As the Occupy Wall Street protests lurch into their third week, the movement appears to be gaining steam. What began in New York's Zuccotti Park has spread to cities across the country, and has become emboldened by well-publicized arrests and celebrity supporters. But the group that says it's fighting against banks and corporations on behalf of the "99 percent" of America's "have-nots" may have caught Main Street in the crossfire -- with their continued presence causing big headaches for nearby small businesses.
"Usually, there are hundreds and hundreds of people in this area," said Stacey Tzortzatos, owner of Panini & Co. Breads, which sits adjacent to Zuccotti Park. "People do not want to have to pass through the crowd or walk through the park to come to my business -- so they go elsewhere."
At Zuccotti Park, just south of the World Trade Center site, hundreds have set up camp and show few signs of dispersing. The ground is littered with cardboard signs, awaiting new revolutionaries to pick them up and join the movement. There are information tables, newsies calling out to the crowd and a congregation of musicians beating bongo drums. Bystanders gather around the park's perimeter, attempting to navigate the crowded sidewalks and police barricades, but to no avail -- they are compelled to stop and read or just stare.
Zuccotti Park is more of a granite-clad pedestrian plaza than a park. On a normal weekday, pre-protest, the area would be crowded with "suits" eating their lunches or drinking their coffees, courtesy of the nearby food trucks, sandwich shops and pizzerias. Today, it's difficult to navigate the area moving north to south, as pedestrians and onlookers encounter human roadblocks once they hit the Liberty Street and Broadway intersection. Double-decker tour buses roll by the park to allow patrons to snap pictures of a "real New York City protest," while clogging crosswalks and slowing traffic. These days, the sidewalks opposite the park are empty except for camera crews setting up their shots, and the few people walking by have their backs to the businesses, their eyes fixed on the growing commotion across the street.
For Tzortzatos, the "occupation" has resulted not just in a loss in business. "I've had a lot of damage from the protesters," she said. "I've had to put a $200 lock on my bathroom because they come in here and try to bathe. The sink fell down to the ground, cracked open, pulled the plumbing out of the wall and caused a flood. It's a no-win situation. If I open the restroom for one, 30 people line up outside, disrupting my business."
A manager at the nearby Essex World Cafe -- who asked to remain anonymous -- shared similar complaints. Referring to three young men waiting at the end of the counter, he explained, "They want to use the toilet, the phones, we give them free water and free ice. They sit here and don't buy anything, but they recharge their phone batteries with our plugs, and I tell them, 'Hey, if you guys are going to come, I need to do some business here. We are suffering, too!' And then they start with their own words, going against you." The three young men eventually left the cafe, each carrying large containers the staff had filled with hot and cold water for them.
This manager also cited damages, including graffiti on his restroom walls. "For eight and a half years, there was nothing on those walls," he said. "Now it says 'Viva la Revolucion' everywhere. Yes, 'Viva la Revolucion,' but don't write it on my toilet. I let you use my facilities without being a customer and this is what I get?"
Still, he finds it hard to turn them away. "I cannot say anything against them because most of them have problems of their own," he said, noting he shares some similar concerns about the issues the protestors have put front and center.
Other nearby business owners seem, at best, generally indifferent to the demonstrations, with the loss in any business made up by the influx of journalists and other onlookers. "Business is the same," said Ricky Martinez, manning the counter at Steve's Pizza. "We haven't seen much increase other than the reporters and television people and a few more tourists."
Despite the anger that has risen from such acts of vandalism and carelessness, some local businesses are quietly rooting for the protestors -- or at least their cause.
"These young people don't want to be here," said one T-shirt vendor, stationed only feet away from the outskirts of the camps. "They don't want to sit through the rain and cold. They are just looking for results, for change. They just want what we all want -- money and security."