As it was pointed out in various articles, the mother-ship of Occupy Wall Street in New York addresses a very interesting spatial issue which, despite its specificity to NYC, opens the doors to a broader urban problem about public space. In fact, Liberty Square’s legal status is known to be a Privately Owned Public Space resulting from a 1961 deal between the City of New York and private corporations who wanted to transgress the urban code by building higher towers: In exchange of a significant area of public space on their parcel, corporations and private owners would be authorized to build their towers higher. However, this little zone of public space was not meant to be given to the city so those private actors remained the owners and controllers of this area. They therefore maintained the right to authorize or forbid activities from taking place or people from passing though those spaces.
Under an appearance of openness, privately owned public spaces are in fact extremely selective of their public. Employees working in the towers are of course welcome; those open spaces are part of a post-modern biopolitical capitalism that appears as taking good care of its subjects. People who spend money on those sites in order to buy coffee, hot dogs, or newspapers are also targeted for this type of public spaces. Others are regarded as unwelcome even suspect, and can be asked to leave in case of a “subversive” activity such as playing with a ball, taking pictures, or picnicking.
Both corporations and governments are satisfied with those public spaces. Corporations are able to build taller skyscrapers, provide open space for their employees, and develop commercial activities while governments see their public space being maintained by private actors and any potential space of gathering being controlled and supervised…until now.
The Occupiers of Wall Street therefore reclaimed a territory which should have been simply declared as public rather than let in an ambiguity that favors their owners.
This last point is really important as it tackles a problem that is not just specific to New York City. The right to the public space has been too much abandoned as the regular suppression we are often subjected to is so much embedded within our imaginary. Most public parks close at night, signs prohibiting to play ball games, skateboarding or walking on the grass have proliferated everywhere without us reacting to it. Although those activities do not seem as crucial in a human existence -it depends for who !- than the right of assembling of simply to be present on that space, the fact of forbidding them is continuously influencing our imaginary and helps to the acceptance of the next step.
In January 2002, Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé -who still is the Mayor in addition of being the French Minister of Foreign Affairs- passed a decree that prevented the fact of sitting or laying down in the street if the latter was somehow obstructing the path of pedestrians. Whatever stops the flux, and therefore constitutes a small speck of dust in the cogs of the machine is indeed considered as an antagonist and for this, should be declared outlawed. In the United States, the first amendment which proclaims freedom of speech, is often invoked as the most fundamental right; we could regret that nothing in the Bill of Rights is ever involving a problem of space: the undeniable right of circulating, stopping and assembling within a public space.
To know more about POPS (Privately Owned Public Spaces):
- a Manhattan map on which they are all inventoried
- the official legal document regulating them (119 pages)
- a simplified version with illustrations
- the book Privately owned public space: the New York City experience by Jerold S. Kayden