Michael Sorkin & Occupy Wall Street: 'Liberty Square'


'Liberty Square' is from Michael Sorkin's All Over the Map

One of the basic rights enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution is that of "the people to freely assemble." Free assembly is the primary expression of democracy in space, the physical embodiment of liberty. This relationship far predates the American experience. Cities, in particular, have long been seen as especially conducive to freedom, as exemplified in the famous motto of the Hanseatic League: "City air makes you free." The just city is one where citizens move unimpeded and gather in many different forms for self-expression. In modern times, social progress has been directly linked to the variety of rallies, demonstrations, marches, and insurrections that have had as their arena the streets and squares of the city. From women's suffrage to civil rights to union organizing to anti- war protests, the power of bodies together in space has been crucial to the defense of our rights. In real democracy, the streets belong to the people.

In city after city, certain places have become linked to these gatherings, institutionalized by repeated use. While the street is the bedrock of the popular right to the city-the conduit of association-it is only part of the necessary infrastructure of assembly, which includes privatized spaces such as bars, cafés, lecture halls, stadia, and stoops, as well as bigger public spaces: the parks, plazas, and town squares that remain fundamental to sound urbanism. Whether the Zocalo in Mexico City, the Mall in Washington, or Tiananmen Square in Beijing, these great sites are zones of focus, the common property of those dedicated to the struggle for free association. Indeed, the right of the public to gather in these places continues to be defended in blood.

Such matters have been much in the news in the current political season. The protest cage at the Democratic Convention in Boston-a prison-like enclosure surrounded by razor-wire-suggests a sinister elision of the war on terror with the control of popular assembly. The frustrations of those seeking to demonstrate against the Republicans in New York have also provided ample evidence of the constraints on the popular right to make use of its own spaces. They also point up something else: the lack of enough suitable places for mass political rallies. Our main rallying spots in New York-whether Central Park, Times Square, or Fifth Avenue-all depend on the disruption of some other activity, whether traffic or recreation, and are thus subject to negotiation with the authorities who, as the present situation so vividly shows, can be recalcitrant. Other venues, like Union Square with its rich historic association with protest, are too small. Still others, including City Hall Park, have been fenced and "improved" to prevent gatherings.

The organizers of the largest New York demonstration, a group called United for Peace and Justice, originally applied for a permit to gather on the Great Lawn in Central Park. This was denied on the basis of the alleged fragility of the grass. The city offered as an alternative the West Side Highway, which the demonstrators refused, electing instead to march more visibly in the streets near Madison Square Garden. Insubordinate assembly is a crucial element both of democratic discourse and of the character, location, and political valence of the space that's crucial to such expression. Speech demands its audience and its places of transmission and reception.

This problematic lack of suitable space comes at a critical moment as the nation rushes breakneck to restrict freedom of movement under the guise of fighting terror. While vigilance is necessary, these restrictions also represent a victory for the enemies of freedom, both at home and abroad. The attacks of 9/11-the initiating event in this cycle-were both an act of murder and an assault on our freedom to assemble. The World Trade Center replacement project, however, contains remarkably little non-programmed gathering space. The major component, of course, is a memorial, but that is park-like and solemn, not the spot for mass rallies. Remaining spaces of nominal assembly-such as the Wedge of Light- are residual, scarcely more than enlarged sidewalks. The proposed cultural facilities may be public, but they are decidedly not political or about large gatherings. Ironically, the World Trade Center contained a larger plaza than anything currently proposed. It was, however, so inhospitable and its associated meanings so commercial that it never functioned as a place of assembly, simply as a windswept expanse to be crossed or avoided.

Instead of useful forms of assembly, the Ground Zero plan substitutes an iconography of freedom that slights its actual expression. The "Freedom Tower," for example, is an office building, doubtless one in which free access will be heavily circumscribed by security demands and sky-high rents. Its vague asymmetry is meant to evoke the Statue of Liberty, a devoluted icon for an icon, abstracted beyond recognition. The memorial is centered on the symbolism of the Trade Center footprints, which are to be water-filled and uncrossable. The Wedge of Light-should it actually be realized-calls for passive solemnity. The yet-to-be-conceived Museum of Freedom, however important it might become, will be a largely individual experience.

What has happened downtown is the creation of a plan that is essentially about recreating what was there before, validated as appropriate by a laying on of sacral iconography. Everything receives its label-Freedom Tower, Wedge of Light, Park of the Heroes-to create a nimbus of occluding piety. If anything points up the fast-and-loose style of reverence of the rebuilders, it is the recent announcement by the LMDC and Larry Silverstein that-given the flat office market and the failure to obtain a double payout from Swiss Re-they are likely to build "taxpayers" on the eastern portion of the site, an area (on either side of Santiago Calatrava's fine train station) that amounts to more than three city blocks. These proposed low-rise commercial buildings would be intended as placeholders for future office towers, which might not be constructed for decades. If this goes ahead, a shopping center would line the rebuilt Greenwich Street, facing the memorial and the two cultural buildings that the LMDC is currently developing.

Clearly, this is not the highest-and-best use for New York's most significant urban project. However, it does present a remarkable opportunity. These blocks might become the great public plaza that the city lacks. 

Surrounded by a strong edge of building, highly accessible, and located on a site of remarkable resonance, the space might become not simply a symbol but the scene of liberty in action, a zone of free assembly and free speech. It is also in the heart of things, at the center of our institutions of governance and commerce, an apt and visible site for public expression. And, instead of managing remembrance through a series of themed activities that offer little opportunity for spontaneity or collectivity, it would truly belong to the people, an embodiment of our nation's greatest ethical and political power.

It is time to build Liberty Square.

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