For the anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, the semi-corporate status of Zuccotti Park may be a boon

Zuccotti Park. (Nancy Scola.)
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Nancy Scola

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"You're worried about sanitation," Michael Bloomberg said on John Gambling's radio show Friday, talking about how long the protesters who have been gathered for two weeks near Wall Street might reasonably be allowed to stay. "You're worried about lots of—there’s lots of laws on the books of what you can do in parks and that sort of thing."

But what are the rules about gathering and speaking out when a place isn't actually a park? What determines the point at which demonstrators officially wear out their welcome?

The irony is that Zuccotti Park, the slice of Manhattan where the Occupy Wall Street protesters have chosen to rage against the intermingled dealings of government and corporations, is the product of an intermingling of government and a corporation. 

Brookfield Properties, the North American real estate giant that owns both Zuccotti Park and One Liberty Plaza, the 54-story building the park abuts, didn't have a detailed opinion about the legal status of the space, as it applies to something like Occupy Wall Street.

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"The park has always been associated with the building," said Melissa Coley, Brookfield's press contact, when I reached her by phone.

For a long time, no one much cared. For decades, it was Liberty Plaza Park, a dumpy and barren concrete plaza that, across from the World Trade Center, was simply a way to get from the PATH to the financial district.

Liberty Plaza Park was heavily damaged in 9/11, with emergency vehicles and cleanup equipment stored there injuring it down to its foundation. As the city struggled to rebuild lower Manhattan, Brookfield remade the one-block-square park at a cost of $8 million, sprucing it up with granite benches and flower beds, and, in 2005, naming it after the company's chairman, John E. Zuccotti.

The company's official statement on the public purpose of the park, in the context of the Wall Street demonstrations, is: "Zuccotti Park is intended for the use and enjoyment of the general public for passive recreation. We are extremely concerned with the conditions that have been created by those currently occupying the park and are actively working with the City of New York to address these conditions and restore the park to its intended purpose."

Working as Brookfield's partner on the government side was the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, the city-state public-benefit corporation that is charged with rebuilding south of Canal Street. I asked the employee who answered the phone for her help finding the agreement that covers use of the space.

"You'll have to talk to Brookfield," said the employee, who declined to give her name. "Brookfield is really the only one who would have that information."

I pressed.

"You could try the Parks Department," she said, trying to be helpful.

But it's not a city park, I pointed out.

"Yep, you're right," she said.

Still, I tried the New York City Parks Department.

"Zuccotti Park is on private property," wrote a spokesperson in response, "so we do not have access to information on its operations or the contract about its operations."

Hoping that maybe the man at the heart of this could settle the question, I called the office of John Zuccotti, who is now in his mid-70s and works a senior counsel to the real estate division at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. His very polite secretary told me that Zuccotti was traveling in Europe, wouldn't be back until next week, and doesn't use a computer.

The police department didn't return a phone call and email asking about the rules governing Zuccotti Park. The city planning commission, the entity on the government side likely to have a copy of the agreement with Brookfield Properties over the park's use, hasn't yet returned requests to see the agreement.

On Gambling's show, the host pushed the mayor on the exact nature of the park.

"It's a private park, but open to the public by the agreement ... that was made originally in return for being able to change some of their zoning rules," Bloomberg said. "And that will be worked out with time."

At the moment the rules governing the space that the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have made their home—protesters immediately re-christened it Liberty Park—are tough to figure out. But that might actually turn out to be a boon to the occupiers, at least in the short term.

A contact in the city planning community told me organizers of the demonstration settled on the "private-public" space deliberately, because of the lack of cut-and-dried rules that come with official parks: No sleeping over, for example. I haven't been able to confirm whether that's actually true, but there are suggestions that the fact that they're there, whether it was a deliberate choice or not, bought the demonstrators some time.

By Friday night, next to a permanent sign that reads "Open to Public," a sign had, belatedly, been taped up that read, "Zuccotti Park is a privately-owned space." No camping, tents, or lying down was permitted. Yet there was plenty of each, and no noticeable enforcement. While private security guards stood watch, one young protester relaxed in the middle of Zuccotti Park in an upholstered lounge chair.

New York, of course, has a long history of public authorities like the the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center. Such entities are responsible for the way much of New York City and its environs were built. Back in the 1960s, über-builder Robert Moses mastered the use of these public corporations, selling bonds to pay for roads or beaches, for example, and then paying them back with tolls and entrance fees. Not asking for public funds meant avoiding the morass of the legislature and other checks generally provided by the public.

A somewhat newer innovation, though, is simply getting wealthy private entities to pay for parks. Corporations, builders and real-estate interests play the role forfeited by cash-strapped and deadlocked government. It's happening with Manhattan's Highline park and Battery Park City, and Brooklyn's Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The construction of these spaces seems to have outpaced our understanding of the relationship of the public to private-public spaces. What's free speech in a private-public park, or the right to peaceable assembly in one?

U.S. courts have ruled that shopping malls sometimes must be thought of as public squares, but the law is still murky. Which means that if the Occupy Wall Street folks stick around, as they've pledged to do, we'll likely soon get a lesson in what kinds of spaces these "private-public" parks really are when push comes to shove.

One last side-note concering the privatization of public spaces in New York:

This summer, the opposing factions in a fight over the development of Brooklyn Bridge Park agreed to try turning the nearby Jehovah's Witnesses' Watchtower Buildings into a means of generating revenue for the park.

Back in the '80s, the fight was over getting those same religiously tax-exempt private buildings through the city's planning maze. The Jehovah's Witnesses hired a former deputy mayor and city planning commissioner whose firm, reported New York magazine at the time, "has helped unravel the red tape surrounding some of the city's plum real-estate deals, like Battery Park City."

The man was John Zuccotti.