Parking Day NYC Isn't Activism, It's Unintentional Performance Art
photos: Matthew McDermott
Park(ing) Day has been a much-covered event here on TreeHugger for the past several years, and for good reason: It's undeniably good fun to reclaim a bit of pavement used every other day of the week save for a Friday in mid-September, roll out the sod and create your own little bit of park in the city. But for some reason this year, glancing at the map of events in New York City, things seemed a bit thin on the ground on first impression and I wondered what was the real point of Parking Day (sorry organizers, I'm not putting those parentheses around it anymore...). So last Friday September 17th, I spent the afternoon visiting several parking spots and trying to suss out an answer to that question.
I started far uptown (at least far uptown from where I live in the East Village and a world apart) where the folks from Time's Up! staged a one spot protest in support of making New York's community gardens permanent. New rules governing them allow for them to be developed by the city, and even if the city has said on many occasions that it has no intention of bulldozing any of them, permanency, or something near to it like 50 year permanency, seems a no-brainer to me--especially consider that the Bloomberg administration has been very strongly supportive of environmental initiatives by and large.
Apparently before I arrived there were some cops who didn't get the notice that Parking Day is a sanctioned and permitted event, and tried to get Time's Up! to pull up the sod and pack it in. But paperwork was produced and the protest went on, even though there was a police cruiser present the entire time.
I was told people passing by the corner of East 79th Street and Fifth Avenue were generally supportive, but at least when I was there, there really wasn't that much pedestrian traffic. Perhaps the fact that walking alongside Central Park and outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just a sod chunk throw away is more pleasant, that diverted traffic some.
In any case, no new insight into Parking Day here. But in the most literal sense this particular event really took the idea of reclaiming pavement with grass to heart.
Moving downtown towards Grand Central Station I intended to check out another group asking for more parkland in Midtown, which is particularly lacking in this regards (with the exception of the exceptional Bryant Park). But by the time I rolled around either the group wasn't there or had packed up for the day, even though it was only about 1pm. Hmm. Strike one.
Further downtown in Chelsea I sat for a while in Democracy Now!'s spot, checking out an impromptu cardboard TV set displaying one of the unsung heroes of environmentalism: Greenpeace Canada's Mike Hudema. There was also a bench with headphones playing ocean sounds. The importance of the all Parking Day began to set in, sitting there on a bench in the middle of Sixth Avenue listen to ocean sounds on headphones while looking at a cardboard television displaying a picture of somebody I know only through Facebook and my writing on TreeHugger but have never actually met in person. The fact that the 'grass' Democracy Now laid out was really olive green cloth only added to that strangeness.
Strike two came when I accompanied another Parking Day enthusiast over to Broadway to visit another set up, only to find out that there too we were either too early, too late, or the group didn't quite make it out from underneath the debris from the two tornadoes which ripped through the outer boroughs the day before.
Slightly despondent, continuing downtown I quickly arrived at Fifth Ave and 13th Street where students from The New School really embraced the Parking Day spirit and had plenty of pamphlets on various environmental initiatives laid out, plus free food to woo passersby.
It was here, looking at a chrysanthemum placed on the corner of green carpeting, that the real meaning of Parking Day really hit me.
Parking Day, despite all that's written about it theorizing about reclaiming public space, creating urban environments that aren't centered around cars, and creating more people-focused cities in general, isn't really about that--even if it's not not about that, all those things are true.
More than activism, Parking Day NYC is one vast performance art piece with an environmental veneer enacted in general by non-artists (I did read the old cast of Saved By The Bell was participating...) presented over the space of the city.
At its most basic level of impact, where it really has the most success, is simply getting people to stop and look. It interrupts the day for anyone who is nearby. By presenting the unusual in a usual context it allows a split second of consideration, of reflection--even if that reflection is more along the lines of "what the heck are you doing sitting in the street" than something more topically on point. In that moment there is the chance for change. Granted, for most people that change probably doesn't happen, but the possibility exists and in that moment anything is possible.
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More on Parking Day:
Take Back the Streets! It's PARK(ing) Day
PARK(ing) Day: Rethinking Urban Infrastructure Around the World
StreetFilms Covers PARK(ing) Day in NYC and San Francisco