So Many Protests, So Little Space
January 27, 2017
By Ginia Bellafante
On Wednesday evening, not long after President Trump, staying true to his campaign rhetoric, ordered the construction of a wall on the Mexican border and announced new efforts to find and deport unauthorized immigrants, with plans to slow the arrival of Muslims and refugees still to come, hundreds of people gathered in Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village, to voice their dissent. The speed with which the rally, organized by the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, came together suggests just how reflexively efficient the will to resist him has become in recent weeks.
Since Mr. Trump’s election as the 45th president, New York City has been host to many, many protests hostile to his agenda. Can the city accommodate the pace and volume of the counterrevolution? The question was implicit in some of the reaction to the women’s march in New York last weekend, which drew an astonishing 400,000 participants. The point of departure was Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, a small stretch of land between First and Second Avenues in the 40s, which has been a popular site of mass demonstration for many years, and one for which the city has often granted permits. It is a spot both hard to access via public transportation and relatively small, with a capacity of only 8,000 people.
The surrounding side streets are narrow and heavily shaded. The planned route for the march, south toward 42nd Street and then west toward Fifth Avenue, was difficult to approach because so many were trapped inside the plaza. Some got panicky; some pushed and shoved. Some never made it to the actual march at all. The day after, Sarah Crichton, a prominent book editor with a long history of protesting in New York, wrote to a group of women she had organized to attend, asserting that the city needed to stop steering demonstrations to Dag Hammarskjold because it was dangerous.
“It is convenient for the city because it is inconvenient for protesters,” she said.
In 2003, a few months after a protest of the coming Iraq war drew a similarly large crowd nearby, a report from the New York Civil Liberties Union chronicling the excessive response of the police recommended that the city hold such events in much larger spaces.
Decades ago, it did. Throughout the years of social unrest in the 1960s and ’70s, the Great Lawn in Central Park was a common ground of collective discontent. Dispersal from the park was easy; the crowds spilled out onto Fifth Avenue. In June 1982, the lawn provided the space for one of the biggest political protests in American history, as hundreds of thousands gathered to peacefully oppose nuclear arms. Delegations came from Vermont and Zambia. But two years earlier, the Central Park Conservancyhad formed to save the park from the ratty state in which the city’s fiscal crisis had left it. As the park was transformed, it became less responsive to political expression.
One potential casualty of living in an age of gold-plated public space is the sense that it’s the well-adorned room that the kids must leave alone. The trampling by crowds in the hundreds of thousands was no longer sustainable when a manicured lawn had become the expectation; the cost of restoring Central Park’s greatest asset the morning after would be too much.
Cities give birth to social movements not only because of the kinds of people who live in them, but also because of the public spaces available and essential to their configuration. It isn’t easy to mount an insurgency from the parking lot of a Target in suburban Orange County. Since at least the time of Thucydides, the “agora’’ came to represent the public heart of a city, a cornerstone of democratic ideals. Approximately 36 percent of land in Manhattan is given over to streets and sidewalks, according to research conducted by the United Nations, a higher share than in Barcelona or Toronto or Los Angeles. At the same time, Manhattan’s street grid, devised in the early 1800s, gave little land over to public parks and plazas. Engineers and surveyors imagined that New Yorkers would congregate on the waterfront, but that, according to Eugenie Birch, co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research at the University of Pennsylvania, did not turn out to be the case.
“Enormous protests like the women’s march pose a challenge,” the city’s parks commissioner, Mitchell Silver, said. “Because of New York City’s history, density and design, there is no single space that can safely accommodate such a large mass of people.”
As it happens, after Mr. Trump’s victory, a consortium of architects and urban planners wrote an open letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio suggesting strategic improvements that could be made to the city’s civic commons at a time of perhaps unprecedented political engagement. The suggestions include increased funding for the city’s public plaza program so that more town squares would be created in isolated neighborhoods, where immigrants might feel distanced from the political discourse.
Another idea to reduce crowding at popular protest sites: “pedestrianize” Union Square West and University Place, the street that links Union Square to Washington Square Park — “a bold step,” the letter says, that would have the effect of “merging two vital public spaces into a permanent platform for open expression.” Also suggested is the dispersal of protesting crowds to multiple locations throughout the boroughs instead of concentrating them in one place. So far the mayor has been very supportive of the city’s turn toward Protest Nation. Putting some of these ideas into effect would take things even further.