Twenty five years reclaiming NYC: Times Up! Environmental Organization
October 22, 2012
By Shannon Ayala
There is a long row of bicycles, valet parked against the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Inside, just passed the doors is a long table where volunteers check names off the RSVP list, give people a beer token and a membership card to fill out. In the large, dark space are a hundred people, a rolling film projected on the wall of highlights and ironic pulpy images. Video of Esperanza Garden being dozed with the giant paper meche coqui still in it; people cycling through a nocturnal Times Square as seen through a concave camera lens. There is an auction table with some indescribable paintings and next to it are a couple of bicycles including the original energy bike from Occupy Wall Street. Likewise there is an OWS-ESWG banner up from Earth Day 2012, which was held at the BP on Houston Street, quoting Obama flaunting his support of the oil and gas industry. There are laminated posters sequentially placed at different pillars of the Brewery: they list Times Up!’s achievements and landmarks throughout 25 years.
It is summer 2012, the 25th anniversary of Times Up! Environmental Organization.
As if not to bore all the people standing about, speeches are brief and informal. Bill Di Paola, the group’s founder, asks how many people are volunteers and nearly everyone raises their hand and cheers. He only makes a few other remarks, acknowledging the community involvement beyond the volunteers, in actions, and acknowledging people who were central to very early actions such as making educational posters and chalking body outlines (for people hit by cars) on the street.
Bill Di Paola was interviewed for this profile some weeks later at the soon-to-be MoRUS Museum (of reclaimed urban spaces), which in some ways seems to be a Times Up! museum. Across from a community garden, the modest sized C-Squat on Avenue C and 11th Street in the East Village is covered in front with wooden boards; inside there are young people painting and putting it together. In the lower level there is a timeline about community garden activism painted on a wall and a cycling activism timeline on the steps. There is Occupy debris leaning against a wall. But not much else.
“It was pretty obvious to me when I was getting out of college that corporations were using mass media to control people to be consumers, to buy things and I was much more concerned about a community way of lifestyle,” says Di Paola. He says he never did drugs, drank Coca Cola or smoked cigarettes, etc. because he “didn’t want to be a sucker to corporations.”
He tried out some campaigns that didn’t go anywhere. Then it one day dawned on him that instead of trying to rescue people first, who were voluntarily given to material culture, it made more sense to advocate a lifestyle that put the environment first, which he says suffers from that culture anyway, the animals especially. Early inspirations were Earth First! and Green Peace though he hadn’t met them in person. Then he read a book.
Sea Shepard: My Fight for Whales & Seals by Paul Watson, published in 1981, inspired Di Paola. Sea Shepard is known as taking on similar marine campaigns as Greenpeace using direct action but as acting more radically. Though Paul Watson, who co-founded Greenpeace in 1972, has claimed to use strictly -though maybe borderline- nonviolent tactics, he splintered off to take more direct direct action. He is quoted by National Geographic as saying, “Greenpeace has a fast ship that could stop the whalers cold. I can’t see watching whales being tortured and dying in abject agony while I ‘bear witness.’”
In the 2000s when Times Up! would become famous as a bicycle advocacy group, one could have easily thought of them in a similar NYC cycling parallel whereas Transportation Alternatives (founded in 1973) would be to Times Up! what Greenpeace was to Sea Shepherd, (even if they weren’t exactly sinking ships in the harbor).
However, the group has always transcended these dichotomies or definition of scale. This is because alongside being a direct action group, it has been from the outset very big on simply promoting a lifestyle and consumer choices, taking the edge off the radical aesthetic while still being edgy.
“We took on a structure of not really complaining about environmental issues,” says Di Paola; “Times Up! is more about showing a positive solution and doing the solution: getting people on bicycles, planting trees and community gardens, just doing the act of workshops, welding workshops, showing people how to use tools to be more independent.”
Mahatma Gandhi’s saying, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” is the underlining strategy, he says, including the use of fun ideas to inspire people.
“If you can’t dance it’s not a revolution,” says Dr. Ben Shepard in his anniversary speech, roughly echoing the phrase attributed to anarchist, Emma Goldman.
“As too many groups are instilling a sense of guilt,” added one of the early Times Up! people, Wendy Brewer, who founded Green Map System in 1992, “Times Up! has always been about getting involved.”
