Posted November 21st 2011 at 9:09 am by
in Perspectives on Current Events

The Common Ground of Occupy Boston

01_Credit Shirley Ng_Main Image

Photo by Shirley Ng.

Although the members of Occupy Boston continue to lack one common goal, they share the common ground of Dewey Park Square. This presents a unique opportunity to observe how people actually appropriate public space. How are personal ideals woven into the occupied area that often reveals immediate concerns and pragmatic solutions? I am currently teaching a course on public space at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, and took advantage of the situation to prompt students to document the spontaneous uses on site at Dewey Park Square, located at the southern tip of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a series of linear open spaces created after the Big Dig.

From the first day of the class, we have explored the relationship between how people use a space, which is often different from how planners, developers and designers intended the space to be used; as stated by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life: We must first analyze its manipulation by users who are not its makers.

The students went on site, took photos, sketched and interviewed. From their work, five characteristics stood out:

Appropriation: The most evident feature is the occupation itself, and how it is an appropriation  of the space, putting a fine point on the concept that “participation is ownership.”

Shaun’s diagram illustrates how occupiers have changed the overall circulation of the space to work for the occupation:

02-1_Appropriation_credit Shaun Doscher

Image by Shaun Doscher.

Amanda’s interview matrix illustrates a sample of the social component that has participated in the creation of the occupied site:

02-2_Appropriation_credit AmandaSchiffer

Image by Amanda Schiffer. See image at full size.

Temporal / ephemeral: The word occupation has an implicit timeline; no one knows exactly how long it will last. The uncertainty evident in the contrast with surrounding brick and mortar buildings:

03-1_Ephemeral_Credit KelseyBridge

Image by Kelsey Bridge.

The ephemeral is also paralleled in sketches:

03-2_Ephemeral_credit Caitlin Pandolph- JT Breda - Shirley Ng

Images (left to right) by Caitlin Pandolph, JT Breda, Shirley Ng. See images at full size.

Spatial negotiations: While under occupation, the space continues to be used by people who are not occupiers; photos show space sharing with the weekly farmers’ market.

04_Spatial Negotiations_credit Ashley Bressette JT Breada

Photos by Ashley Bressette and JT Breada.

Social interactions: Even as people are eager to talk with anyone willing, the occupation has a main meeting square.

05_Social Ineractions_credit Ashley Bressette

Image by Ashley Bressette.

A microcosm: The familiar organization of a city emerges and the occupation is, in fact, a city within a city. If you study Sophie’s plan, clear circulation leads the way and useful public-use tents are established at corners and other prominent locations. The Logistics and Information Tents mark one of the thresholds into the occupied zone. Other tent-uses include a Library next to the Spirituality and Meditation tent, along one of the main cross streets. The most pragmatic zones are across from the community garden: kitchen, dishwashing, “free” market and legal. Next to the public meeting space you can find what you need to organize: Free school, Poster Making and Direct Action – Organizing Marches. The resident tents fill in the rest of Tent City.

06_Microcosm_credit SophieBoyce

Image by Sophie Boyce.

06_Microcosm-photo Credit Sophie Boyce

Photo by Sophie Boyce.

After reviewing all the material documented by the students, I went to the occupation myself. Walking through appropriated Dewey Square Park, the occupiers seem restless and on the constant brink of engagement: they want to talk. Their surroundings, similar to other occupied zones around the country, similarly dubbed “Tent Cities” are also on the brink of either becoming or receding; the coming winter makes the settlement’s direction increasingly difficult to predict. In one of his poignantly crafted cities, Italo Calvino is faced with a similar problem:

“Whether Armilla is like this because it is unfinished or because it has been demolished, whether the cause is some enchantment or only a whim, I do not know. The fact remains that it has no walls, no ceilings, no floors: it has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be.” (Invisible Cities, page 49)

While a different image than our Tent City, the author’s third “Thin City” also titter-totters on a fence, along an uncertain timeline.

Perhaps it is telling that Italo Calvino’s famed Invisible Cities so easily comes to mind. In the book, Marco Polo enchants Kublai Khan with stories of cities from the conqueror’s expansive empire. Whether the stories are of fantastical cities or simply facets of one – Venice — is up to the reader. Like in the book, these tent cities are all unique, and yet the same. They are Cities of Desire, Cities of Signs, Cities and Eyes. One day in class, we drew some of these cities too.

07_Cities and Desire credit Tyler Moriarty

Cities and Desire by Tyler Moriarty.

07_Cities and Eyes credit Amanda Schiffer

Cities and Eyes by Amanda Schiffer.

07_Cities and Signs credit JT Breda

Cities and Signs by JT Breda.

Post by Claudia Paraschiv.

2 responses to “The Common Ground of Occupy Boston”

  1. Amy says:

    Claudia, this was a really enlightening post for me. I’ve been to Occupy but hadn’t looked closely at the configuration, despite many formative years of training as an architect. The camp is indeed very organized and I think it was a great exercise to send your students out to uncover the organization that lies beneath what “looks like” chaos to the outside observer. The same order often underlies all informal settlements, but to outsiders, it is not readily apparent.

    I think it’s interesting to think about how both the physical and social space that Occupy owns have been criticized as “chaotic” by outsiders. Democracy is actually a disorganized but organized process and I think Occupy really demonstrates that in both form and function.

  2. claudia says:

    Thanks for the comment, Amy. I was also surprised by the strong, simple organization overlaid on Dewey Square. When viewed in plan, it seems neither chaotic nor utopian, but simply functional, even traditional in form.