Wednesday, November 16, 2011

From Zuccotti Park to Sixth Avenue

Almost two months to the day, and Occupy Wall Street may be sputtering to a close as strangely as it began.

Back in September, it took a couple of days before most of the mainstream media picked up on the fact that somebody was trying to hold a demonstration in Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park. And then once the TV cameras arrived, it seemed every 1960's radical and their grandchildren wanted a slice of the hippie drum-and-chant action. Juxtaposed ironically enough with the staid, blue-suited businesspeople who slave away in the concrete canyons of the Financial District.

It made for great street theater. For a while, at least. And then New York's ubiquitous homeless people started moving in, blending with the rapidly-grungifying occupiers and enjoying free gourmet feasts from liberal-leaning restaurateurs.

Then New York's famed con-artists and pickpockets started moving in, stealing everything from cots to $5,000 Apple laptops.

And then the tide began to turn. What once was just the latest tourist attraction, in a city known for letting anybody speak their mind regardless of validity, became just obnoxious. Not only to the so-called One Percenters who work Downtown, but to everyday New Yorkers, growing increasingly irritated that their hard-earned money was going to prop up security and sanitation for protesters who'd come from across the country to celebrate slovenly bohemianism.

It wasn't even like these new bohemians ever even managed to come up with a purpose statement, or a list of demands, or even a rallying cry. No logo, no tagline, no clear and consistent message. Besides the grunge and the noise and the filth, that is. And the stolen $5,000 laptop. From a group of people claiming poverty.

Now they're threatening to stage a massive protest near Wall Street on Thursday, then spreading out via the Subway to the outer boroughs.  They've already inconvenienced plenty of Manhattanites and ruined what little success they had at wooing native support.  So now they think going into the poor and middle-class ethnic enclaves of the city's first-generation immigrants - people who've chosen to live in America, because it's better than where they came from - will help their cause?

The Only Thing Occupiers Have Taught Me

Honestly, about the only thing I've learned from Occupy Wall Street is that New Yorkers actually do now call the former Liberty Park by it's post-9/11 name, Zuccotti Park. Back when I worked in Lower Manhattan, the black-granite strip of a park near the World Trade Center hardly even had a name. It was where people ate lunch and waited for commuter buses after work, but it had no real identity.

While doing some research about the World Trade Center's reconstruction last year, I learned that the park's name had changed, but I thought it was something like what the city did with Sixth Avenue during the 1940's.  In those days, most of Sixth Avenue, which runs uptown from Greenwich Village to Central Park, was dangerous and dirty, so New York's leaders thought a quick way to try and enhance its image would be to re-name it "Avenue of the Americas." 

Yeah... what you're thinking is what most New Yorkers thought - and still think - about "Avenue of the Americas."  So the grandiose nomenclature never caught on.  Sixth Avenue is still Sixth Avenue.  Not helping the new name's fate was the fact that its honoree, the Organization of American States, remains an association of which few people have heard, and about which even fewer people care.

The fact that Sixth Avenue has metamorphosed into a steel and glass canyon flanked by block after block of corporate skyscrapers has nothing to do with the street's unfortunate name change.

So now Liberty Park is called Zuccotti Park.  But this name change isn't another Sixth Avenue re-branding attempt.  John Zuccotti was a former planning commissioner for New York City, and is currently a co-chairman of Brookfield Office Properties, a real estate management company.  Brookfield owns the black metal tower, One Liberty Plaza, which used to be the headquarters for US Steel, and is the park's northern neighbor.

Brookfield got to re-name the park after cleaning it up after the attack on the World Trade Center because, well, they own it.  US Steel originally created the park in the 1960's so they could build a taller skyscraper than would have otherwise been allowed on the site, and Brookfield got the park when they took control of the office building.

Which is why they could authorize Mayor Michael Bloomberg to clear out the protesters' squatter camp after nearly two months of indulging their petulant drain on city resources, not to mention the neighborhood's patience.

Occupiers Have Damaged True Reform Efforts

I probably won't get a lot of push-back from right-wingers when I say that I'm more open-minded about socioeconomic concerns than many conservatives. But when I say that the only thing I learned from Occupy Wall Street was that the name Zuccotti Park had really caught-on amongst New Yorkers, that's a severe indictment against what was supposed to be an earth-shaking movement.

A movement to do what, we don't know.

