On a cold Manhattan day in February 2007 an odd looking preacher standing on the traffic island in the middle of Astor Place rubs his freezing hands and collects his thoughts. He shifts weight from foot to foot and absentmindedly gives Tony Rosenthal’s Alamo cube sculpture a spin. Bill Talen is an urban guerrilla, an activist actor whose public persona is the ranting preacher known as Reverend Billy. Talen loves Astor Place in the East Village because of its history and its familiarity with passionate controversy. And he hates what it has become.
A hundred years before Talen was born, the Astor Place Opera House was stage to a violent race riot. Anti-British feelings were running so high among New York’s Irish at the height of the potato famine that the appearance onstage of an Englishman in Macbeth generated such a violent protest in the streets that the police fired into the crowd. At least eighteen Americans died and hundreds were injured. Ten years later Abraham Lincoln so passionately delivered his Right Makes Might speech in the Great Hall of Cooper Union, on the east edge of Astor, that the enthusiastic audience carried him out on their shoulders, launching his easy path to the Presidency.
But on his strange planet of a traffic island, Talen is filled with twenty-first century fear and loathing. He visualizes Lincoln in an attempt to conjure his oratory, thinks about police violence and the innocent blood spilt on the altar of passionate dissent, and makes himself a promise, ‘If I can take a little of Abe’s erudition into today’s demonstration, I will triumph. And in triumph, I will launch myself not into the Presidency but into the Tombs.’
The object of Reverend Billy’s loathing is Manhattan’s top selling Starbucks, just across the meandering Sunday traffic from his island sanctuary. The Reverend has form when it comes to Starbucks. In truth, the Reverend has form when it comes to just about every global brand that destroyed a local diner or a neighbourhood store in the frenzy to climb another rung on the ladder to global domination.
The familiar streets of his neighbourhood do nothing to quiet Talen’s anxiety on the traffic island as he tugs at the $5 rubber clerical collar trying to pump warmth into his mischievous character. He still struggles to find confidence in his own performance despite the certainty of his beliefs.
Reverend Billy and his troupe, including the Life After Shopping Gospel Choir, have descended on this particular target more than once. And while the ‘buckheads’, as the Reverend Billy likes to call Starbucks customers, don’t know he is coming today, a shudder runs through the baristas and the manager is immediately put on high alert when they hear his name whispered at a table. They know Reverend Billy. They’ve read the corporate memo from headquarters in Seattle to all Starbucks outlets in New York City. Pinned on the notice board in the staff area the memo outlines the Reverend’s modus operandi:
Reverend Billy sits quietly at a table with devotees and then begins to chat up the customers. He works the crowd with an affirming theme but gradually turns on Starbucks. Towards the end, he’s shouting. Then the Reverend’s devotees hand around anti-Starbucks leaflets. After that he heads out the door. According to a store manager, he may stand on your tables.
Across Astor Place, Talen hears his Life After Shopping Gospel Choir sing This Town Ain’t no Supermall, gets the nod from one of his ‘Deacons’ through the Starbuck’s window, takes a breath of Abe Lincoln certainty and heads into battle. Sporting a huge white megaphone Reverend Billy soon implores pedestrians to ‘Push back against Starbucks. Amen. Children, Starbucks is a predatory company. We’re here, children, to support the Ethiopian coffee farmers and the impoverished coffee farmers around the world. Amen. Hallelujah. Changelujah,’ he shouts, ‘Changelujah, Changelujah. Starbucks is the devil. Amen. Hallelujah.’
It has been a good start and as momentum builds Talen forgets why he was nervous. He moves inside the store and, catching the gaze of startled sippers, declares:
I come bearing glad tidings: you are not really buckheads you’re just in hell, that’s all – Hell defined as sitting here fibrillating on minor drugs surrounded by fake avant-garde wallpaper. Is there anyone here, children, is there anyone here who is not SICK TO DEATH OF GOOD GRAPHICS?
Congregation members shout, ‘Amen’ as wide-eyed customers look on in bewilderment. Reverend Billy feels ‘Abe’ in his heart.
Look at these walls, these impossibly hip earth tones. Is it Jean-Michel Basquiat? Well, not…NOT QUITE. But he used to live in this neighbourhood! And this decor, doesn’t it look very Robert Rauschenberg? This looks like his photo-montage work. Oh, but no, it’s actually ALMOST RAUSCHENBERG BUT NOT QUITE! But his studio was right here on Bond Street. No this is LIKE the neighbourhood, it is IN the neighbourhood, but it is NOT the neighbourhood. It’s Starbucks, and where is that? Where is Starbucks? IT’S NO PLACE.
