Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel
Above, Valerie Kelley, portraying Lucy Parsons, the anarchist labor organizer from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, addressed the crowd at last Thursday’s demonstration.
Washington’s and Robeson’s spirits haunt pavilion plan
By Jefferson Siegel
Last Thursday, the Union Square Partnership held its Annual Meeting and Networking Reception in the W Hotel on Park Ave. South.
A block away another decidedly less sedate gathering was coalescing. A rally to protest the building of a restaurant in the park’s north pavilion attracted scores of locals, greensward lovers and free-speech proponents.
People gathered to sign petitions against siting a restaurant in the pavilion, as one activist passed out fliers, yelling, “Get yer free parks! Who’d like to buy one? Only 10 million!” An online petition against privatization at http://www.revbilly.com/petition/ already boasts hundreds of signatures. On the fence surrounding the construction area hung small red and green price tags imprinted with the words “Not for Sale” and “People’s Park.”
Members of the tongue-in-cheek troupe Billionaires for Bush wore tuxedos and evening gowns and held signs reading, “Privatize the Park” and “More Cars Less Park.”
This display of performance art calling attention to the purported privatization of Union Square Park space opened with the anti-consumerist activist Reverend Billy acting as master of ceremonies.
Once Billy had everyone’s attention, including that of a half-dozen Parks Department officers wearing patches that identified them as Park Security Service, he led the crowd to several soapboxes spread throughout the northwest corner of the plaza. Standing on each box was an actor representing a “hero” of Union Square’s history and dressed from the period in which he or she had lived.
Starting with Ben Shepard, who orated as George Washington, complete with a powdered wig, tricorn hat and rolled-up pants, park lovers heard history lessons from actors channeling Paul Robeson, the actor, athlete, singer and activist, and Lucy Parsons, an organizer and founder of the newspaper Freedom.
Talking through a large white cone emblazoned with the words “First Amendment Megaphone,” Parsons (actor Valerie Kelley) held the crowd rapt with a speech supporting the rights of the poor and disenfranchised.
Robeson (actor Almond Adams) sang the first few bars of “Old Man River” before declaring, “As an artist, I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this.” Reverting to Robeson’s famous basso profundo, Adams concluded by belting out the final bars of the song most associated with Robeson’s singing career.
Another historical figure in the lineup was Norman Thomas, a six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America.
“Why was I the standard bearer for Socialism?” actor Gaylen Hamilton asked. “Because it’s social!”
“I am not the champion of lost causes,” Thomas/Hamilton concluded, offering a rallying cry to the crowd. “I am the champion of causes yet to be won.”
After a musical performance by the Rude Mechanical Orchestra brass band, many in the crowd were surprised by the appearance of City Councilmember Rosie Mendez. Mendez has been a target of criticism for first opposing, but then supporting, the park’s renovation.
Anxious to present her case, Mendez climbed onto a temporary stage and, using an amplified bullhorn, started speaking from a list of talking points.
“I wanted to explain my position to everyone,” Mendez said, noting that she changed her mind in February 2006, when the Parks Department said it would triple, rather than double, the park’s current amount of playground space.
Noting that the previous seasonal-concession restaurant, Luna Park, occupied 6,500 square feet of space in Union Square Park, Mendez said the newer plan she supports allows a restaurant of only 3,700 square feet, to be located in the park’s old pavilion.
Boos started rising from the crowd. One person kept yelling, “Why a restaurant at all?” as another called out, “We don’t want a restaurant!” As the crescendo of jeers rose, George Washington, aka Ben Shepard, who just minutes earlier had espoused the benefits of free speech, implored the crowd to “Let her talk.”
“Is this free speech?” Mendez asked before saying her office received comments opposed to the original plan, but that after the revised plan was issued, reaction turned mixed, with some favorable feedback.
The crowd became more agitated, chanting, “Sellout!” One person yelled, “Why can’t we have all of that without a restaurant?” Mendez was forced to wait, as the crowd yelled in unison, “We’re fighting for freedom, not French fries!” Mendez ended her remarks by saying she hoped to meet with interested parties.
Afterward, Mendez told The Villager she didn’t know who would be operating the proposed new restaurant. “An R.F.P. [request for proposals] would decide that,” she said. Mendez also said she didn’t know who gave $7 million to the Union Square Partnership. Opponents of the project charge the $7 million was given conditioned on the pavilion’s use a restaurant, but Parks and the Partnership both deny any such linkage.
“I like Rosie, personally,” said Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates. “But her reasons for flipping and going directly against what this community and her constituents want and need are deplorable. Children and families are the biggest losers here. Her actions have been quite harmful.”
The historical perspectives and speeches concluded and were followed by park supporters literally taking a stand against the renovations. About 60 or 70 people spread out along the chain-link fence surrounding the construction area around the pavilion building. They locked arms, many holding cardboard cutout drawings of the “Heroes of Union Square.”
After several minutes, Reverend Billy and the marching brass band led the crowd down the narrow walkway bisecting the north plaza and across the street to the W Hotel. People lined up facing the large plate-glass windows of the ground-floor bar, many holding up the cardboard cutouts and cards bearing the words of the First Amendment. Those inside enjoying after-work drinks were surprised to see the mass of protesters looking inward. Some smiled and waved but most seemed unaware of the reason for the protest.
Several other protesters stood in front of the hotel’s entrance holding a large banner reading, “Gentrification Kills Neighborhoods — Fight Back.” As a handful of police officers tried to clear a path for pedestrians, a police captain in a pinstripe suit quietly asked Billy to stop using the electrically amplified megaphone. After several requests, Billy turned to the officer and replied, “I’m exercising my First Amendment right to free speech,” before leading the crowd back into Union Square.
People returning to the park plaza passed by a somber-looking Diana Carulli.
“We’re alerting people to our fight against privatizing Union Square Park,” she said, “and reminding them how much damage this misguided tear-up of the north end has already caused.” In 1999, Carulli painted two labyrinths and a maze on the blacktop of the square’s north plaza. She constantly maintained them until work began several months ago. Now, only portions of her designs remain on the narrow path between the construction areas.
As the rally broke up, Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro happened to walk by the departing crowd. Billy promptly walked up to Castro and began calling for no restaurant in the park. Castro seemed taken aback and quickly walked across 17th St. Billy followed him up Broadway for half a block, until Castro ducked out of sight into a Radio Shack.
The day before the rally, Billy and several activists had slipped inside the construction fence and climbed scaffolding up to the pavilion’s rooftop, where they unfurled a large red banner reading, “NOT FOR SALE.” Two weeks earlier, Billy had also entered the construction area to preach against what he called the park’s privatization for several minutes. There were no arrests at any of the events.
Last week’s rally was organized by Save Union Square 2008. Groups joining in opposition to the north-end renovation project include the Union Square Community Coalition, NYC Park Advocates, the Community Improvement District and A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response To Illegal State Tactics).