Which may have just made all of the other problems we think Occupy Wall Street wanted to highlight that much less legitimate in the eyes of people who, as the Occupiers claimed, control the purse strings in our country.

In other words, the real issues of persistently high unemployment, declining living standards for America's middle class, taxpayer-funded bailouts to companies with refreshed profit margins, the offshoring of jobs, and ridiculously high executive compensation standards may have become, by the Occupiers' quixoticness, much more marginalized in the eyes of people who didn't believe these were problems to begin with.

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of ominous statistics purportedly proving the shrinking of our middle class continues, with a report in today's New York Times of a new study showing how low-income and high-income areas have mushroomed in over 100 of America's largest urban areas.  Both poor and rich folk appear to be taking over neighborhoods that in 1970 were considered predominantly middle-class.

Many conservatives scoff at the notion that our middle class is shrinking, preferring to consider the numbers liberal politicians and the media use to make such claims as statistical aberrations or manipulations to bias the masses against the rich.  My question to these nay-sayers is this:  what harm is it to monitor and bolster capitalism's efforts at preserving our middle class, since we all know our middle class has been the economic engine that's fueled America for the past sixty years?

Besides, the news in this newest report isn't all bad for wealth-driven conservatives.  Indeed, the suggestion that rich neighborhoods are growing could be interpreted as an economic success story.  At least if you ignore the additional detail that those burgeoning rich neighborhoods aren't densely populated with rich people.  At least not as densely populated as the also-growing low-income neighborhoods.

This means that not only has the middle class experienced the reallocation of some within its former ranks "to the East Side," as the iconic theme song from the 1970's sitcom, The Jeffersons, phrases it.  This also means that many people who used to be middle class are neither that any more, nor rich.

They're poor.

Which means we could be moving towards a two-class economic system in the United States.  A scenario that does not bode well for economic growth, or even economic stability.

Unless you think it's a good thing that we'll soon have lots more poor people whose only hope is to somehow bounce back into the middle class.

Anyway, should conservatives who balk at claims our middle class is in decline automatically assume that the possibility refutes their robust version of free-market capitalism?  What are two of the things I join with conservatives in complaining about?  Big government and government waste, right?  And to the extent these two suffocators of middle class vibrancy are the result not of conservative policy, but liberal, shouldn't we be working hard to prove that the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park need to see reality for what it is?

Our economic reality isn't all corporate greed and inhumanity: two things anybody not on the Koch brothers' payroll knows are real problems.  But our problems include plain old government coddling of overpaid union labor, government complicity in generational poverty, unreasonable government regulations which restrict small business profitability, and government intransigence in adopting an equitable tax code.

Making Zuccotti Park Mean Something

Let's face it:  the rich hardly ever win in the long term against the poor, because there are always more disgruntled poor people than rich ones.  The benefit of having a majority of the population enjoying the middle class is that rich autocrats have a pacified buffer between themselves and the low-rung rabble.

So even if the One Percenters have no altruistic interests in preserving the middle class, they should find one key benefit in making sure you and I don't slip into poverty.

In a capitalist society, we save their necks.

Yes, these past two months in Zuccotti Park has been a complete waste of time and taxpayer resources.  And conservatives can be excused for not engaging in dialog with the Occupiers because we've not known who they want us to talk with, and even what they would want to talk about.  That's their fault.

But it's our fault if we just mock them and assume the resentment and indignation they've demonstrated is pure piffle and liberalistic extravagance.  If as I suspect, their invasion of the outer boroughs tomorrow meets with the outrage and contempt of even more ordinary New Yorkers, the Occupy Wall Street movement will likely crumble in a heap of ignominy.

Instead of letting these protesters limp back home even more bitter than they were two months ago, however, Republicans should take the initiative to rally around grievances that our middle class has already identified as being near and dear to our collectively conservative hearts.  In our presidential candidacy debates, let's focus on issues and solutions, not soundbites and personalities.  In our public dialog, let's remind America why big government can't fix our problems. And let's put Democrats in Washington on the defensive when it comes to claiming valid compromises for cutting government spending, reducing our debt, and removing trivial business regulations.

Zuccotti Park is owned by a multi-national corporation with Fortune 100 clients.  Brookfield has bent over backwards to let Occupy Wall Street run its erstwhile course.  That's a pretty good message about capitalism being more than just ruthless profits, isn't it?

Why aren't we claiming that message for the country?

Maybe conservatives should Occupy Avenue of the Americas.

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