Life Under Occupation

Russ White

Linda Gerstman finished speaking to the crowd at Community Board 1's monthly meeting last Tuesday. She'd printed dozens of copies of her presentation, which she gave away freely on the way back to her seat. Gerstman was putting a copy in the hand of one guy when something about him caugtht her eye.

"Are you from Occupy Wall Street?" she asked. He was. She snatched the paper right out of his hand.

Gerstman, director of the board of managers at 15 Broad Street, was acting out feelings shared by a lot of Lower Manhattanites. Over the past few weeks, representatives of Occupy Wall Street have met with Lower Manhattan's community board 11 times. As OWS chugs along through its second month, it has started to look more and more like a permanent encampment with predictable problems: issues of sanitation, safety, and the drummers, who formed their own working group (called Pulse) and until recently, fended off every attempt to rein in their nonstop percussion.

Most CB1 members—and a lot of neighbors—support the occupation, at least publicly. But there's a vocal contingent of neighbors—the people booing at Community Board meetings—who are fed up and only getting more so. They're up against public opinion: Polls show that a majority of New Yorkers support the occupation. Residents did score a victory last week when CB1 passed almost unanimously a resolution agreeing to compromise with and enforce OWS's Good Neighbor Policy. The resolution limits the drummers to two hours of noise a day, requiring OWS to make arrangements to use actual bathrooms in the area, and a proposal to take down some of the barricades snarling pedestrian traffic in the Financial District.

The resolution "balances the First Amendment right to protest and assemble with how we absolutely have to proactively protect the quality of life of the community," board chair Julie Menin said last week. But for some of the neighbors, it's not nearly enough.

Sixtysomething Allan Tannenbaum, a photographer who lives in Tribeca, said the occupation is "kids sleeping outdoors in a park, reeking of urine, eating slop." He described the community board's response as tepid and "supporting anarchy and mob rule" and thinks the protesters are barking up the wrong tree.

Pat Moore, CB1's Quality of Life committee chair, was one of three community board members to vote against the new resolution. She and other members of the occupied have stressed that though Wall Street is a symbol, it's also a residential neighborhood.

That's true, if it's also somewhat overstated. Residential and mixed commercial/residential buildings only take up about 15 percent of the land in District One, according to 2010 Department of City Planning numbers. Office and commercial buildings comprise 22 percent. Compare that to District Two, which has about 45 percent residential or mixed residential/commercial.

Among the occupied, confusion about the occupiers is rampant. Linda Gerstman said that her friends have considered a petition, but "they're afraid to speak out. They know Anonymous is behind this." (There's actually no evidence that Anonymous is behind Occupy Wall Street.)

Her neighbor Gayle Aschenbrenner, a 53-year-old single mom, is under the impression that Occupy Wall Street receives food shipments from limousines.

Occupy Wall Street has a countless number of working groups at this point, one of them named Community Affairs, which was represented at the rowdy second-to-last CB meeting by member Han Shan, previously an activist for Tibetan independence, who wore a sharp suit and gold earrings. (The wearing of suits by Occupy Wall Streeters is something of a trend.)

"We recognize that the local community represents the 99 percent that desperately needs change in our political and economic system," Shan told the Voice.

That idea—"We're doing this for you"—is a main talking point for the occupiers. It's also one of the things that irks the occupied the most. "They're not fighting for me," Gerstman said. "I didn't ask them to come and do this to my neighborhood."

Gerstman and Aschenbrenner say that their building has been broken into more than once, and Pat Moore is one of a number of people who say their doorstep has been used as an impromptu bathroom.

Occupy Wall Street has internal mechanisms for taking care of these issues, including Security and Sanitation working groups. But, as Shan admits, it's an uphill battle. Rules are made to be broken, doubly so when enforcing them requires the consensus of everyone involved.

"Actually putting together the mechanisms to enforce the Good Neighbor Policy is a challenge, there's just no doubt," he said.

It's especially difficult when dealing with groups like Pulse, the drummers. After the resolution was passed at the meeting with an agreement to restrict the drumming to two hours a day during business hours, their representative, Elijah Moses, told the Voice that "if you keep telling me two hours, I'll keep doing four." Which is the sort of statement that causes the occupied to seethe. That—and snatching their papers out of protesters' hands—might be all they can really do.

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