Every holiday season, places like Union Square and Bryant Park are converted from public common spaces into massive commercial tent cities — a move that brings the city more than $1 million.
The irony isn’t lost on Occupy Wall Street protesters, whose tent city in Zuccotti Park was violently evicted by police in the middle of the night last month.
“If it makes money, then it’s okay,” OWS activist Jen Waller said on the dichotomy, noting that thousands of people around the country camped out on sidewalks to wait for the opening of big-box stores on Black Friday. “But if you’re not making money, or in this case, [if you are] criticizing the system, then you can’t do it,” Waller concluded.
There are differences to be sure. Merchants intend to leave at the end of the shopping season, and aren’t staying overnight. And Zuccotti Park is a public/private park, unlike Union Square and Bryant Park, which are wholly public. But the issue of commercializing spaces like Union Square is still a large one.
“No one asks for this,” Geoffrey Croft, the president of NYC Park Advocates, said of the holiday market, which takes up the southern portion of Union Square for more than a month, cutting off what is supposed to be a public space for people who live and work in the area. “It destroys the ambiance of the parks,” Croft said.
While holiday markets don’t divert resources from other parks in lower-income areas, the money that is generated isn’t re-invested in public space, either. Rather, it goes to the city’s General Fund, which is used to finance everything from education to public safety.
“The mayor is using the parks as a cash cow,” Croft said, noting that 91 percent of non-tax-based city revenues come from the Parks and Recreation Department.
All of this is happening while City Hall is ignoring real concerns for the city’s parks. Last summer, parks advocates and city unions claimed that a cutback in the Parks Department led to a dramatic decrease in the presence of peace officers in the parks and an uptick in crime.
This isn’t to say that parks shouldn’t have any commercial activity at all, but bringing in cash for the city should not trump the public’s ability to use these public spaces. Commercial tent cities in public parks make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to pursue more meaningful public activities, like playing music, enjoying picnics, or publicly airing grievances. After all, the parks are built and maintained with taxpayer money.
When asked if the City Council’s Parks and Recreation Committee showed any interest in fixing this, Croft said it was a difficult struggle.
“People want parks, but they don’t fight for them the way they do when they fight hospital closings or education cuts,” Croft said. “The pressure’s not there.”