Occupy Denver: Civic Center Conservancy says park can't sustain habitation (photos)
Friday marked a stark contrast between the polite Civic Center Park of yesterday and its new protest version 2.0. In the center of the park, the Civic Center Conservancy held a belated birthday party for the park's greatest supporter, former Denver Mayor Robert Speer. And in the front of the park, protesters created handmade cardboard encumbrances and filled trees with caution tape, kayaks and a rotating fan.
This is not what public parks were made for, says conservancy executive director Lindy Eichenbaum Lent.
Although the Conservancy functions to promote and support the park, it's difficult in the winter, when fewer people want to brave the cold to use it. In the summer, the conservancy hosts Civic Center Eats Twice weekly, and the group continues to keep the the park active throughout the slower winter season. The recent revival of Civic Center Eats for one day to celebrate Speer was met with a handful of requests to continue a similar presence in the park through the cold weather.
"You have to get creative and incentivize people to leave the warm comfort of their offices," Eichenbaum Lent says. "We were really pleased with the turnout, and people requested more days like this in the winter. We don't know what the frequency would be, but we'd like to explore the idea."
The only thing that complicates this plan are the between 50 and 100 people who live and protest in the park on a regular basis. Although Eichenbaum Lent says Civic Center Park is and always will be a popular venue for freedom of speech, it was never intended to support the toll that the protester's living has taken on its structures and facilities.
"Urban parks are not built for long-term habitation," Eichenbaum Lent says. " What started out as an unintended consequence of their living there has turned into a negative consequence for the park. Denver voters authorized $9.5 million to restore CCP over the past few years, and to see that investment threatened with sanitation issues and wear and tear is heartbreaking."
A sample of graffiti inside the park. Courtesy of Lindy Eichenbaum Lent.
The bill for any damage to the park will eventually be footed by the taxpayers, Eichembaum Lent stresses, pointing out that it's a fact few people realize. In the past month -- Occupy Denver's third spent downtown -- Public Works officials have visited the area several times on clean-up missions, most recently to remove sizable portions of graffiti from the park's podiums and ballustrades. Although the area is currently home to a Port-A-Potty, protesters have in the past used the restroom inside of the park after local outlets close at night.
"We have to be protective of the public's investment," Eichenbaum Lent says. "Now there's legitimate concern: Are we creating a precedent saying we're OK with people sleeping on the streets in the cold? The city has repeatedly acted against the creation of a homeless encampment in the public sphere, just a free city like the one they're trying to create now."
It is important to note that the Conservancy doesn't work directly with Occupy Denver and instead supports the park while official outlets, such as Public Works and the Denver Police Department, enforce city ordinances.
Right now, Public Works and protesters are playing the waiting game while the city decides how to react to the recent construction of the largest series of encumbrances outside of the tents the group maintained in its infancy. Last week, protesters received warning notices to remove the items or find them removed by the city, but Public Works later backed down temporarily after Police Chief Robert White visited the area.
In the meantime, the Civic Center Conservancy receives complaints about the area and its disrepair on a daily basis. "People felt like they had just gotten their parks back, and I think the community would like to see the park become a venue for everyone again," Eichenbaum lent says. "They understand the role of the First Amendment, and they understand it's a free speech location, but they don't feels safe or comfortable walking in their beloved local institution anymore. They want it cleaned out."
When other organizations rent the park, they coordinate with the city on a process that includes a permit, a damage deposit and regulations concerning security, sanitation and curfew. Because Occupy Denver arose outside of this practice, it is not currently required to obey it. As time goes on, Eichenbaum Lent says she has noticed dissension about the park even inside the occupation, where people disagree on how to treat the space.
"Having been down there earlier today, there's quote a lot of dissension even within the people who are occupying," she says. "It's not a homogenous group with homogenous opinions, and there are a lot of different elements down there. They are unsure what to do about the park they are occupying."
Because Civic Center is located at the convergence of the government, commercial and community realm in downtown Denver, its location gives the state a lot of community power. This makes it a prime spot for political protest, and this should encouraged, says Eichenbaum Lent -- but it should also be properly facilitated.
"When the state has something to celebrate like a football victory, we go to Civic Center," she says. "When we have something to mourn like the Columbine tragedy, we go to Civic Center. It's no surprise that demonstrations want to go to Civic Center. We have a long history with that and will continue to have a long future, but the challenge is that historically those demonstrations have ended with the park curfew. Why should this one be different?"
Photos are on the next page.