Pavilion protest boils over, but Harvest sizzles


By Jefferson Siegel

Too many chefs tried to spoil the stew at last Thursday’s Harvest in the Square in Union Square.

Activists wearing chef hats and banging on pots and pans and led by performance artist-preacher Reverend Billy formed a conga line of protest as they circled around the 13th Annual Harvest in the Square. The Harvest, organized by the Union Square Partnership business improvement district, is an opportunity to sample the signature dishes, wines and beers of dozens of area restaurants and food merchants.

According to the BID, proceeds from the event benefit the Partnership’s neighborhood programs, including “ongoing beautification efforts in Union Square Park.”

The protesters claim the opposite is happening, as construction proceeds on Union Square’s north-end plaza and plans continue for siting a private restaurant in the park’s historic pavilion.

After circling the fenced-off area enclosing the Harvest while chanting, “The park, the park, the park is no diner; we don’t need no restaurant, say no to Danny Meyer,” the crowd paused on the park’s western edge as Reverend Billy — whose real name is Bill Talen — mounted a bench. Hoisting a white megaphone, Billy spent several minutes preaching against privatization to the diners within.

As the protesters filled the park’s path to accompany Billy by banging on cooking ware, a supervising police officer asked Billy to keep moving. Billy took a few steps, mounted another bench and twice yelled, “Keep the public parks public,” before he was arrested.

Several minutes later, another protester was arrested after throwing a partially crumpled flier over the fence to diners inside the Harvest. Both men were taken to the 13th Precinct, issued tickets and released. 

There was a second course of protest almost an hour later. Mark Reed, of the group Union Square Not for Sale.org, had earlier bought a ticket to the Harvest and now lingered inside. When the band took a break, Reed mounted the stage, took a live microphone and began talking. 

“Danny Meyer plans to turn the pavilion building at the north end of this park — a public building built with public money intended for public use — into a private restaurant,” Reed said calmly.

It slowly registered on diners that this was not a typical announcement. Several began booing as Reed pointed out that “the area around Union Square has the highest density of restaurants in the entire city.” A minute later, the mic was cut. Reed was asked to leave and did so peacefully. 

In another recent development, Billy’s wife, Savitri D, said she is being sued by the Union Square Partnership. The suit stems from a Web site with a Web address for the 14th St.-Union Square BID that appeared in June. In reality, it was a fake Web site, but with real-looking BID logos and denouncing the park’s use for private enterprise. 

Savitri even appeared in a video clip on the Web site, identifying herself as Jennifer Falk, the Union Square Partnership’s executive director. 

“I think it’s interesting the Union Square Partnership would use the dues of its membership to file a frivolous lawsuit against a citizen who’s engaging in free speech,” Savitri said on Sunday. She took the site down in early July after being accused of copyright infringement for imitation of the “look and feel” of the Partnership’s brands. Savitri is being represented by lawyers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

Both sides will meet with a judge in court on Nov. 6.

Meanwhile, despite the protesters’ best efforts to put a damper on it, Harvest in the Square simply “sizzled,” according to the Union Square Partnership. The event featured not just one, but nine, former “Top Chef” contestants. The reality TV show stars put their palates to work, sampling culinary creations from 40 of the area’s top restaurants. Tickets for the food-tasting confab were $115 in advance and $125 at the door. V.I.P. tickets allowing early entry went for $400.

According to a spokesperson, although the Partnership was compiling a final tally on the number of participants at Harvest and the total of funds raised, these figures were not available by press time. The Partnership also did not respond to a request for comment on Reverend Billy’s protest by press time.