LOWER MANHATTAN — Mayor Bloomberg paid a surprise visit to Occupy Wall Street's Lower Manhattan encampment Wednesday night, personally telling the protesters that they will have to temporarily clear out of the deteriorating plaza so it can be cleaned on Friday.
Complaints about cleanliness at Occupy Wall Street's base at Zuccotti Park have reached a fever pitch, even as the protesters said they were redoubling their efforts to keep the area clean.
“The mayor is a strong believer in the First Amendment and believes that the protesters have a right to continue to protest," Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway said in a statement on Wednesday, shortly after Bloomberg toured the site — his first visit.
"At the same time, the last three weeks have created unsanitary conditions and considerable wear and tear on the park."
Holloway said that Brookfield — which owns the plaza, but must keep it open to the public 24-hours-a-day under an agreement with the city, creating a complicated legal situation — will be doing the cleaning in stages.
"The protesters will be able to return to the areas that have been cleaned, provided they abide by the rules that Brookfield has established for the park,” he said.
Bloomberg visited Zuccotti Park around 6:45 p.m. Wednesday and spent roughly 15 minutes touring the area, speaking with numerous people, his spokesman said. While some weren't receptive, other thanked him for coming and even offered him food.
"And as quick as he came, the mayor is gone. Large, gathering crowd seems to feel their concerns weren't adaquately communicated."
Still others felt that the mayor, who has been a vocal critic of the protesters, showed courage by coming to Zuccotti Park.
"Organizer says he feels Bloomberg's visit, "showed a lot of courage...we have to credit him a tiny bit," tweeted Devereaux.
Brookfield wrote a letter to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly on Tuesday saying the park's conditions "have deteriorated to unsanitary and unsafe levels" with the space having no toilets and overflowing trash bins attracting rodents.
"We have received hundreds of phone calls and emails from concerned citizens and office workers in the neighborhood," the letter stated.
"Complaints range from outrage over numerous laws being broken including but not limited to lewdness, groping, drinking and drug use, to the lack of safe access to and usage of the park, to ongoing noise at all hours, to unsanitary conditions and to offensive odors."
One woman, according to Brookfield, said she was verbally abused in front of her 5-year-old child and claimed that a package was stolen from her as she tried to cross the park.
Steven Abramson, 63, who lives on Liberty Street across from Zuccotti Park, said he and his neighbors were disgusted by the constant stench from protesters urinating in and around the park.
"It's really getting to be pretty gruesome," said Abramson, who moved to Liberty Street shortly before 9/11.
"We've been through enough down here. It's like another insult is getting dumped on top of our heads."
While Occupy Wall Street has a sanitation team that sweeps trash and empties garbage cans daily, it's hard for the protesters to stay on top of the floods of people passing through the park each day, not to mention the hundreds sleeping there each night. The group recently voted to get storage bins to hold their sleeping bags and other items.
Damien Guarniere, 41, a Harlem resident who was scrubbing the stone plaza with a broom and some water Wednesday afternoon, said he sometimes feels like he's fighting a losing battle.
"Unfortunately, I don't think the parents ever taught their kids to clean," Guarniere said of the younger protesters.
"The job ain't always fun, but it needs to be done. I just came over and started taking the initiative. I'm trying to help the movement succeed."
Amid the tarps, sleeping bags and scattered sweatshirts and shoes heaped in piles at Zuccotti Park, it was easy to find a brown-coated banana peel, leaves of wilting lettuce and what looked like the remnants of a bologna sandwich. The smell of fried food filled the air, along with the subtler odors of marijuana smoke and unwashed bodies.
The Sanitation Department said on Tuesday it had not received a single complaint through 311.
Abramson said he focused his 311 complaints on noise from the protesters' drumming and chanting, but he has been mentioning sanitation concerns as well.
On Wednesday afternoon, a 19-year-old unemployed man who goes by "Pockets," swept up candy wrappers and cigarette butts along Liberty Street. He said it was important to keep the park clean so the city doesn't use health concerns as a reason to shut the protest down. But he admitted that he has urinated in the street late at night, because he has no other option.
"We don't want people to get sick," Pockets said. "The rain will wash some of the crap away."
Nearby, Tracy Postert, 41, an Upper West Side resident who is unemployed but previously taught biology, crouched on her hands and knees scrubbing the plaza with detergent.
"For what it is, it's incredibly clean," Postert said of the protest's base camp.
She said she was impressed by the level of responsibility the protesters are taking for their surroundings.
The cleanliness of Zuccotti Park will likely be an ongoing issue, as Bloomberg has repeatedly said he will not remove the protesters from the park.
Earlier Wednesday, the mayor told reporters he did not even know if it would be legally possible to get rid of the protesters, because Zuccotti Park is subject to complicated rules as a privately owned public space.
The city's position is infuriating Downtown residents who say their lives have been disrupted by the protests.
Ro Sheffe, a Liberty Street resident who also chairs Community Board 1's Financial District Committee, said he receives dozens of e-mails a day from his angry neighbors, who have a range of quality-of-life concerns, including sanitation issues.
"We have a middle-class residential neighborhood that is under siege," Sheffe said. "The mayor is completely ignoring his own constituents."
Sheffe said he and others are growing especially frustrated by the lack of enforcement of basic public health laws.
"If I were defecating in the street and smoking marijuana, I would be arrested immediately," Sheffe said. "I don't understand why these people are not."
Additional Reporting by Jill Colvin