A group bicycle ride -a clown ride, nude ride or fountain ride, say- operates with the intention of demonstrating its own fun to make a statement. “It’s one thing if you are one lone cyclist… you don’t have that possibility to make a statement. Unless of course you’re me and you have a great bike,” says Nadette Stasa, Peace Ride and Peace Museum NY organizer, in a phone interview.
Stasa’s peace bike is decorated on both ends with flowers, peace images, a spin wheel and a large horn. As the Critical Mass ride gathers on the last Friday of July 2012, Stasa, in a black polka dot dress and red matching helmet, Occupy sticker slapped on the back, makes a point to shake the hands of all twenty five people, memorize everyone’s name and introduce every person to the group (which is not all Times Up!). She doesn’t tell anyone to join Times Up! but she mentions what it is and where the Peace Ride meets (by the Gandhi statue).
“It’s a community I really feel at home in,” she says.
“It’s very organic, very horizontal organizing,” says Keegan Stephan, wearing a Times Up! visor and Reclaim the Streets t-shirt, over a table in his shared apartment, bicycles on the wall behind him, above the Williamsburg space, which is almost literally beneath the Williamsburg Bridge.
Stephan, from Anchorage Alaska, is part of what Stasa would call the “new generation,” out of early, middle and new. But his level of involvement is deep. Besides literally living at a Times Up! space, he’s part of meetings, helps organize bike rides, has been arrested in Times Up! actions and runs, or co-runs, the bike co-op downstairs.
Out back, where the Bridge can be seen just over the fence, is something of an open shed, or small outdoor warehouse, with dozens of bikes lined up, mostly hanging from planks above: “The first thing I did,” that he took over from someone else, “with Times Up! was recycle these bikes called Mamacharis,” Mother Chariots, (because they’re used by busy moms in Japan to carry children and groceries). “They’re just really good commuter bikes so we get them crazy cheap,” 400 at a time, freighted; “we fix them up and sell them as cheap as possible just to get more people on bikes.”
That’s Stephan’s bike-recycling laboratory but the rest of the space is used as an office and for workshops: the Times Up! that doesn’t so much get in the press, that teaches people how to repair their bikes. Stephan knows the schedule off the top of his head, including the Women and Trans (only) workshop. People don’t have to be political to go to workshops, in fact, “four really awesome kids come by,” maybe twelve years old who show up every week, among others.
Though one could easily mistake Stephan as full time staff, he is actually just not a nine-to-fiver. He has various sources of income both as an artist and from gigs like the farmers market and from bike-mapping streets.
There has never been staff. “There’s professors and there’s artists and there’s mechanics and whatever,” says Monica Hunken, walking her bike into Jackson Square Park in the north West Village. Hunken herself is “a performer, play write, activist and teacher,” according to her website.
Nadette Stasa, who is a longtime West Village-turned-Hells Kitchen resident, from Cambridge Mass and became involved with Times Up! in 2003, takes up this subject of volunteerism, characterizing it as a possible strength.
She refers to a TED talk by Dan Pink called the Surprising Science of Motivation in which Pink argues that “autonomy, mastery and purpose” is a greater motivator than “carrots and sticks.” “The secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishment,” he says, “but that unseen intrinsic drive, the drive to do things for their own sake, the drive to do things because they matter.” Stasa’s recollection of the talk involves “being appreciated” and “creativity.”
The portion of interview with Monica Hunken in Jackson Square Park follows a brief journey into the Meatpacking District, in which she scoped out the scene for an action against the Spectra Pipeline. Though it would be an action conducted by various environmental groups altogether, Times Up! had never been limited to just bikes and gardens.
The first campaign that Di Paola and friends took on was creating posters and spreading them around the City. They were sort of like punk rock album covers, using ironic 1950s images and words that seemed cut out of magazines. The idea was to show people how their every day choices impacted the environment, which was a rare thing at the time Di Paola says.
“People had no idea that the choices they make every day affects something,” he said. According to the group’s website, the posters highlighted: rainforest destruction, sustainable urban design, the harmful effects of pesticides, animal testing, renewable energy, air quality and water pollution. The posters were spread all over the City, wheat pasted up on walls. “That’s when you had more rights to free speech in this city and corporations didn’t own every piece of land,” he says.
