Closing the park

New York, NY, USA

Putting up the fence

Construction workers install fencing in East River Park

New York, NY, USA

“Staten Island, huh?" the cop said. "The heavy hitters."

His opposite number from the Strategic Response Group shook his hand and affected a pose of ‘Aw, shucks’ modesty. It was a tender, intimate moment, two good old police boys meeting and greeting.

The SRG and their zip-ties had turned out on a raw Monday morning to keep an eye on a small gaggle of protesters from East River Park Action. And the protesters were there because the city’s plan to demolish and rebuild the much-loved park was about to swing into action.

The city’s plan is to shut down half the park at a time. It was not their original plan. They had originally intended simply to close the entire park for the duration of the demolition and construction work, leaving the people of the densely-populated and far-from-wealthy Lower East Side with exactly nowhere to go for however long it took. Eventually, someone persuaded the planners that it might be time to think about the people who actually live in the neighborhood, instead of the bars on their Gantt charts. The city grudgingly agreed to a phased plan that would leave half the park open at a time.

Today, construction workers moved in to seal off the part of the park targeted for immediate destruction. They began by putting up fencing by the pedestrian bridge from neighboring Corlears Hook Park, leaving only a narrow corridor to allow commuters to reach another of Mayor di Blasio’s ill-considered boondoggles, the ferry station. Then they moved north to start work on sealing off the northern end of the demolition zone, a little distance below Houston Street.

The police, who presumably had been informed of the plans, seemed to have been caught slightly unprepared by the appearance of the protesters. The initial police presence amounted only to a handful of uniformed cops, plus the inevitable worried-looking captain talking urgently on his phone. He paced up and down, phone pressed to his ear, as he and his superiors tried to figure out how to respond.

The protesters, mostly local people, formed a small huddle facing the planned fence-line. People took turns speaking through a loudhailer. Councilmember-elect Christopher Marte showed up and gave a short, well-worded speech. He was followed by Allie Ryan, a local resident who had unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Carlina Rivera during the recent primaries, campaigning largely on the issue of East River Park. An affable Latino construction worker joined in the chanting, beating time with his crowbar. Someone thanked him in bad Spanish for his solidaridad.

As the police reinforcements arrived, the mood of the protesters soured. The cohort of SRG cops didn’t quite outnumber the protesters, but it was a close thing. They also probably had reinforcements waiting somewhere in the intimidatingly long line of police vehicles parked along the greenway. Clearly, the city had given orders that nothing should be allowed to interfere with the progress of The Plan.

One of the protesters began haranguing a small man in chinos and a black puffer jacket standing by the police line. ”Are you a cop? You have to tell me if you’re a cop!“ he shouted. ”I don’t have to tell you shit,” the small man snarled. I thought of pointing out to the angry protester that the man’s shoes were very obviously contractor-shoes, not cop-shoes, but I doubted that he was in the mood to hear it.

A few of the protesters started in on the cops, urging them to forsake their disreputable calling and come over to the side of the people. The word ‘traitors’ was thrown about, and the rank-and-file were invited to consider whether they really wanted to sell out the working class for the sake of a lousy police pension. Most of the cops looked studiedly bored. I had a strong impression that this was not the first time they had heard these arguments. The expected mass-defection of the Praetorians failed to take place.

Two officers, one in plainclothes, unrolled a length of yellow tape and made it fast to the railings by the river. The angry protester read the uniformed officer’s badge. “McAllester!” he shouted. “You’re a traitor to the Irish!” “I’m Scottish,” the cop growled, reeling out more tape. The tape had the words ‘Crime Scene’ printed on it in bold black letters, an ironically-accurate commentary on the whole business. On the far side, a few elderly Chinese-American ladies continued to go about their morning exercise unmolested by the forces of order.

A cop with a portable LRAD unit passed the microphone to the only Parks Department officer present. ”This is Sergeant Martinez of the New York Parks Department. If you disperse now, you will not be charged.” No one paid him any attention. He repeated the message a few more times, then handed the microphone back. Nothing happened. Even though they now had the necessary legal figleaf, the cops didn’t seem to be in any great hurry to arrest anyone.

One of the contractors had finally managed to start a gasoline-powered post-driver. He climbed a stepladder among the hawthorns and began banging in fence posts. The ringing of the driver on the tubular metal posts was deafening.

An East River Park Action organizer passed through the crowd, quietly asking for volunteers to take a stand and be arrested. Allie Ryan handed her bicycle to a friend and stepped up gamely, followed by a black-clad youth with a bandana facemask who looked like it wasn’t his first time as a designated arrestee.

At last, there was a brief explosion of activity over toward the greenway. As the SRG zip-tied a few of the selected human sacrifices, other officers chased the onlookers away, shouting at them to get back behind the tape. Discomfited, the protesters shuffled backward. I had the feeling that they had been outmaneuvered. They had taken their stand and made their speeches, and now they had nothing left. The contractors drove in another fence pole.

By midday, the fence was up across the width of the park. The lower half of East River Park was now sealed off to await demolition.