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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON and JEFFERSON SEIGEL | They’ve tried breaking in, and they’ve tried appealing to the conscience of Trinity Church. Neither worked. Last Saturday, members of Occupy Wall Street tried a new tactic to gain access to the open lot owned by Trinity at Canal St. and Sixth Ave. — forgoing food.
Just after 1 p.m. on Saturday, three men sat down on the tan-covered gravel outside the wooden fence ringing the lot, which is adjacent to Duarte Square, and commenced a hunger strike. With a sign propped up next to them reading, “Hunger Strike Day 1,” Brian Udall, 18, from Montana; and Diego Ibanez, 23, and Shae Willes, 22, both from Utah, appeared calm, composed and determined.
“We are here to apply pressure until they agree to let us use this unused land,” Ibanez said, referring to Trinity Wall Street, which includes both Trinity Church and Trinity Real Estate.
One of Manhattan’s largest landholders, Trinity plans to eventually build a residential tower with a school in the base on the site. But the lot currently sits vacant pending Trinity’s effort to rezone it from manufacturing use to allow both residential use and the school.
The lot — located next to Duarte Square — was the first outdoor space the O.W.S. movement tried to occupy after its eviction from Zuccotti Park early on the morning of Nov. 15. After the occupiers entered the Hudson Square lot that morning, police moved in and arrested those inside, including several journalists with New York Police Department-issued press passes.
“Hunger strikes are to protest repression,” Udall said. “This is an answer back. Eviction is a serious thing. So we are doing a hunger strike, which is also a serious thing.”
“Trinity needs to understand this benefits both of us,” Ibanez said while pulling on layers of clothing against the deepening chill. “We’re going to open up this space to the community. If Trinity’s onboard with our message, this is their chance to prove it.
“Have faith in Occupy Wall Street,” he declared, a clear appeal to religiously based Trinity.
The three spent the night wrapped in blankets, accompanied by three other supporters.
At noon on Sunday, police arrested the trio. They were charged with trespassing, held for five hours and released. While in jail they refused food. The three fulfilled a pledge they made on the hunger strike’s first day to return to Duarte Square after any arrest. They were arrested there again late Sunday night and charged with trespassing.
Saying it wanted to more “clearly demarcate” its property, on Monday Trinity had a contractor install a new chain-link fence extending out to the curb of the small street that separates the public Duarte Square from Trinity’s privately owned lot.
Duarte Square is a brick-paved plaza that is under Parks Department jurisdiction. The Trinity lot is currently fenced in and leased on a temporary basis to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. L.M.C.C. is using the lot for “LentSpace,” an ongoing public-art program, which is currently closed since it’s a seasonal program, according to Trinity.
According to the contractor who was overseeing the fence construction on Monday, the unused single-lane street is actually part of the Trinity property, but had to be left unfenced because it’s a fire lane, sporting two fire hydrants.
On Nov. 15, O.W.S. members had entered the “LentSpace” lot by climbing over the wooden fence on its eastern side, as well as walking through a man-sized hole they clipped with bolt cutters in the chain-link fence on the lot’s southern side.
On Monday, the contractor noted that Trinity had told him to fix up another hole that someone — presumably O.W.S. members — had clandestinely cut in the chain-link fence on the lot’s western side.
“They have a little hole going on the Varick St. side,” he said with a grin.
Actually, it was a pretty big hole, about 5 feet high by 1 1/2 feet wide. Using a sort of “occupation laparoscopic surgery,” the person or persons had apparently been poking their cutting tool through a 1-inch square hole in the green mesh scrim that currently rings the lot, no doubt hoping that their handiwork would remain hidden behind the scrim until the moment was deemed right to make another try at occupying the property. The contractor had patched this new hole with some more chain-link fencing that morning, adding that Trinity officials had stressed to him to lock the gate right behind him when he entered so that no O.W.S. protesters could sneak in.
The contractor noted that he had also reinforced the lot’s wooden wall a couple of days before the Nov. 15 Zuccotti Park eviction — so apparently Trinity had been tipped off and was readying for the possibility that O.W.S. would be trying to storm the Canal St. lot to make it its next
“tent city” encampment. He pointed to plywood that his workers had, at that time, put up behind the wooden fence to bolster it and to 2-by-4 boards that they had nailed onto the wall’s benches to prevent the wooden fence – which has rotating panels — from being opened. But, not surprisingly, the agile young occupiers had just hopped over the fence anyway, he noted.
Speaking last Thursday, in a conference call, Trinity officials said they were on alert, preparing for another effort to occupy the Canal St. lot after recently seeing an e-mail message from Minister Michael Ellick of Judson Church, the leader of Occupy Faith NYC. Occupy Faith NYC has been appealing to Trinity to give O.W.S. use of the property.
Jim Cooper, rector of Trinity Church, said the e-mail had read: “Be ready for a big surprise you’re all going to like.”
Cooper noted that Trinity provides rooms where O.W.S. holds its Spokes Council meetings and where O.W.S.’s medical team has done training. He said O.W.S. members have also been using Charlotte’s Place community center by the hundreds.
However, the Canal St. lot is not open for use, they stressed.
“It’s private property,” said Jason Pizer, president of Trinity Real Estate. “We’re taking the same steps to secure it as any of our properties.”
Pizer added of the “LentSpace” lot, “It would be illegal” to allow the encampment. “There’s no residential zoning, for one,” he said. “Trinity is not interested in making it legal” for people to camp there, he added.
“We have a lot of alignment with O.W.S. and with people working on issues of social equality and economic justice,” Cooper continued. “We have a lot of difference on property rights. We don’t feel the property is to be occupied or confiscated or liberated from Trinity.”
What if O.W.S. decided to do some sort of art display or performance at the space? After all, last Friday Occupy staged street performances up at Times Square.
“Who do you negotiate a deal with?” Pizer responded skeptically. “Are they demonstrating about the 99 percent issue and now they’re putting on plays?”
Asked if Trinity was being pressured by Occupy Faith NYC and other advocates to let O.W.S. use the lot, Cooper said, on the contrary, he’s been getting a lot of pressure from the neighborhood precisely not to do that.
Zuccotti Park, like the Trinity lot, is privately owned. However, by law, Zuccotti must be open to the public 24 hours a day, which made it an excellent choice for the focal point of O.W.S. The Trinity lot has no such provision.
The Trinity officials further said that the Canal St. lot lacks any facilities, such as electricity, gas, water, light or heat. On the other hand, there was water and a few electrical outlets in Zuccotti Park.
Laboring into the evening on Monday, the workers managed to finish putting up the new fence around the rest of the Trinity property, sealing off the area where the hunger strikers had camped out. Around 1 a.m., a Trinity security officer came walking down Grand St. outside the coveted lot.
Identifying himself as “Security Officer Henry,” he said he was on duty from midnight to 8 a.m. and was coming out every 15 minutes to patrol the lot’s perimeter. When he’s not patrolling on foot, he’s inside 75 Varick St. keeping an eye on the lot through security cameras, he added.
Also keeping watch were officers in a police car posted in Duarte Square by the statue of Juan Pablo Duarte, the father of the Dominican Republic. As Security Officer Henry was making his rounds, the patrol car rolled off and was replaced by police van, maintaining the police presence.
Behind the newly erected chain-link fence, thousands of small, silver disc medallions — part of a public artwork — glittered in the streetlight on the lot’s wooden fence, as if what was within was a shimmering, tantalizing prize just out of reach.