The store is taking on the atmosphere of a Baptist church in the Deep South with Gospellers calling, ‘hallelujah Brother.’
In fact, we are tourists in our own lives, there’s a disconnect. Our worlds have a barely discernable echo. We have the same relation to living real lives that these art-school Starbucks graphics have to the real artists who lived on this street. WE’RE IN THE FAKE CAFÉ AND WE CAN’T KNOW THE REAL COST OF THAT LATTE!
Of all the chain store brands, Reverend Billy finds Starbucks particularly repugnant because, ‘it is entirely unaware of the contrast between its corporate drabness and the glamorous history of the café life that it employs as an enticement to customers.’
The police, responding to the manager’s call, soon arrive. Escorting Reverend Billy to the door they allow him to slow and clasp outstretched hands. Today has been a success, with a new congregation mobilized. Reverend Billy receives little thank-yous like a regular preacher at the end of service and makes a final turn at the door:
The Astor Riviera Diner is still here–we remember it, and here it comes! See it? We are standing in it! It is returning! Does anyone here remember the old diner’s abusive waiters? Wonderful.
Outside, the police arrest and lead the handcuffed Reverend Billy through a crowd to a waiting police car which, with red lights flashing and siren whooping, takes him straight to the 9th Precinct and the cells known as the Tombs. It is all over in less than 10 minutes. While the newsworthiness of this event does not exactly match the global trade protests in Seattle, its very personal nature defines a new wave of thinking, feeling and acting.
As they trail out, members of the Life After Shopping Gospel Choir whisper a prayer in remembrance of the Astor Riviera Diner and leave the Starbucks built on its grave. Suddenly the street is cold and quiet again. It’s just another gentle Sunday in the East Village, former home to Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman and to Joe Papp’s Public Theatre, the birthplace of A Chorus Line.
Reverend Billy and his flock think small; everything is personal. He believes the corner bookstore owner and the grumpy waiters in the local diner are more valuable in creating community than all the global chains combined. For Reverend Billy, saving one historic house with memories still living in its walls is more important than building another Philippe Starck hotel and condo project in its place. He fought to save the house where Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Raven, ‘in the hope that we would be able to bring our children up to the Poe House and have that human scale greatness in our neighborhood.’
On a street corner preaching the gospel of the human scale and the hand-made intimacy of local neighbourhoods he asks passers-by, ‘How do we retake our life? How do we take back our neighborhood?’ and challenges:
Let’s talk practical politics. When my neighborhood’s working, those are the stories that come up. The revolution is just a neighborhood. Three talkers on a street corner. Amen.
Bill Talen, with his Reverend Billy alter ego, is a wave maker. His small steps in the name of life beyond shopping generate small waves of support. And those small waves spread from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, across cities and oceans; small eggshell voices that tell small stories and reveal an uncrushable human spirit.
Reverend Billy preaches that for every dollar spent at a chain store, only 50 cents stays in that community. By contrast, 90 cents of every dollar spent at a local business remains in the local economy. ‘Neighborhoods are economic powerhouses,’ he says.
About the time Bill Talen was buying his first rubber clerical collar in the East Village, sociologist Ray Oldenburg was arguing against the private takeover of our public spaces. In his book, The Great Good Place Oldenburg contends that we are consumed by our work and our homes; that we work to live, and live to work. We work to feather a better nest and in doing so lose what is beyond work and beyond the competitive consumer culture embedded in the modern home. We need to again find, he says, a Third Place: the breathing space of natural pleasure beyond work and home.
The Third Place of our childhood was where we played, where many of our formative experiences were incubated: when the football match was on the corner oval it was owned by us. But as the consumer culture spread, because the oval had no commercial value it had no place in the global economy. It had to be commercialized; it had to be privatized. Shopping malls were soon built on the open fields where we used to picnic and as kids, kicked footballs. Picnickers became customers, sports fields became stadiums, and watching a game suddenly came with an admission price.
Today, the might of the consumer culture seems unstoppable. The new gathering place is in the artificial atmosphere of a shopping mall with synthetic stores and global brands that have no story or relevance to our lives. This is where shopping is privatized fun; where competitive consumption is all part of the new entertainment; where the price of entry is the cost of a product.
Both Ray Oldenburg and Bill Talen know we can’t undo the myriad tentacles of the consumer culture; can’t, and shouldn’t go back to some mythical idyll of decades past. However they also know that by encouraging and incubating a new reverence for the small and precious experience beyond the mass consumer culture, they are mobilizing new wave surfers to join others in creating a changed place. Oldenburg calls it the Third Place. Reverend Billy calls it After Shopping. Ross Honeywill calls it the Third Wave.
