Gathering in NYC … and Barker Park in Troy

The date: 4 Elul 5780/ד׳ אלול תש״פ

(Hey folks, I’m still hoping you will send me your videos of yourself blowing shofar or reading a poem or prayer, so I can share them here during Elul.) 


Shofar flashmob, recorded in New York City and maybe elsewhere, Sept 2011:

Back when we could still gather spontaneously and unmasked.  Do you find yourself looking at scenes like these (real or fictional) and worrying about how closely crowded people are?  About how much aerosol the shofar blowing is generating?  I do.  It’s surreal to have a window into what is so clearly, unambiguously the past.

Public art gatherings do continue into the present.  Here’s today’s WAMC review of the “Bobby Chair Barker Brigade” by Troy Record theater reviewer Bob Goepfert.  The “Bobby Chair Barker Brigade” is a group/movement which began a couple weeks ago by bringing chairs into the newly bench-less Barker Park in downtown Troy.  Since then it has transformed …

… into a social experiment as well. As word got out about dedicated groups sitting and assisting those in need inside Barker Park, the action started drawing attention from those outside the arts community. This resulted in getting donations from local businesses. Soon members of the Brigade were passing out bottles of water, snacks, hand sanitizers, masks, pieces of pizza and fresh vegetables to anyone who asked – no questions asked. Several Troy residents joined as sitters.

The movement also took on social responsibilities. Readily available are harm reduction services information such as the location and availability of homeless shelters and drug clinics, which may be helpful to some of those who populate Barker Park.

The members of Bobby’s Chair Brigade prefer to remain anonymous. They claim this is a grassroots action that is becoming bigger than first imagined. As it becomes tightly organized, goals have been defined. The goals start with wanting benches returned to Barker Park. Others have to do with helping with hygiene in the park in the form of more trash cans and cigarette disposal units.

There are also broad social and political demands. Members of the Brigade want more funds to be allocated to support harm reduction and mental health infrastructures. They also want more interventions in the park provided by trained mental health experts rather than by the police department. They believe free Narcan kits should be available.

Perhaps the most political demand concerns the Human Rights Commission, which is authorized in Chapter 51 in the Troy City Code. The group wants it to be activated and members appointed to serve on the Commission.  [I heartily agree that Troy needs this!]

The Bobby’s Chair Barker Brigade is experiencing how the passions stirred by art can become political.  However, they feel that the art experiment also is having positive human effects. They report that several occupants of Barker Park requested rakes, cleaning tools and plastic bags. They voluntarily cleaned the park and the City of Troy removed the bags of litter. There has even been a request to have access to a lawnmower….  

So why did the benches disappear from Barker Park?  Chris Churchill of the Times-Union wrote yesterday that according to Mayor Madden’s Office,  “Due to the small size of Barker Park and ongoing concerns over COVID-19, the benches were temporarily removed” on July 31. “The city will assess how best to utilize the park, including the reinstallation of benches, in consideration of public health protocols for social distancing during the pandemic.”

Really?  As Churchill asks, “If people can sit in relative proximity at restaurants, why can’t they do so at Barker Park? If people can sit in other parks, why not this one?”  

This is apparently a screenshot of the message Mayor Madden sent to the members of the Troy City Council, detailing the ways that drinking and drug use, noise and peeing in the park have been long-time problems for the neighbors.  Mayor Madden is at least clear that “Removing the benches is not a long term solution.  It merely interrupts unsafe and unsanitary behaviors.”

And indeed, by triggering ground-level outreach by community activism, that’s exactly what has happened.  Take a look at the Facebook pages of the Coalition for Barker Park and Equality for Troy.  There’s a lot going on right now in Barker Park.

With or without shofarot, a few people with a lot of energy can transform a public space.  A shofar flashmob is a great activity for a not-for-profit.  But providing mental health and addiction outreach, safe and affordable housing, and enough to eat should not be the responsibility only of citizen activists.  As a comunity, we are obligated to take formal responsibility for each other.  It’s one of the messages of the High Holy Days.