“It’s the Whole Earth Catalogue for politicos.”Wes “Scoop” Nisker, author of Crazy Wisdom
In the spring of 1999, real estate values in New York’s East Village and Lower East Side neighborhoods were skyrocketing, in no small part due to the beautiful network of communitygardens in the area. In a massive giveaway to corporate developers, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced he would auction off 198 community gardens. Gardeners and their supporters began organizing to stop it from happening.
On a gray and quiet Saturday afternoon weeks before the auction, two “tripod teams” were anxiously milling about on Avenue A in the East Village, anticipating the arrival of a boisterous crowd assembling several blocks away. All the constituent parts of the tripod, along with several plant boxes and other sundry items, had been stashed in strategic and discrete locations along the sidewalk.
Meanwhile, the diverse and growing crowd was in the garden finishing its face-painting, elf-costuming and other preparations. Lace-winged children and leaf-adorned stilt-walkers made their way into the street. The brass notes of trombones, tubas and saxophones rang out as the throng of garden protectors proceeded westward along 7th Street and turned the corner onto Avenue A. When the crowd arrived, the teams quickly erected the tripods. The designated “perchers” quickly ascended the rope that hung from the center and installed themselves in the cradle formed at the top. Traffic was thus effectively and immediately shut down. Marchers dragged the plant boxes into the street, gave packages of seeds to the children and began teaching them how to make roses grow. With a bit of rope and some ingenuity, others were able to turn several misplaced police barricades into a seesaw. Beautifully wrapped packages were opened to the delight of all as the crowd, which had been asked to bring gifts to share, bestowed one another with presents. A sound crew wheeled a massive set of speakers into the street and began broadcasting a pirate radio signal that was transmitting from a nearby apartment. Dancing began in earnest, and the crowd soon swelled to 300, then 400, then 500.
For the next several hours, a city block became the sort of public space that Giuliani was planning to eliminate by selling the gardens. One banner above all others summed up the driving logic of the action: “If they’re going to pave over the places where we play, then we will play in the places they’ve paved over.” The frame stuck, and was repeated in the mainstream media that night and the next day. By the time the auction was scheduled to take place, public sentiment had shifted strongly against the mayor on this issue. He was ultimately forced to stop the auction and sell the gardens to private land trusts instead of greedy developers, and all of the gardens were preserved in perpetuity.
The “streets into gardens” action viscerally demonstrated what would be lost were Giuliani to succeed in paving over the community gardens of New York City. By taking the city’s position on gardens (pave them over) and inverting that logic in the streets (play on the pavement), organizers were able to reveal the outrageous injustice of the auction itself while simultaneously embodying the world they were fighting to preserve. The action was also, crucially, one part of a much larger, broad-based campaign. It was thus clearly understood within the context of that campaign to save the gardens. Lastly, the action was able to draw in passersby and turn them into participants because it was bold, innovative, daring, and most of all, fun!
This action was a “festival of resistance” or a carnival-protest, and it certainly benefited from the use of this tactic in the expected ways: the protest didn’t feature a long list of speakers, it didn’t insist on using angry chants to drive its message, it was participatory and it was fun! People from around the neighborhood actually joined in the action and stayed in the street with the demonstrators. The tactic of carnival protest was especially well-suited to the frame of the action, which was all about maintaining and protecting public spaces that are themselves cites of celebration and community participation.
By arbitrarily repurposing a street and symbolically transforming it into a community garden, neighborhood residents exposed an analogously arbitrary act of repurposing by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Through that analogy, the action was made coherent, and the action’s very audacity, by echoing the audacity of Giuliani’s move to sell off so many gardens at once, lent a moral credibility to a stunt that might otherwise have come off as merely uncivil.
The mechanisms of power are often obscured behind layers of bureaucracy and unquestioned assumptions. By making visible and tangible the community’s need for accessible green space, and clearly identifying the source of the threat to those spaces, the action clarified the terms of the struggle, terms that had previously been murky.
The utopian edge of this action is a world that values — prizes even — human relationships and community life over profits and losses. For an afternoon, participants created that world in the street. People gave gifts instead of exchanging money, sang and laughed and talked instead of passively consuming. It was prefigurative politics at its best.
Although saving the 198 gardens that were up for auction was an uphill climb, we always felt the fight was winnable. There was wide support for community gardens throughout the city, including allies on the city council and within the mainstream media. Our action was one part of a broad and powerful campaign that was well organized and well connected. We were not shocked that we won, but it was a big enough win to warrant widespread celebration.