Those who surf the Third Wave know our lives are personal and filled with individual stories; they are not the property of an institutional gatekeeper. Even those residing deep within the consumer culture know that their relationships with purchases must be personal and not corporate. Amy Scherber made it personal.
Having graduated from St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Amy began a career in marketing in New York City, but after three years in the corporate world needed to feed her soul. Inspiration hit her while searching for a small taste sensation in the ironically tasteless Big Apple. She yearned for warm, crunchy, artisanal hand-made bread and simply couldn’t understand why her only option was a loaf manufactured on a factory assembly line. Her wave maker instinct allowed her to believe that if something wonderful didn’t exist, then she could bring it to life. Driven by her certainty and passion for baking, Amy enrolled in the New York Restaurant School, and then got a job as a line cook and pastry cook at Bouley restaurant. To learn even more about bread, she trained briefly in three bakeries in France, then returned to New York City and baked bread at the famed Mondrian Restaurant. Filled with confidence, optimism and commitment to the rare pleasures of freshly baked, hand-made bread she launched Amy’s Bread in a small storefront on Ninth Avenue (Hell’s Kitchen). Today Amy Scherber is known in local neighbourhoods across America for her delicious hand-made, traditional breads.
In the Third Wave, individuals like Amy rule!
Before the intoxicating smell of Amy’s sourdough baguette reached us, the Second, or institutional, Wave dominated our lives. It formed in the early twentieth century, witnessed the advent of modernism and the mass efficiency of assembly lines, and gave Henry Ford the confidence to keep a straight face when promising car buyers they could have a new Ford in any colour they liked, as long as it was black. Henry Ford was midwife to the Second Wave.
Over the next century the Second Wave, unlike the agrarian, hand-to-mouth First Wave, evolved into the institutional might of mass everything. We had mass media, mass production, mass consumerism, mass marketing. Everything was big and big was better.
Eventually the Think Big wave began to break-up and crash as individuals like Reverend Billy and Amy Scherber refused to accept that bigger was better. Its demise was accelerated by the arrival of the Information Age in 1991 and the inevitable shift from institutional gatekeepers to the independence and individuality of the Internet. This saw billions of small pieces of anarchy overturning the power of an influential few. It spread the word about Amy’s bread and put Reverend Billy’s 2009 run for Mayor of New York City on tiny screens across the globe.
The failure of big banks and big business in the global financial meltdown gave Third Wave surfers the momentum they needed to Think Small. The Wall Street Journal, owned by the world’s biggest media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, soon ran stories on the small revolution. On 16 April 2009, barely six months after the start of the financial crisis, David Weidner wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
Confronted with the once-in-a-century opportunity to remake the financial system, the reformers in Washington have a choice: Succumb to the temptation of serving financial supermarkets or lift up community banks and street-level economies.
Enter Reverend Billy Talen, the New York-based street preacher, performer and activist who — along with his flock, the Church of Life After Shopping — believes government has a moral obligation to support communities before big banks.
I’ve been trying to drive people out of their institutions,” Reverend Billy says. “Their institutions aren’t working.”
It’s hard to imagine Timothy Geithner taking advice from an iconoclast dressed in a white suit, clerical collar and Elvis-inspired hair, but the Reverend Billy may be on to something.
In place of a system where big banks and corporations enter neighborhoods only to profit from them, Reverend Billy wants to empower small banks and credit unions that hold a stake in the communities they serve by offering incentives and making it harder for big finance to undercut local business.
It’s hard to argue against the system he envisions.
Think for a moment about what community finance could mean for the nation: Neighborhood banks would lend to local businesses. Profits could stay in the community.
Simply knowing who your customers are and living near them could bring common sense — the most basic and sound form of risk management — back to banking.
This year, he’s running for New York City mayor on the Green Party ticket, campaigning on a community-first platform.
Reverend Billy knows he faces long odds both in his mayoral run and his effort to change a system built around spending and credit speculation, but there are signs of hope. His audience was growing before the financial crisis, and things have only gained momentum since.
The leaders we’ve chosen to undertake financial reform are threatening to take us back to where we were by propping up banks and companies that nearly brought down the economy and cost taxpayers trillions.
It’s clear the bailout policies of the current and former administrations that the financial system of the future will closely resemble the one that gambled away our prosperity. Still, the current situation is not without hints of progress — legislators want to limit banks’ ability to raise interest rates, and this week, outcry from consumers and government officials forced Bank of America to ice plans to raise overdraft fees.
Maybe someone in Washington is getting religion after all.
The wave Bill Talen started may well save more than Edgar Allan Poe’s house. To a man who has been to the Tombs, running for office was a snap. It’s all a matter of thinking small.