Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


December 2002/January 2003
A More Perfect Union

By Martin Rowe


In early November 2002, a low-key ceremony was held outside my office on 14th Street at Union Square in Manhattan to celebrate the near-completion of the renovation and expansion of Union Square Park. A motley group of city and state officials, union members, a jazz band, a local school choir, and various interested parties (including me) gathered to hear the New York City Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe, tell us that although the park was not quite finished (75 percent) and a little late (three months) and somewhat over budget (a couple of million dollars), the fact that the renovation project had got as far as it had and the park looked as good as it did sent a message to terrorists all over the world that New Yorkers weren’t giving up on their city anytime soon.

Hyperbole, to be sure. But this is New York—and after what’s happened to our city in the last 15 months, New Yorkers, indigenous or not, are entitled to talk a little large. On September 11, 2001 the spot where we now celebrated offered a clear view downtown to the Twin Towers as they burned and fell. In the following weeks, it became a venue for hundreds of posters of loved ones and then thousands of candles that illuminated vigils and spontaneous ceremonies calling for peace, justice, and a hint of hope. On the anniversary of the attacks, it was the place where you could write your thoughts for all to see on scraps of paper that were pinned on boards that stretched across the lower part of the park. And throughout all of this, the City dug up the road (about five times) and put down tiles and expanded the garden dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, while the tree that had seen the garden it shaded ripped out, abandoned, and then landscaped and replanted, lost its leaves and grew them again and then shone a bright autumnal yellow as the dedication ceremony I attended ran its course.

To the dismay of the attendees at the ceremony, Mr. Benepe told us that the Square was named not after the Union soldiers who gathered nearby before marching off to fight the Confederacy, nor even the union members who held rallies and demonstrated for safer working conditions, women’s suffrage, or civil rights. It was called Union Square, he told us, because 14th Street unites with Broadway—a prosaic reason that failed to dim the lyricism of all the speakers who recalled Union Square’s history as a place where people met to change things. The Commissioner noted that all of the statues in the Park—Gandhi, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the Marquis de Lafayette—memorialized people who had fought (with sword or ideas) for freedom, in the face of imperial hostility or the violence of their own people. Union Square, agreed the speakers, represented the root of democracy—a space where people could gather to exercise that most precious of rights: the right to believe another world is possible.

Union Square is my beacon of hope in these dark days. In the course of a year when liberty itself has seemed under threat, students have gathered here to protest the war in Iraq, and Palestinians and Israelis have separately voiced their claims to their respective states. There have been protests against police brutality and for freedom in Tibet; I have heard America the Beautiful and Give Peace a Chance, and the square has filled with music from Mitzvah tanks, Hari Krishnas, Mennonite choirs, the Salvation Army band, and the chants of Buddhist monks. The Greenmarket has continued to sell its produce from local farmers four days a week, the kids have enjoyed their playground and the dogs their dog run, and the skateboarders have found new ramps to fly off—all expressions of the plurality of life in this, my shaken, deeply loved city.

The Old Man of Africa
At the end of August, my partner, Mia MacDonald, and I went to South Africa to attend the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg. The Summit itself was a sad affair: a conference on the environment that from the outset seemed an oversized and extended negotiation session of the World Trade Organization. The U.S. was (justifiably) vilified for its failure to agree to minimum improvements in various environmental targets and the North was castigated by the South for its refusal to lower tariffs to make Southern goods cheaper in Northern markets. As with many of these large summits, however, the truly interesting work was being done elsewhere—and various trade shows and NGOs profiled innovative micro-enterprises and technologies that might perhaps bypass government inertia and point-scoring to make a real difference.

What struck both Mia and me most forcibly, however, was South Africa itself. The Conference was extremely well run and the people friendly and inquisitive. Moreover, it was obvious to us that, in spite of the huge difficulties facing the country (epidemics of crime and AIDS), this was a place of enormous possibilities—possibilities that for us were embodied in just one person.

