The Ephemera of Protests, Carefully Hoarded, Is Going to an Archive
The New York Times
November 28, 2009
By Colin Moynihan
More than 20 years ago a Lower East Side plumber turned environmental apostle named Bill DiPaola founded an activist group called Time’s Up and began organizing parties meant to publicize the dangers of acid rain, nuclear power and pesticides.
Mr. DiPaola spread word of the events with wheat paste and photocopied fliers, converting lampposts on Avenue B and St. Mark’s Place into billboards upon which to promote events like bike rides and Earth Day parades.
Over the years, Mr. DiPaola held on to those fliers. He also collected posters and communiqués from other local groups — many of them long vanished — that meshed with his conservationist agenda.
There were squatters who used sweat equity to make abandoned buildings habitable. There were the men and women who carted rubble from empty plots and then returned to plant trees and flowering shrubs. And there were groups like the Lower East Side Collective and Reclaim the Streets, that organized public spectacles, replete with fire breathers and stilt walkers, in an effort to provoke questions about ownership of public space.
Now the old fliers and other material, including correspondence, photographs and videotapes, are about to become part of a collection run by the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, which record labor history and radical politics, at New York University. In mid-November Mr. DiPaola signed an agreement to begin transferring items there.
“I call this the true history project,” he said recently as he stood in his Lower East Side apartment, where volunteers helped sift through the collection. “The body of work we saved shows a side of things that not everybody knows about.”
Tamiment seemed like a natural home for the items, Mr. DiPaola said, so he contacted Dr. Michael Nash, the director of the library, and offered to donate his collection. Dr. Nash said he quickly became interested in the Time’s Up material, which sheds light on issues and groups that helped shape the Lower East Side in the last quarter century.
“Time’s Up has, in many ways, defined the ways in which environmentalism challenges our economic, political, and social system that has been built around the automobile, private space, and policies that undermine our ecology,” Dr. Nash wrote in an e-mail message, adding: “Time’s Up has been at the center of a new generation of activist politics in New York.”
To a large degree those politics developed during territorial disputes in the 1980s and 1990s involving developers, city agencies and people living on the Lower East Side. In the days of nascent gentrification, the blocks below East 14th Street abounded with groups that were defiant, decentralized and often exuberantly anarchistic as they sought to lay claim to their surroundings.
In recent days the relics of those years have been crammed into Mr. DiPaola’s apartment, a fourth-floor walkup where handbills and colorful cloth patches emblazoned with logos and slogans hung from the walls. Pictures and stacks of videotapes spilled from cardboard boxes.
As Mr. DiPaola talked, one volunteer cut articles about the group from newspapers, while another labeled videotape that showed people protesting the sale of community gardens to developers by locking themselves to trees outside the Gold Street office of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
Nearby, Laetitia Bavière, an intern from the University of Toulouse, cataloged Time’s Up events calendars going back to 1995, when the group promoted a fledgling bike ride called the Wedge, which began each month at Astor Place.
These days Time’s Up is best known for pushing another monthly bike ride called Critical Mass, in which cyclists ride through the streets of Manhattan, often running red lights while deploring the primacy of the internal combustion engine and calling for cleaner modes of transport.
The police have responded by arresting hundreds of participants, seizing bikes and making a rule that groups of 50 or more cyclists must obtain a permit before riding together. That requirement was challenged in a federal lawsuit brought by, among others, the Five Borough Bicycle Club and the historian Kenneth T. Jackson, who are awaiting a decision.
A spokesman for the New York City Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on the archive.
The court battles brought Time’s Up recognition. But for years before that controversy, members of the group were involved in other causes and campaigns rooted in the rebellious culture of the Lower East Side, evidence of which was spread across tables and floors in Mr. DiPaola’s apartment.
There was a flier from 1995 for a protest on East 13th Street to oppose the eviction of squatters and a leaflet from 1999 urging people to “defend Esperanza,” a community garden on East Seventh Street that was bulldozed by the city to make way for luxury apartments. There was also a sign-up sheet from 2000 for people who wanted to be notified if the police moved to evict the Charas/El Bohio Community Center on East Ninth Street.
Other objects included zines, self-published newspapers, a program schedule for a pirate FM station called Steal This Radio and manifestos that extolled recycling. One of Mr. DiPaola’s favorites, “The Dumpster Diving Map of Lower Manhattan,” was created in 2001 by two people identified only as Deadbolt and Ariel, who charted spots to recover abandoned yet edible food.
“I knew that map was a classic as soon as I saw it,” Mr. DiPaola said. “I’ve been saving it for years.”
A few minutes later Mr. DiPaola was looking at video footage from 2002 that showed people flooding into a rubble strewn lot in Dumbo, then picking up trash and planting seeds as police officers wearing helmets and padded vests looked on.
The guerrilla-style garden did not last, he said, but he still considered the effort to be successful because the city and New York State created Brooklyn Bridge Park in that same spot a few years later.
“We’re always trying to give the city good ideas,” Mr. DiPaola said. “But sometimes we’re a little ahead of our time.”