The Union Square Pavilion Picnic Protest


Photos by Duncan Meisel

The Union Square Community Improvement District continued its running theatrical battle over the remodeling of the Union Square Pavilion on Wednesday night with an action they called the ‘Push Back Picnic,’ bringing their fight to the stamping grounds of celebrity chef Danny Meyer.

Meyer is the chair of the The Union Square Partnership, a Business Improvement District or BID, and the suspected source of an anonymous $7-million donation to the city, given on the condition that the the park’s pavilion be turned into a private restaurant. Currently, construction for the renovation is halted under a court injunction after legal action filed by the community group.

The action included signature-gathering for a petition against the project, sermonizing from Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Choir and a dramatized exorcism of private interests from the park that led to the door of Meyer’s Union Square Café .

“BIDs are constantly trying to convince communities that they have their interests in mind—in fact they have business in mind, shopping in mind” said Savitri D, an organizer who goes by one name. Referring to Meyer, she said “we hold him personally responsible for this.”

The “picnic” aimed to dramatize organizers’ belief about the connection between public space and the freedom of expression. The Stop Shopping Choir chanted and sang the First Amendment, while Reverend Billy regaled greenmarket passers-by with the Pavilion’s free speech history as the staging ground for activism by Emma Goldman and others, as well as post 9-11 anti-war actions.

“If we let them turn [the Pavilion] into a restaurant, we will lose where we came from” Billy said. “This is a place where our rights were defined and defended.”

After watermelon, the picnic became a site of political theater, with the choir performing a collective exorcism of a fellow actor dressed in the visage of Danny Meyer, who they called the ‘privatizer.’ Afterwards the group made a show of channeling the energy of small pine trees and plots of grass, which they then brought in a procession to the entryway of the Union Square Café to supposedly protect the park from privatizing interests.

Previously, the Community Improvement District had explicitly targeted Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who they claim has colluded with private interests to back a reduction of public space. Mendez defended herself in a letter she distributed at an earlier rally, claiming that building the restaurant would secure funding for renovated playground, and reduce the space used by private businesses in the park. Savatri D, the organizer, took issue with these claims in a letter to Mendez, calling the funding argument illogical, and the private-use claim a simple misstatement of how much space the restaurant will require.

“She’s protecting the anonymity of a $7 million donor—how can you say you’re one of the people when you’re participating in collusion at that level?” Savatri D asked.

The event drew a broad base of support from a variety of sources. Organizers say their petition signatures number in the thousands, and members of other groups city-wide attended the event.

Mary Lynch, a member of the Washington Square Park CID came because she thought there were connections between the renovations at both parks. Bill Dipaloa, the director of Times Up! said the renovation had the potential to impact Critical Mass rides which that group supports. Judy Francis, the President of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Defenders came out in solidarity against public space encroachment.

“It’s happening in every single park — quietly and in major ways” she said. “We can’t get any traction with our public officials because they take so much money from real estate.”

Yesterday’s action was one of Reverend Billy’s last before taking a hiatus to write a book. Still, he says he will return to the park should construction resume to build the restaurant. In the meantime, he sees enough support from New Yorkers to defeat the pavilion plan.

“New Yorkers are beginning to know what privatization means — it has to do with Iraq — it comes with impunity and it drives politics” he said. “When it comes to privatizing Union Square, many New Yorkers just say no to this.”