The Old Man is what almost everyone calls him now. His hair is white and he walks with a cane, yet, when Nelson Mandela came to a reception sponsored by the World Conservation Union to announce a World Parks Congress in Durban in September 2003, we could see that he had lost neither his wit nor his fierce intelligence. “Big crowds don’t fool me,” he told the packed audience after the applause had died down. “You came to see what an old man without a job looks like.” There was laughter. “Well, this is it,” he said. He continued by informing us that the parks of Africa were a mixed legacy—beautiful and necessary to protect, yes, but also the creation of white colonialists who had deprived the majority indigenous population of their land, setting up an artificial barrier between the poor and the resources on which they depended. It was a speech in line with current thinking (the kind that dominated the Summit) that nature is nothing—indeed, will come to nothing—unless the needs of people who live within it are made paramount. The right of animals not to be hunted to extinction and the value of preserving nature because it is valuable in itself are not the way conservation is talked about these days, and the Old Man was, as always, within the current of reasonable thinking.

His is a powerful, if depressing, argument for animal activists such as myself, who look for a language that at least grants nonhuman animals a place in the dialogue. Primatologist Jane Goodall came to WSSD to announce the Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP), a project organized by the United Nations Environment Program , UNESCO, and the World Wildlife Fund to gather information about the Great Apes—chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans—to find more effective ways to combat their imminent extinction. It’s a noble mission, but the funds pledged are paltry, and GRASP offers no concrete proposals on how to stop the bushmeat trade, logging industry, population pressures, pastoralization of forests, and diseases caught from tourists, which threaten to make our nearest relatives in the wild extinct within 30 years.

The Great Apes now live in islands of forest that are, effectively, their prisons. After the Conference, Mia and I visited another island off the coast of Cape Town to see another jail, one where Mandela broke rocks and planned for the future with other political prisoners for 18 of the 27 years he was a prisoner. In some ways, Robben Island is a microcosm of South Africa itself—starkly beautiful, a home for wildlife (penguins and birds), for many years a political prison and a home for pariahs (it was once a leper colony). Our guide around the prison and the tiny cells where Mandela and others lived was a former prisoner himself. Remarkably, although not untypically, he expressed no bitterness at his treatment at the hands of the whites and maintained a staunch belief in the multiethnic future of his country. He knew, as Mandela knew, that the prison, like South Africa, cannot be a museum; like the country itself, it is a living testament to the possibility of change for the better—a change marked by broken rocks and sweat and an absolute focus on a different future. In spite of the compromises and corruptions that attend South Africa today, the peril of all democracies, Mandela’s life offers a reason to believe that a way forward that protects people and the planet is possible. In the end, I feel the Old Man is saying, we have to connect, reach out, and bring together. In the end, no country, like no man, is an island; and no country can only be a park. I myself dare to hope that other species are part of that vision.

Looking Forward From Square One
On the way out to Robben Island, our boat showed a video of the history of the place and, by extension, of South Africa itself. It climaxed in the elections of 1994, when the pictures of Archbishop Desmond Tutu literally jumping for joy at being able to vote brought tears to my eyes. I heard an echo of 911—also an election day—and what welled up in me was my belief that the world must unite around the right to be free to express one’s opinion, gather together in one place, and strive to reach Lincoln’s elusive goal of a more perfect union. Tutu’s joy took me back to Union Square and strengthened my conviction that if Tutu and Walter Sisulu and Mandela and our guide did not give up hope, if Gandhi and Washington and Lincoln and Lafayette refused to let despair destroy their vision, that if from the ashes of a wretched and crushing regime a country could rise to be the hope for a continent, then those of us who will never spend years in prison or be assassinated have no excuse for despair, inertia, or fear to bring about the change we want.

We are now on the verge of war. Our environment is suffering, our economy is in shambles, our city is in debt, and the federal administration is in the hands of the rich and powerful. It was ever thus. Yet, bought up though it may be, stolen though it has been, hijacked and battered and disregarded by the majority as it is, the public square is worth preserving, refurbishing, and celebrating, because the statues I see every day in Union Square Park and the Old Man with no job challenge me to think of what would happen if I and others gave up. They tell me to keep on quarrying, paving, planting my seeds, and waiting for my season. They tell me that, like Union Square’s renovation itself, the belief that change is possible may be costly and late in coming. But, they tell me, it’s worth fighting for—and, these days, that might the squarest deal on offer.

Martin Rowe is the founding editor of Satya and the publisher of Lantern Books ( He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.