The Three Rs of ‘BenchCulture’: Reuse-Relax-Rebel!

Mark Svetz: November 2017   

I have been enduring a period of back pain lately. These periods of inactivity leave me daydreaming much of time about the street. One of the ways I have enjoyed the street is from a bench, and lately I have been thinking about building a bench in our back yard. So far, I haven't overworked myself with these thoughts, but they did take me on a little flight of fantasy the other day. I recalled a sequence of events some 20 years ago in New York City which is stored in my experience bank as my “Bench Project.”
    Sarah and I were living in lower Manhattan.  There was a little park across the street from our building, between East 2nd Street and Houston, at Avenue C. It had been falling into disrepair for years. Then the last dilapidated bench was removed by the Parks Department. These benches were important to me. I thought of them as my “drawing room,” where I would sit and watch or swap stories with our neighbors. When the Parks Department truck hauled away that last bench, my relaxation was interrupted!
    There were conversations with NYC Parks Department. Various officials gave me many assurances that the park was slated for renovation. There were many arguments about benches in the meantime. Finally, there was a disclosure that the park was to become a City Green Space. This meant it was to be a garden to look at but never enter...and NEVER to sit in and relax! 

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  You see, a bench – or a stoop, or a joint compound bucket – has always been a beacon for me, a place to meet, talk with, make plans with or simply enjoy the comings and goings of my neighbors. When I learned what the city had planned for this little park, I felt betrayed. If I had been able to ‘fast-forward’ about 20 years, I might have anticipated the Occupy Movement, and what the parks were to them: A rough and tumble back bench, where could dialogue and ‘shadow’ our government. No wonder NYC wanted parks no one could enter!
    As I seethed, an idea occurred to me. The streets were full of discarded construction materials awaiting pick up by the Sanitation Department. I decided to build a bench! I went out with our hand truck and scrounged boards for the job. I ended up with a great bench. If you were to look at it from the end, it was a lopsided X, with one of the upper arms serving as the seat, the other was the back, and the two lower arms of the X were the legs. It was very stylish, and I was delighted the next morning when I left our building and there was a man sleeping on it.

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    It was a wonderful feeling, but it didn’t last long. Later that day, I came around the corner and there were two men tossing my bench – not to mention my neighbor’s bed!  – into the back of a Parks Department truck. I was seriously bummed. I knew the city would not accept the benches with open arms, but I have enough faith in inertia to have thought my bench would last a few months. It was back to scrounging through the trash to find more lumber.
    I just want to tell you how wonderful NYC is, when it comes to finding almost anything you need in the street. One morning, as an example, I was walking to work at Cooper Square, about 7-10 blocks from our Avenue C apartment, and I saw a really new futon on top of some trash cans. I called Sarah to get the hand truck and meet me on E. 7th Street. We brought home a nice futon, which we slept on until my mother died a few years ago. This ‘Bench Project’ is also a tribute to the wonderful, unofficial recycling/reuse program that goes on in the city.
    Eventually, I found some folding wooden chairs which I was able to modify and put a plank across the seats, forming a cool, clunky bench. Stung by the fleeting triumph of my last bench, I decided to bolt this one to the sidewalk. I got some lead anchors, my drill, some brackets and bolts and went out into the street with my latest bench. I drilled holes and bolted the bench to the concrete, and felt good. Mindful of my nemeses in the Parks Department, I glued a sign to the bench: “Please Do Not Remove: This bench is for the enjoyment and relaxation of our neighbors.” Time would tell.
    Not much time, as it turned out. It might have been the very next day, but in any event, the second bench quickly went to way of the first. The third bench in this series took a while. I was able to find materials over the next month or two, but I wanted to figure out a way to make the triumph last longer. It was ironic that the Parks Department provided just the thing to satisfy my quest. Between the second and third bench, the city had completed this City Green Space, which, as promised, was a beautiful garden with a stout fence all around it, keeping me and my neighbors out.
    Now, when we moved to NYC, the first job I found was as a bike messenger, working for a small service called Portable People. I was hired by the owner, despite his concern about my age and inexperience, when I told him “I just rode my bike through the Rocky Mountains! I think I can handle Manhattan!” He laughed and said “All right. Come in tomorrow at 8 and I’ll set you up. Bring a big lock!” I bought this really big – and expensive – chain and padlock to lock my bike during deliveries. Now, I saw that I could use that big chain to lock my new bench to the stout fence around the Green Space!
    This time the bench lasted a couple weeks. People sat on my bench and drank coffee, talked, slept, made dates and probably cried over lost love! The back rest was even tagged! Nothing lasts forever, and my third bench went to way of the others eventually. The parks department used really big bolt cutters to cut my chain. My bench and my – very expensive! – chain and lock were gone. Bummer about the chain.
    

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There is a sidebar to this story. Quite some time later, Sarah and I were having a cup of coffee in one of the community gardens people made in vacant lots around Alphabet City (avenues A, B, C and D in Lower Manhattan). We were sitting on some rocks and saw my first bench nestled amongst some shrubbery! We sat on the bench and, I have to say, I have never enjoyed a cup of coffee more.
    Another time, we found my third bench, broken in the trash. I’m not sure how these benches ended up where they did. Neighborhood connections being what they are, I assumed somebody in the Parks Department salvaged my benches and gave them to friends in the neighborhood. The really nice thing about this third bench – this is the one that got tagged, remember? – is that the back was intact, and I still have that board in my bicycle shed here in Willimantic, graffiti and all!
    I didn’t get to make another bench. I had a lot of fun, however, and in my mind, all this served to give at least one bench for the relaxation and revolutionary potential of the neighborhood. Did I mention is was a very stylish bench? A job well done, as I look back.
    I think I’ll use that tagged board in the bench for our back yard.