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Memo from Manhattan: Occupying Wall Street—and Fifth Avenue

By Sharon Zukin

Until the early morning of November 15, a few hundred Occupy Wall Street protesters spent the chilly nights of a glorious autumn camping out in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. Despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s disapproval with their politics and under the New York City Police Department’s anxious eye, the occupiers captured public attention in a remarkably peaceful way. Regrouping for the winter, they will take stock of what they have achieved so far and the work that remains.

Though the occupation was initially ignored by mainstream media after it began in September, the protest movement attracted favorable attention both nationwide and internationally. Arrests flared in other U.S. cities, notably Oakland, California, where protesters tried to recall a famous general strike of 1946 by marching to the port. But unlike in Oakland, and Portland, Oregon, the encampment at Wall Street survived the constant threat of being rousted by police action on the one hand and cold weather on the other without death, disaster or dishonor.

An official order to clear Zuccotti Park was squelched in October by the intervention of local city council members and other politicians—some of whom, not coincidentally, plan to run for office in the 2012 elections. Many local labor unions support the movement, suggesting that alliances may be possible across “police and firefighter” lines. This kind of alliance recently won a referendum in Ohio overturning a state law that would have limited public unions’ collective bargaining rights.

In Zuccotti Park protesters formed a tiny city within the city. Food, clothing and books were donated and handed out. Electric generators that were confiscated by the fire department were returned after volunteer attorneys complained on the protesters’ behalf. For public safety the occupiers relied on volunteer security guards who used nonviolent techniques to confront, isolate and occasionally expel troublemakers. Women and transgender protesters could, if they wished, sleep in separate tents. Before November 15, few people were arrested by the police for allegedly committing sexual or physical assault.

New Yorkers quickly became accustomed to this remarkably peaceful microcosm of urban life. On sunny weekend afternoons tourists thronged Zuccotti Park and its celebrated neighbors, the World Trade Center site on one side and the financial district on the other. I have never seen Lower Manhattan look more vibrant.

But Occupy Wall Street was only one of Manhattan’s tourist attractions. To put support for the movement’s proposed reforms in a realistic perspective it is suggestive to look at other sites in the city and the desires that they apparently fulfill.

Nearly 50 million men and women are visiting New York City this year. Nearly 50,000 of them ran in the recent New York City Marathon sponsored by ING Bank .

While protesters occupied Zuccotti Park in tents, the average price of a hotel room in New York City is $250 and the hotel occupancy rate is over 80 percent.

The average rent for a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment is $3,000 to $5,000 a month and the vacancy rate is practically nil . Close to Zuccotti Park you can rent a small studio apartment in Tribeca Tower for $3,395 .

Uptown, on the shopping mile of Fifth Avenue, young people line up in front of the Apple Store to buy an Iphone 4S. After registering online they arrive at the store, pick up a number and wait to be called into the store by an Apple employee. A few blocks down the street, other people line up to enter the Abercrombie & Fitch store though the young man working as a door guard tells me no special event or sale is going on. In front of Hollister, another chain clothing store, more people are waiting to enter the store which is now, a young employee says, is at its maximum capacity.

We can’t ignore that while most people are preoccupied with paying for a home and an education, they are also shopping for fun. Occupy Wall Street has won many supporters, but to win the hearts and minds of most Americans the movement must go on at least metaphorically to occupy Fifth Avenue as well.

Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living, Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities, Point of Purchase, and most recently Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. You can read her previous posts here.

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