation of much of Central Park - as if the hugely-embarrassing model of the ridiculous Tavern on the Green weren't disgusting enough to put a stop to this proposal long ago.

The mayor supports the BID plan, but the opposition doesn't come from Leftist heirs of the Emma Goldman, Paul Robeson and their like, the people who helped make the park what it stands for today. Opponents to the privatization plan include the familiar New York names of Carolyn Maloney, Tom Duane, Dick Gottfried, Jack Taylor, Sylvia Friedman, Deborah Glick, Carol Greitzer, Eadie Shanker and Scott Stringer. This is establishment.

So why is it still a live issue? Because there's so much money pushing it. The courts may still allow the alterations which the community opposes to proceed, but a greater visibility (I mean direct action and attendant media attention) will surely effect the resolution of the case.

There's a demonstration tomorrow, Thursday, at 5pm near the northwest corner of the park (17th Street and Broadway).

I expect it to be pretty colorful, and tuneful: The announcement I'm looking at asks us to:

Join George Washington, Dorothy Day, Emma Goldman, Paul Robeson, and Lucy Parsons. Join The Stop Shopping Gospel Choir and The Rude Mechanical Orchestra. Join Reverend Billy. Join your fellow citizens for a 90 minute festival of freedom at Union Square Park!
Save Union Square 2008 promises to be at this same location every Wednesday at 5, performing, recruiting support, and urging passersby to sign an online petition and to contact local Councilperson Rosie Mendez.

[image from historycooperative]

The proposal for a private, up-scale restaurant by the Parks Department and the Union Square Partnership is ill-conceived and would be a detriment to Union Square Park. There are scores of restaurants and places to eat surrounding the park, so there is no need for another one in the pavilion. The pavilion itself should be refurbished and returned to the public for community and children's activities. The expropriation of scarce public land and facilities is not yet regulated by the City Council. It should be.

The residents of the community, as well those from every district of the city, regularly visit Union Square Park. It is their destination park, a national historic landmark with a grand tradition of free access, open assembly and a forum for free speech. The proposal to privatize the park's pavilion to privilege a restaurant would change the entire character of the park. The community has waited decades for the pavilion to be repaired to serve the increasing need for space and leisure activities of a burgeoning population of children and families. The less affluent, unable to pay the high prices of the café or even the modest cost at a take-out counter would, for the first time in Union Square, feel the sting of discrimination and would no longer have free access to the pavilion.

Ironically, the Parks Department cites the deterioration itself as the reason for a private remedy for that neglect. Columbus Park which has the City's other remaining park pavilion is currently being renovated for the exclusive use of the community, while the pavilion in Union Square Park is being designed for the specific needs of a restaurant. This is unacceptable. The three plans presented to the public thus far, by the Parks Department and the BID have not offered an alternative design for public use only. It is now time for them to listen to the community and do so.

The City, local BIDs and the Parks Department are increasing their attempts to alienate public parkland for commercial use. Every piece of our fast-disappearing parkland and facilities is precious and its loss contributes to the deterioration of the quality of life for City residents and their families—who, by the way, pay taxes to support the much-needed amenity of free and open access to all parts of our parkland. One of the main factors in the push for privatization is that the parks are notoriously underfunded, which is especially egregious considering the millions of dollars--possibly hundreds of millions dollars more--that the taxpayers will be shelling out for the Mets' and Yankees' "privately financed" stadiums.

Under this administration, the score of parkland takeovers for commercial purposes is rising at an alarming rate. The City supports such schemes, and the City Council seems unaware of how much of our green space is slipping away from public to private use. A recent example is the Brooklyn Waterfront project's accommodations for building high-end condominiums. Unfortunately, such commercial projects in and around parks provide a value added for the rich and a net loss of public parkland at the expense of the public. Stuyvesant Park is now also threatened, as is Union Square Park, by the Department's promotion of restaurants and kiosks in very small parks. Such schemes are not in the public interest at these sites, or in ones we don't know about yet. An alarming example is the almost successful Yankees' expropriation of two Bronx parks without notice to or approval by the local community board and residents.

Only by accident did the community find out that the stadium was virtually a done deal, scheduled to sail through the City Council without thorough examination of the public versus private issues involved. Were it not for angry community protests, negotiations to relocate the parks and "sweeteners" to the community would not have been provided.

In the same way, in 2004, the Campaign to Save Union Square Park led the fight against the original proposal. They alerted the public to the Department's renovation plan to minimize the children's playground in order to accommodate an outdoor terrace for a year-round exclusive restaurant. That proposal was roundly rejected by the public. and in the latest proposal the playground will be expanded to the maximum space available --14,687 square feet instead of a mere 8,200 square feet. The Parks Department, however, still intent on privatizing the pavilion, now proposes a seasonal restaurant in the pavilion during the season of greatest public use.

The opposition of elected officials to privatization helped tremendously to win the playground expansion and to defeat the Department's and local BID's attempt to establish a year-round restaurant in the park. Strong opposition to such plans are even more important now. The tenacious efforts of the Parks Department to continue its attempt to privatize the pavilion with not so veiled threats of withdrawing funds from the project must be countered by the City Council and ensure that funding for the renovation is kept intact in order to support the whole community's fight and to secure the pavilion's 2,500 square feet of space for public, not private use.

Unfortunately, the City Council and the public too often learn of many of these maneuvers after the fact. Without an official antidote and regulation of the Parks Department's privatization agenda, the public interest will continue to be ignored. The City Council must ensure an administrative process to oversee the out-of-control Parks Department.

Members of the committee for the Campaign to Save Union Square Park; the hundreds of park users who signed our petition; 60 block associations, city and statewide organizations and local political clubs, as well as 20 national, state and local elected officials and other countless members of the community are opposed to the latest plan. The community is united in its determination to reject the Parks Department's misguided proposal for "fixing" the pavilion. A better proposal would be to privilege the public's need for more space in which to continue the park's great tradition of free and open access for everyone to enjoy all sorts of community-enhancing events.

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Published on June 4, 2008 6:27 PM.

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