Protests Hit Wall Street... and New York Can Handle It

After strolling down last week to check out the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, I was reminded of New York City's amazing ability to absorb people and energy.

I walked past Fulton and other nearby streets and saw no sign of the demonstrators I had read so much about. I saw only the typical life of lower Manhattan, with its business people, shoppers, and residents. It was not until I got right on top of Zuccotti Park, the focal point, that I saw the crowds, the signs, the sleeping bags, the free kitchen, and the press.

In recent days, Atlanta, Oakland and some other cities have sparred with protestors. Perhaps these troubles may be partially to do with the difficulty these more suburban cities have with handling crowds. Admittedly Oakland is not usually thought of as suburban, but it does not have New York City's intense infrastructure.

All this brought to mind a presentation I saw more than ten years ago from Alex Garvin, the urban planner who helped lead the effort for New York City to host the Olympics. After talking about the various Olympic facilities that would be spread out over the city and the hordes of international visitors the games would attract, Garvin made the point that a crowded, dense city like New York City would handle the big influx of people far better than a less crowded city. It was a paradox. The best place to put a lot of people is someplace that already has a lot of people.

In comparison, Atlanta, when it hosted the Olympics in 1996, was tied in knots by traffic jams and logistic difficulties, despite their elaborate system of satellite parking lots and shuttle buses.

That wouldn't happen to New York City, Garvin said. Its transit system had plenty of capacity, particularly off-peak when most of the events would be scheduled, to handle the expected half-million daily Olympic-goers. The city's other systems of food, water, and trash were similarly well-equipped to handle a few more people.

You can see this dynamic playing out with the Wall Street demonstrations. Although there has been some needed discussion about the ramifications of the demonstrations taking place in a public private park, the protests have not disrupted life much in Lower Manhattan, much less the city as a whole. It's pertinent that most of the demonstrators did not arrive by cars or trucks that need to be housed somewhere. The demonstrators arrived by transit, and will most likely leave by transit too.

Whatever the significance of the Wall Street demonstrations and their effect on national policy, we can take comfort that our city can handle them just fine.