This is quite the Times Up!ish statement, as reclaiming an urban environment might just be what has been the definitive theme of Times Up! over time. The very vocal and upbeat Dr. Ben Shepard, a professor at CUNY, has written books indirectly and directly on the theme, for example. That there would be any broadly resonant politics over public space would be epitomized through the Occupy Movement at large, as Stasa notes, but it’s a hallmark of Times Up!.
“If we’re going to create a space for democracy, for alternative ideas… we have to have civil society. And that’s not going to happen in the market [or] government. That happens with regular people getting together in the public commons,” says Shepard, recalling a talk he heard by Ed Chambers at the University of Chicago where he pursued a masters in social work. When he came to NYC in 1997, Giuliani was scrapping Times Square of its adult character, a thing Shepard now sees as a pattern of interesting things being “shut down” by the city, especially in movement building settings.
The group was rooted, after all in the Lower East Side (including the East Village) where resentment of gentrification particularly manifested just after the group formed, in 1988 when a curfew on Tompkins Square Park triggered a historic riot. “When people got together,” says Shepard, “and organized in that space the city wanted to shut it down.”
Though LES became a higher end neighborhood anyway, it continued to be a home to bohemia and radicalism, as well as what Di Paola says is the city’s highest concentrations of community gardens and possibly bike lanes.
The group grounded itself in squats around the LES for meetings and to host videos and workshops. It made allies including Cooper Union and the HUB Station (Hudson Urban Bicycles-then on E. 3rd St.), eventually Wetlands Preserve (the environmentalist nightclub in TriBeCa), as well as squatters.
One important squat the group worked at was ABC No Rio, self-described on its website as being known as an “oppositional culture” space, on Rivington Street. ABC No Rio, like parts of Saint Marks Place, keeps the punk aesthetic alive in that neighborhood. Its front is awash in a myriad of images: a graffiti-style banner, a mural of red spiky fish and an undersea flower-sprouting tower of ABC building blocks with arms holding a bicycle in swirly blue water, a wall of loose flyers, a large poster of a cyclist half covered by a different poster, a dungeon-like gate and a doorway topped with found-looking steel materials. As the Tenement Museum blog tells it, “In the early ’90s, No Rio became a haven for squatters and disenchanted punk rockers. Grassroots activists like Food Not Bombs began meeting there, and concerts were held in the dingy, cramped basement around exposed beams.”
But the space on Houston Street was the “biggest” and most “well known” for being occupied by the group, says Di Paola. Houston, the major two-way crosstown street that divides the Village areas from the Lower East Side (proper), SOHO and TriBeCa, happened to be “one of the more dangerous streets for bicycles,” Di Paola says.
“We realized that some of our friends were dying on Houston Street, right around 1st and Avenue A and then when we looked into it we said oh my god, there’s like a lot of people dying at this intersection.” This was how the Street Memorial Project began in 1996. Though Charles Komanoff would deny it, Di Paola credits him for the idea at the anniversary party.
Komanoff is a Harvard grad, financial district consultant whose environmental career spans the modern environmental movement as an author, economist and volunteer president of Transportation Alternatives (86-92) and advocate of many things such as congestion pricing in the later 2000s. In 1990 Cyclist Magazine named him Bicyclist of the Year. Wired Magazine, in 2010, wrote a profile on him called, “The Man Who Could Unsnarl Manhattan Traffic.” In the mid-nineties he co-founded Right of Way, which worked with Times Up! on the Memorial Project, which presented statistics and located sites where car accidents killed pedestrians and cyclists and memorialized those spots with stencils that looked like body out-lines, vigils and something called memorial rides.
Group rides of various themes and locations had come about to encourage people to ride in subtle or more pronounced ways. Nonpolluting transportation had become the focus materially since the early nineties with research and support of alternative transportation designs, working with the HUB Station to bring about pedicabs (voluntarily picking people up at bars), support of the Green Apple Map (of Green Map System), which is still updated, greenway rides, street parties and “traffic calming rides” in Central Park.
