Union Square is one of the most remarkable public spaces in New York City. The Square was named for the confluence of multiple roadways including Bowery, Broadway and Bloomingdale Road. When the grid for Manhattan was laid down as result of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, the space was set aside and envisioned as a public space for the city’s rapidly growing population.
Today, the Square and its adjacent streetscapes continue to be a hub for activities in the city. On a typical weekday, nearby workers and visitors have lunch in the park. On weekends, they are joined by a farmers market, performers, and more tourists. It’s a place that I walked by everyday on my way to architecture school in the 1980s.
Last Saturday, I had a chance to walk by the Square on a visit to New York. To my pleasant surprise, it happened to be the scene of the International Pillow Fight Day that also took place in dozens of cities around the world. On an ordinary day, a pillow fight would seem like a light-hearted touch in most urban spaces in North America that could always use a little more action and creativity.
But there was something disturbing that day. As park users picked up pillows and ‘fight’ each other, uniformed police officers were standing by at all entrances to the park. Don't get me wrong. The cops were not there to keep an eye on the Pillow Fight. Rather, they seem to be guarding the park against the intrusion of the Occupy protesters who for the past few weeks have attempted to colonize the park and mount a return to the nation’s political stage.
The scene at Union Square raised an interesting but poignant question. If people are allowed to have pillow fight in the park, why are they not allowed to have a peaceful protest?
It’s not my intent to discount the Pillow Fight as an urban social event that engages strangers. It is fun and engaging (and some of the Pillow Fighters that day seemed a little too engaged -- see photo above). My point is rather that, by keeping the Occupy protesters away from every corner of the city, our civic leaders are taking away our constitutional right for the freedom of assembly and expression. By reducing public space to simply a place of leisure and entertainment, we are undermining the role of public space and public dissent as a building block of our democracy.
Before changes can be made to the mind and mindset of our civic leaders, there may be something to learn from the scene in Union Square after all. Perhaps the next time the Occupy protesters try to infiltrate the park, they can do so by starting a pillow fight. The pillows may eventually come in handy anyway, that is to shield against the police batons. It may sound off-putting. But unfortunately, this appears to be the state of our democracy in the 21st Century.
Jeff Hou is Associate Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of Washiongton, Seattle. He is the editor of "Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities" (Routledge 2010).