Perseverance Park is tiny—0.2 acres. But big things have been happening there. If you’re a Central New Yorker, you know that it is the site of Occupy Syracuse, part of the international Occupy Wall Street movement (unless you’ve been living under a rock).
The protests have transformed Syracuse and the park since they began one month ago. On one level, Occupy Syracuse has shaken the Salt City out of its complacency and apathy. On another level, it has unexpectedly reintroduced some peace and stability into Perseverance Park.
On October 2, the first protestor set up a chair in Perseverance Park with the goal of getting arrested. He thought Chase bank owned the space, and knew an arrest would bring great publicity to the occupy movement. No such luck. Turns out Perseverance Park is public land. The space was created after the E.W. Edwards Department Store was torn down, and was nothing but a “hole in the ground,” according to a 1994 Post-Standard column.
Politicians quibbled for years about how to renovate the space, but in 1993, it became part of Mayor Tom Young’s $10 million downtown improvement plan. A New York-city based firm designed the current space with a stage, benches, and hedges, and people and businesses bought bricks to help raise money. But the park was still associated more with pigeons, and their droppings, than downtown revitalization. Now, about a dozen tents occupy the park, and 2,153 people have “liked” the Occupy Syracuse facebook page.
The protests mark the first time in a long time Syracuse residents have united about anything besides football and basketball, says Mark Blum, who has a law practice in Manlius. He stares into the distance for five seconds, trying to think of an event in Syracuse history to compare the protests with. Blum remembers Kathleen Rumpf, who (among other protest stunts) locked herself in a cage outside the Public Safety Building for a week in 1992 to protest conditions in jails. “That’s the closest we’ve ever come,” says Blum, who came to Syracuse 25 years ago to attend Syracuse University College of Law. He doesn’t camp in Perseverance Park, but joins the occupiers a few times a week.
Although the interest in Occupy Syracuse is certainly a shift for Syracuse residents, a disconnect remains. People honk in support as they drive by, and drop off donations such as sleeping bags and clothes, but the number of occupiers is small. Passersby and facebook fans may agree with the cause, but they aren’t yet willing to devote themselves to the cause. “It’s a matter of getting off your butt in the cold weather and being a part of something you’re not sure is going to accomplish anything,” Blum says.
A teenager wearing a cookie monster mask walks by, yelling about unemployed hippies. “This is the garbage we deal with,” he says.
“Did someone just call a lawyer unemployed?” says Andy DelliColli as he emerges from behind a blue tarp onto the sidewalk. DelliColli, 30, was the second person to join the original protestor, who he refers to as “occupus prime.”
Despite the occasional rowdy teenager, DelliColli says the occupiers have transformed Perseverance Park for the better. As a Syracuse native, he always thought of the space as a “catchall for indigents and riffraff,” including many homeless people. And, there was the steady stream of people going on and off the bus. A few Christians with signs preached what they believed. Although our friendly neighborhood cookie monster may see the occupiers as bums, DelliColli says law enforcement have had a different reaction. “We’ve had police officers come up to us and say, ‘We’ve never seen this corner with so little riffraff,” DelliColli says.
Inside the main tent, there’s proof of his words: The camp appears to operate like a well-oiled machine. Two kids scribble “We are the 99%” on cardboard signs and a kitchen crew member prepares food. DelliColli points out the library, a bookcase packed with donated reading material, a smoke detector, and a carbon monoxide detector. A sign of “Camp Rules” hangs in the entrance. Rule #6: “If you don’t know, ask.” Rule #7: “If you do know, tell.”
Maybe a dozen tents and a few protest marches are what we needed to get a little peace, happiness, and conversation in downtown Syracuse.