Taking Freedom to the Streets

Gift to the neighborhood: a restored gazebo for Ericksen Park
Photo by Debbie Lester

The otherwise law-abiding neighbors of the YES! office are holding a picnic in a nearby park this evening. Earlier, one neighbor brought in picnic tables, which she anchored to the ground with cables. Others cleared invasive brambles from the pond. A few restored an old gazebo, where local musicians are playing for their neighbors.

It appears to be a quiet neighborhood gathering, but it's actually a revolution. A street that runs parallel to the island's main highway dead-ends in this tiny park. The city of Bainbridge Island, and many business owners, would like the street punched through this oasis of green, with its small pond, a few trees, red-winged blackbirds and lawn. That would give the island another north-south route for the convenience of cars, trucks, and those same business owners.

Neighbors think not. Many walk or bike on this quiet street to get to the ferry or downtown shops, and the park is one of the few public green spots in what is becoming a sea of parking lots, apartments, banks, storefronts, and offices.

Photo by Debbie Lester
Photo by Debbie Lester. More photos.

So these neighbors launched their revolution; instead of banners, there are cut-outs of cows to decorate the lawn. Instead of barricades, there's an unauthorized gazebo. (The city's large “stop work” sign arrived hours after the gazebo was a fait accompli.)

This is the spirit that infuses this issue of YES! People are claiming spaces where they can live as free people—essentially creating outposts of a different sort of world.

For some, it's about something as basic as a roof over their heads. The residents of Umoja Village in Miami built a shantytown on vacant land in response to the city's desperate shortage of affordable housing.

For others, it's about reclaiming spaces for community and culture. Dutch neighbors dragged couches into the street to claim living space that had been overtaken by cars, and they launched the traffic calming movement. A cello player brought his musical meditation practice to Seattle streets, exchanging Bach for coins and conviviality.

Photo by Debbie Lester
Sam Weinstock on guitar and Nathaniel Beuchler on keyboards at the 2nd Annual Ericksen Neighborhood Picnic at Ericksen Park.
Photo by Debbie Lester.

These are people who don't just ask for change, they are the change. They are people who refuse to give in to pessimism.

In much of modern society, we are losing the belief that we have choices (the kind that matter—not the kind found on a Wal-Mart shelf). The inevitability of corporate globalization and the specter of a terrorist attack are trotted out again and again to convince us to accept draconian “security” measures, degraded public spaces, and diminished lives.

The spirit that shines through many of these stories challenges that pessimism. By liberating exterior spaces, these people are also freeing their minds and hearts and opening up the potential of human society for greatness.

This spirit is especially important now, as we face some of the most serious challenges ever to confront humankind. It may be the irreverent spirit of guerrilla gardeners and the courageous voices of pirate radio producers that help us shake off the hopelessness and lethargy of the Bush era. As we experience the empowerment that comes when we do things ourselves, we may discover that we can avert climate chaos, stop wars, rein in pretensions of empire, feed the children, and live lives of creativity and passion.

Sarah van Gelder wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is Executive Editor of YES! Magazine Photo of Sarah van Gelder
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