Photos by Philippe Teston
Lucy Parsons, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day, Norman Thomas, and even good old George Washington— or at least protesters dressed like them— were among several hundred people who assembled at Union Square yesterday to protest proposed park renovations that activists say will amount to a partial privatization of the public space.
After the Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping preached about plans, George Washington, or an actor dressed like him, railed about how the plans constituted a First Amendment violation, closing one of the few remaining spaces for public assembly.
Lucy Parsons, a deceased labor organizer, soon followed as did Emma Gordon, Dorothy Day, Norman Thomas, and more, adding their own history to the historic Union Square Pavilion.
“It’s absurd to construct another fancy restaurant when they surround us,” said one protester, Bob Doto, a 30-year-old magazine editor. “I’m appalled by how sneaky they have been.”
The Parks Department received an anonymous $7 million donation while in the process of considering renovations to Union Square, he said. The catch was, that the donation came with strings attached— the park must allow a private restaurant. The pressure is now on the city to take the much-needed money because their parks are already under-funded.
The protest took an interesting turn when Rosie Mendez, the local City Council member who supported the private restaurant plans spoke unexpectedly.
People listened as she filibustered, until finally she admitted she had not changed her opinion. The crowd turned sour. They had been dancing to a marching band and now were listening to their representative talk about a new playground that would be three times bigger than planned, and the new restaurant that would take up less space than the old Luna Park Café. She ended noting that people would have access to the restaurant area “in the off-season,” meaning winter. She was met with boos and catcalls.
The plan is a “corporate regentrification of a national landmark,” said Valerie Kelley, a musician who acted as Lucy Parsons. “Big business glazes over history. A landmark should be a cause for a reminder.”
Ben Shepard, one of the organizers of the protest said before the rally, “There should be more to the urban lifestyle than restaurants and shopping.”
A lawsuit filed by the Union Square Community Coalition has halted the construction of the new restaurant, but the renovation of the north end of the park continues. According to the Save Union Square 2008 blog, the plan will “widen the street on the west side of the square by approximately 12 feet, and put up a wide concrete barrier and a line of trees on the north, greatly reducing the space for the Farmer’s Market forcing them to push into space previously occupied by artists” in addition to the Pavilion plans.
Save Union Square 2008, the coalition who organized this protest, will continue to have smaller demonstrations and petition signings every Wednesday at 5 pm.