The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York City’s Public Spaces

Reviewed by Dana

Benjamin Shepard and Greg Smithsimon, The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York City’s Public Spaces

What would it take to claw into the chewing-gum-splattered, rubber tire-scarred, asphalt streets of New York City and pry away the metal grating to let the pulsing waves of democracy crash? Activist-scholars Benjamin Shepard and Greg Smithsimon have written an inspired book. They weave personal stories, participant observation, interviews, historical research and a sharp theoretical understanding of social movements to help us see, smell and hear the potential landscape that could exist in New York. Through vibrant examples, they show that democracy can scarcely exist without public access to community spaces. By pairing the history of the domination of public spaces with narratives of passionate activism to hold on to or reclaim vulnerable spaces for the community, Shepard and Smithsimon present a nuanced picture of one of the most urgent social justice battles of the 21st century.

New York City is a smorgasbord of public space. Women paint their fingernails on the subway. Children do their homework on their front stoops. Couples engage in sex on the piers. Urban gardeners plant breakfast in the lot next to the elementary school. With more than eight million people in approximately 300 square miles of space, it is the most densely populated city in the United States. New Yorkers have a unique American understanding of the need and hunger for space, both private and public. As Shepard and Smithsimon detail, New York also has a complicated social, political and economic history that entwines developers with politicians with activists as they all fight over this limited and precious resource of public space. New York City becomes the ideal case study for showing the ways in which the neoliberal transformation of the past half-century that privileges commerce, development and construction has contributed to a massacre of public space. This impact threatens our democracy, our environment and our future.

The fiscal crisis of the 1970s metaphorically set the stage for New York’s own “Grand Guignol” theatre. The crisis hit New York hard and the casualties were felt most acutely in low income communities comprised mostly of working-class people of color who relied on the city’s dwindling social services. In an interview, City College professor Marshall Berman remembers, “[New York Housing Commissioner] Starr’s idea for dealing with the fiscal crisis was to divide the city’s population into a ‘productive’ majority that deserved to be saved and an ‘unproductive’ minority that should be driven out.” New Yorkers from this “unproductive minority,” having nowhere else to go, often found themselves homeless, unemployed, in the streets panhandling for money and transforming the city’s parks and public spaces into de facto living rooms and bedrooms. The city’s response? Police brutality, social control, and privatized (and exclusive) “public” spaces. Painting the black and white portrait of this dire situation, Shepard and Smithsimon then proceed to color in the stark lines with stories of hope, transformation, action and social change.

Refusing a simple binary definition of public versus private space, the authors outline a “variegated typology of public space” that allows for intersections and overlap, showing how public community spaces have been co-opted, partially privatized and controlled. They answer questions I have pondered at various times over the past eleven years that I’ve lived in New York City. Why do so many high-rise corporate office buildings in midtown Manhattan have huge ghostly front courtyards with short walls covered with prickly shrubbery or railings surreptitiously angled to prevent lunchtime seating? Because such “suburban spaces” – urban spaces that find ways to filter out “undesirable” people yet still appear “public” – were created as part of a zoning initiative that allowed builders to construct taller buildings if they promised to include a “bonus plaza,” that the public could enjoy. Ironically the only creatures enjoying these “bonus” plazas are sunbathing pigeons. Another question in the pre-cellphone years was, why are there so few telephone booths in public lobbies or plazas? The answer to both of these questions lies in the fear that developers had of attracting people who do not work in the high-income corporate skyscrapers to spend time in front of or inside their expensive buildings. These seemingly public spaces were in fact deliberately crafted to keep the public out.

As the first part of the book sets up the political and corporate strategies for repressing the creation, maintenance and expansion of public space, the second half vibrantly sings about the resistance and the ways in which the public pushes back and attempts to reclaim our community spaces. Referring to the vast history of public protests in New York City, including the 1982 Central Park rally where almost one million people gathered to rally against nuclear arms, Shepard and Smithsimon then present three distinct case studies of groups of people claiming and reclaiming their right to access their city’s public spaces.

