By James Graham
Before it was Zuccotti Park, it was Liberty Plaza Park. The old name reflected the realities of Manhattan real estate, binding the park by association to the building that stands just north of it: One Liberty Plaza, a 54-story tower that necessitated the park’s very existence. The Park formerly known as Liberty Plaza, surfaced in granite and shaded by honey locusts, was a result of New York’s idiosyncratic zoning laws, in particular a provision dating to 1961. Known in bureaucratic parlance as a POPS, a “privately owned public space” — a phrase that blithely overlooks the inherent contradictions masked by its cheerful acronym — Liberty Plaza Park came into being as a tradeoff, a civic amenity provided in exchange for more generous zoning on the remainder of the property. From the start, the three-quarter-acre park’s sole reason for existence was to allow One Liberty Plaza’s architects to design a taller tower, rising at nearly an acre of columnless interior per floor. That those designers were Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM), the preeminent architects of corporate capitalism in postwar America, is one indication that the longer history of the site — beyond the two months of occupation that gave it an international audience, and beyond whatever happens next, now that the barricades surrounding the park have been removed — provides a glimpse into why the park proves such potentially compelling territory for a rethinking of the public realm.
Before the tower was One Liberty Plaza, it was U.S. Steel. Again, the restoration of the older name unravels something of its role in the urban economy — this time, signaling the financial origins that brought the building into being. The United States Steel Corporation was the world’s first billion-dollar conglomerate, once known on the New York Stock Exchange simply as “The Corporation” in deference to the vastness of J. Pierpont Morgan’s interests, virtually co-extensive with industrial capitalism itself.