The world famous park in the middle of Manhattan had been readjusted to limit car use throughout the history of cars. The term “traffic calming” seems to have emerged in the mid-eighties from large efforts in Europe and described by a San Francisco urban planning group (SPUR) as centered around “an idea that is part engineering and part behavioral psychology.” The idea is to calm the streets, says Di Paola. “We would ride in front of the cars, slowing them down, around the loop road, which wasn’t designed for cars.” A decade later the speed limit on the loop fell from 30 mph to 25 along with more severe limitations to car use elsewhere and park hours were augmented. However, Times Up! has often called for no cars in the Park at all, which isn’t new: In 1961, in the age of urban renewal and Jane Jacobs, Paul and Percival Goodman famously published an essay, “Banning Cars From Manhattan.” But the group focused on Central Park, where, in 1994, they began monthly Moonlight Rides.
On the first Friday of a cool August night between 10 and 11 p.m., in 2012, about eighty cyclists gather by the Maine Monument where Columbus Circle meets Central Park. If subversive at all, it doesn’t attract characters the way other Times Up!-related events do: it seems to be composed almost entirely of ordinary, everyday people, including immigrants such as from Europe and Asia, and it’s promoted by bike shops and Times Out New York; at least one person brought their kids.
Red and white lights blink and bells ding in cheer as the group slowly rolls into the park. The leading people stop and wait for everyone to stop close, and then closer; a woman shouts to the crowd about how the ride was started in 1994 by a group called Times Up! and how the ride works.
Because there are so many people, it doesn’t go very fast: it passes by scattered pedestrians in a long tail, blinking and sometimes dinging like storybook fairies in a dark, quiet forest. At every turn a volunteer waits and directs the rest of the tail. For one to two hours, it will swirl and crisscross throughout the Park, ding under bridges, tightly circle repeatedly around a circular joint of paths and stop at some landmarks; it stops just north of the Great Lawn, where the Midtown city-scape shines beyond the darkness, and the Angels of the Waters fountain at Bethesda Terrace where almost everyone packs inside the elegant ceiling-lit space. “Can you take my picture?” a man from Europe asks.
“It was a moving community event,” says Di Paola, standing by a staircase in which each step is a different color and represents a different year in Times Up! cycling history, in the MoRUS Museum. The step he is referencing is for 1995. “We had tons of rides at night, from dance rides, to park rides,” he says. “It was kind of an underground cult, mostly started in the East Village.”
Then there was the ride that shook the world. “We were looking into this thing that was started in California… I went over there and interviewed [Chris Carlson, known as a founder, in San Francisco] myself and it was called the Critical Mass.” He explains that there were no leaders, no preconceived route. Indeed the only structure seems to be simply to meet at a spot at a certain time at the last Friday of the month. Di Paola sees NYC as being perfect for this anonymous and potentially massive ride because of what he calls the city’s relative lack of safety for cyclists.
“It had a little trouble at first. It took years to get it off the ground,” in NYC, he said.
“In the beginning when I used to go, there would be maybe fifty people in the summer and in the winter there was about ten of us,” says Barbara Ross, a Times Up! press coordinator for over fifteen years, on an LES balcony behind a building. “But then by 2000 it was getting larger and then by 2003 it was Bike Summer and it really blew up” into the thousands, she says. Bike Summer, she explains is hosted by a different city every year.
Though Times Up! did not control the ride, Di Paola says they “started adding some color,” bringing their Sound Bike (a decorated bike with a boom box) and hosting after-parties. “It started increasing. All the sudden thousands of people are coming on this ride. You could see the change immediately.” In that time, CM was hardly considered more subversive than the Moonlight Ride: the NYPD escorted the cyclists on motorcycles and there were no permits required for these mass moving gatherings. And, Di Paola says, “it blended the messengers with regular commuters, hipsters,” or, he corrects himself, “they became hipsters later.” Di Paola believes that CM helped dramatically increase cycling as a norm in NYC at the time. He points to year 2003-step, which indicates that CM averaged 2000 people.
Unlike Moonlight, however, Critical Mass would become quite politicized, even brutal, and totally explode. There may have been some inkling of forewarning during the last years of the Giuliani Administration, when a vast culture of community gardens that went back thirty years would suddenly be challenged by the government.