In the most emotionally engaging chapter, they trace the inspiring and devastating history of the queer community’s crumbling relationship with the Hudson River pier. Through the haunting voices and stories of gay, lesbian, queer and transgender New Yorkers of color, we are invited into their world. “Family,” for many of them, is made up of the collection of friends and lovers who sleep, party, dance, drink, eat, make love, turn tricks, and protect each other from violence, together. “Home” is made up of the abandoned warehouses, trucks, makeshift tents and rickety wooden piers on the Hudson River. The piers represent a public space that is so much more than a menagerie of park benches or a children’s playground. This space is literally vital to the survival of the people who use it. An eighty-one year old gay activist reminisces about the ironic history of the piers and remembers that in the 1950s, gay people were pushed so far out of the center of the city that they had to hug the water and claim the piers as the only safe space of freedom for them. Over the next fifty years, as the city expanded and the potential real estate value of this waterfront property became apparent, the city enacted various and extreme measures to “cleanse” the piers of their inhabitants. The brutal policing of the piers ignited queer activism, and local community organizing groups such as FIERCE!, the Audre Lorde Project and the Radical Faeries fought back to ensure that the space remained safe for their community. Though a recent walk through the park at the piers showed more baby strollers and dog walkers than drag queens and runaway teenagers, the gay activist groups were successful in reshaping the debate and raising citywide awareness of the injustice of many of the city’s new policies to police the piers, evicting and criminalizing the families who lived there.

Several other bold and inspiring activist groups are also profiled. As the Giuliani administration attempted to expand its control over public spaces and tried to unconstitutionally prohibit most forms of public congregation, activist groups such as Reclaim the Streets (RTS) launched street-based actions to challenge corporate takeover of public spaces. In addition, creative performance-based activists such as Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping and the Lower East Side Collective staged whimsical, satirical and entertaining performances to attempt to stop, respectively, the Starbucks/Wal-Mart infiltrations in the city and the demolition of community gardens. The authors’ lively and passionate writing beautifully captures the spirit and energy of play that was so prevalent, successful and necessary in these protests.

The final example of public space activism addresses what is likely the largest and most diverse public site in the city that literally weaves through and connects every borough – the streets. Activists focus on the rights of bicyclists to move through the city safely and share ownership of the roads. Two unique groups profiled are Critical Mass, a leaderless body that erupts once a month and includes thousands of cyclists reclaiming the streets with revelry by riding through the city together, and the whimsical Bike Lane Liberation Clowns who dress as circus clowns and give fake tickets to cars and trucks that block bike lanes. Shepard, a biking activist himself, brings his personal experiences to his writing about these movements; his close proximity allows us to see the depths and nuances of these actions.

The great strength of The Beach Beneath the Streets lies in the ways that the authors celebrate the actions, both huge and small, that New Yorkers have taken to creatively fight for our public spaces to remain safe, vibrant, and inclusive. They show persuasively that the movement to reclaim public space is one of the most vital for our democracy to thrive. They present a wide array of projects and initiatives that represent the diversity of New York City and the ways in which so many citizens from different ethnic, gender, class identities and sexual orientations still believe in the fight and right to public spaces. It’s unfortunate, in light of this, that the book’s cover features only white bodies.

As enraged citizen activists, organizers, artists and families gain international attention for their encampment at Zuccotti Park near Wall Street in Lower Manhattan, The Beach Beneath the Streets has urgent relevance.  Although the park is privately owned, the occupiers benefit from a contractual stipulation which in effect allows them to stay there indefinitely. As Shepard and Smithsimon clearly note, corporations make deals where they create publicly accessible spaces in return for zoning perks, such as lifting certain height restrictions. The 54-story building at 1 Liberty Plaza officially owns the space, and New York’s zoning laws demand that it be open for 24 hours a day (unlike city parks that often close from dusk until dawn). As I visit, participate in and read about the “Occupy [City]” movement spreading the “we are the 99%” message rapidly across the United States and the world, I look forward to Shepard’s and Smithsimon’s further reflections on how citizens are both legally and illegally taking over public and private spaces.

Dana Edell Postdoctoral Fellow New York University Law School