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Creative Tactics for Saving a City
Emily Gertz, 26 May 05

May05Cover.jpgI wrote last year about positive opposition to massive redevelopment plans in New York City--citizen groups coming up with sophisticated, community-centric alternatives to proposals for neighborhood-obliterating mega sports stadiums and big box stores in NYC.

Well, 13 months later, these development controversies are still unresolved, and only more intense. The mayor and governor are lined up behind the West Side Stadium plan in Manhattan as the city's only hope (cue Princess Leia) to nab the 2012 Olympics (we've posted here, here and here about green Olympics, although as I noted here, sustainability doesn't seem to figure high in local plans for the games). In my home borough of Brooklyn, along with our own stadium juggernaut, there's an enormous redevelopment plan going forward in Williamsburg. It's much needed, but who will it ultimately serve?

Even if you don't live here, you may have heard about Williamsburg--it's been the hip zone of the moment for the past several years, with scruffy bars and cheap apartments gradually giving way to espresso bars and major rent hikes. Locals have long fought for rezoning and financial support to bring the area back from post-industrial malaise, and to reclaim the area's East River waterfront for recreation.

Along with some creative oppositional activist memetics to the onslaught of change in the nabe, there's a lot of fresh, funny, street and media-smart activism going on to keep the local community's vision paramount in Williamsburg's revitalization.

In May's Save This City issue of The Brooklyn Rail, Tom Hamm writes,

What’s new to report is not that residents of various neighborhoods are fighting back or that they’re doing so in the name of protecting their local communities from unwanted types of development. Instead, what’s different about the recent protests—at least over the developer-friendly rezoning of Williamsburg—is that local activists have taken the fight to the streets.

Led by groups including the Creative Industries Coalition and the Williamsburg Warriors, the various rezoning protests have merged long-standing community demands with new styles of theatrical street activism. The reason they have done so is obvious: the Bloomberg administration’s Department of City Planning (DCP) has no use for the community planning process, and neither does the City Council. In tandem with developers, city officials will determine the fate of your neighborhood. In such circumstances, the only remaining option is to take to the streets. And the amazingly inventive recent protests have set important precedents for future local struggles.

The Williamsburgh Warriors web site avoids dot-com slickness in favor of dirt design and a welcome injection of humor, like this astrological activism forecast: "Warrior Siri spent 32 waking hours, many of them by the light of the Taurus moon, drafting and finalizing a revised letter to the 50 council members who will vote this Wednesday...[t]he new letter embodies Mars the warrior cutting through some of the delitescent bullshit that can be served up by Pisces."

Williamsburg Warrior Elena Levin broke down the tactics of street theatre recently for Gothamist:

Street theater works in two ways. First is, you produce your own news. A big, confusing, abstract issue like the Williamsburg one is hard to handle as a story. Street theater turns a whole mess of information into an event and turns it into a spectacle too cool looking for people to ignore.

Secondly, street theater also gets people to participate who wouldn’t have been involved otherwise. How many arts collectives knew what Inclusionary Zoning was before the Williamsburg Warriors started dressing up like 70’s cult flick "The Warriors" and spreading the word? Now if you walk down Bedford and ask if people know about the invasion of the skyscrapers most everyone answers "yes"...I believe in street theater.

It seems like the "cities are for traffic" era of Robert Moses is long past. These days, developer-friendly deals are no longer done deals in NYC, thanks to folks like Levin and her allies.

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In Trumps' book "The Art of the Deal" he mourns the passing of the little corner store. He noted that now you are more likely to get a pair of 250 dollar calf skin gloves than a bag of apples. He did not believe it was him specifically which caused this shift, he felt that he merely rode in on the wave that was already happening....
He had some interesting commentary on how to "fix" this situation, but of course, that would mean reading his book....grin! And he is a hard read. However the story of how he kicked the Mayor (Ed Koch) out of subsidized housing he bought is worth every outraged howl!

Posted by: Bill on 28 May 05

There is another way to using carbon-burning vans and trucks. We just have to do this. Pass this on to the local charities and city council in your area. IMHO, this is a good example!

Elec. vehicles help feed hungry, homeless

Yes, there is a non-polluting alternative to smoke-belching trucks, to deliver donated sandwiches and soup to the hungry and homeless. In Vancouver, the Mom's Agape Street Ministry uses electric disability scooters, with trailers and revived batteries, to "truck" food, nightly.

Tell your councillors about this. We can do this in every city, can't we?

Posted by: donnie yee on 29 May 05

Bill: Yeah, that is the disturbing side of the city's dynamism. Planning bodies have a disturbingly consistent tendency to roll over when a developer promises to roll in--really erratic recognition that there is a role for good zoning in moderating the impact of capitalism on the community.

These stadium plans in particular seem to exist in a world where New Urbanism never happened.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 29 May 05



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