Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What OWS Has Done for NYC and Vice Versa

Occupy Wall Street from the start showed a genius for branding worthy of the best of Madison Avenue. The original call by Adbusters to bring people to Wall Street on September 17, 2011 combined the language of collective decision-making with a forceful image of an assembly target.

Picasso, Acrobat on a Ball
OWS, Ballerina on a Bull
The photo collage of a "Ballerina on a Bull" (at left; my title) echoes Pablo Picasso's 1905 "Acrobat on a Ball" (at right), with its juxtaposition of slender flexibility and awesome strength.The Picasso painting has been on display at the Prado in Madrid all of 2011, on loan from the Moscow State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.

My wife Alice and I were in Spain, celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary, on the day OWS came to NYC. The  Picasso was heavily advertised and it was a magnet that attracted us to the Prado. In early October I posted a comment on the painting's power. As we left the Prado we were engulfed in a crowd of protesting teachers, angry about the layoffs imposed on Spain by EU deficit-cutting strictures. One banner said (in English): “If you don’t like the cost of education, wait till you discover the cost of ignorance."

When we returned to NYC, we found Mayor Bloomberg expressing concern that the OWS encampment would cost the City economic growth because tourists would stop coming to New York. This would indeed be a valid fear if the OWS protest was violent or out of control, as in London. But the OWS occupation has been a peaceful protest in the spirit of Martin Luther King.

I wondered whether the OWS presence might actually be a little gift, a magnet, attracting tourists to visit rather than repelling them. In fact, tourists have been asking NYC tour buses to be sure to go by the location of the OWS camp. When the camp was there, tourists were getting out of the buses to walk around and take pictures. They often outnumbered visible protesters. Columbia Journalism student Judy Le's short documentary shows this, and includes the Mayor's statement of concern about the impact of OWS on tourism.  Take three minutes to watch this well-constructed and engaging "Occupy Tourism" video.

The photo below shows the OWS kitchen plan for three meals a day through November 13. Two days later, the NYPD cleared the area and the NY State judiciary ruled OWS was not to be allowed back. At midnight on December 31, about 500 protesters tried to re-occupy the park, and failed.

OWS kitchen schedule for November 7-13. (Photo by JTM)
The OWS story is not over. It continues to annoy the Mayor and NYPD Commissioner Kelly. Keeping track of protesters in the cell-phone and Twitter era must be a challenge. But the NYPD's capabilities in this area are second to none.

So far, I argue that OWS has had some value for NYC. The fact that an anti-Wall Street group was allowed to protest peacefully for many weeks is evidence that Wall Street coexists here with people of conscience.

The OWS has benefited as well. It was given a few weeks to remind people of the systemic risk-taking that brought down the world financial system. They came here because many of the riskiest (reckless) bets were placed  downtown. AIG has since sold its biggest buildings at 70 Pine and 72 Wall, but the credit default swaps were engineered in lower Manhattan.

The nation has benefited as the OWS impact has rippled outward, and its message echoed. It has helped turn around the public debate. The full-throated call for immediate deficit-cutting has abated, as it should, since it is counterproductive in the context of continuing high unemployment rates. Issues about American inequality of opportunity and lack of mobility for the  "99%" (another brilliant bit of branding) are being brought before the public more widely and aggressively than I can remember in my lifetime.  President Obama has been emboldened to make an overdue recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Meanwhile, on the specific concern about about the impact of OWS on tourism, the numbers coming in indicate that fear of tourist cancellations is unfounded. The Mayor has announced that his goal of exceeding 50 million tourists for the first time in 2011 will be easily surpassed and New York City for the third successive year is the Number 1 tourism destination in the United States. Jobs associated with tourism - the "leisure and hospitality" industry - have continued to rise rapidly in NYC through the final month of the OWS camp. In the table below, note how much faster these jobs have grown in NYC compared with the nation, the state, and other parts of the NYC metro area.

Tourism-Related Jobs (Leisure and Hospitality)
November 2011 over November 2010
Not Seasonally AdjustedChange  %
United States 1.9%
NY State 3.0%
NYC Metro Area-North NJ-Long Island  1.9%
Nassau-Suffolk (Long Island) -4.2%
NYC Division-White Plains-Wayne NJ 3.2%
Newark-Union NJ 2.9%
New York City 3.7%
Sources: BLS, Press Release, Dec. 15, 2011. NY Area Employment, Nov. 2011, Jan. 4, 2012. 

These numbers (and many others) are not consistent with a narrative of widespread cancellation of conventions or trips. Tourists do not seem to have been scared away by the OWS presence in September-November 2011. Rather, they have asked the tour operators to please bring them by so they can see for themselves and (in the words of a tourist in the Judy Le video) "be part of history in the making". In November the number of new tourism-related jobs in NYC compared with the same month a year earlier was close to 13,000, nearly twice as many as the equivalent increase one year ago.

So thank you, OWS and Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly, for keeping the protest basically  within nonviolent boundaries. The British (and Canadians and Australians) are still coming! To broaden the base of foreign tourists coming here - they are the biggest spenders and many are facing economic issues back home - we must focus on making it easier for more of them to get visas to make the trip.