Monday, October 10, 2011

occupy protests show potential of public space

'Commons Not Capitalism'

In front of Philadelphia's City Hall is Dilworth Plaza, a vast, empty public space that struggles to attract people, even though it's on top of a major subway station. Ironically, it's a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square, one of the city's and the nation's great squares. While the city plans to renovate Dilworth Plaza to make it more vibrant, the Occupy Philly protests (an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street) that began last Thursday are already doing the job.

Over 700 people are camped out in Dilworth Plaza, and when I visited Saturday afternoon, it had an air of organized chaos. There are people milling about everywhere, and like me many of them were just wandering around taking pictures. A wedding party leaving City Hall stopped to admire the scene, and a wedding photographer immediately starts snapping pictures of the bride in front of a group of protest signs. Another runs over to a group of skateboarders, kneels down, and says, "Show me your best trick."

Meanwhile, the protesters have set up first aid tents, information booths, and even a library. A tent city lies between two rows of trees. And the plaza's normally windswept open areas have been given over to a drum circle and a sort of Speaker's Corner, where a guy talks through a megaphone that America's thirty-seventh in education worldwide. "I wanna hear everyone say 'We're number 37!'" he yells, struggling to be heard over the honks of passing cars. (It's unclear whether they're showing approval or being overly aggressive and obnoxious, as is the way of Pennsylvania drivers.) Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter even made an appearance to show his support for a peaceful demonstration.

I really hope Occupy Wall Street and its offspring morph into an actual agent of change. I get frustrated that my generation hasn't found a common cause in the way our parents united around civil rights or protests against the Vietnam War. One idea my friends and I have kicked around is that we haven't united because we can't relate to each other. Even with the Fair Housing Act, many of our communities experience de facto segregation by race and class, isolating us from people who are different.

In order to come together as a generation and a country, we have to know each other first, and we need great public spaces to do so. If Occupy Philly does anything, it shows how important the urban realm as a place for expression and for gathering.

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