Some women from Kansas were taking in as much of New York City as they could Wednesday. They hopped on a subway, watched the construction at the World Trade Center site and visited lower Manhattan's newest tourist destination: the park where Occupy Wall Street protesters have camped out for more than a month.
It's now common to see tourists at Zuccotti Park taking photographs of themselves, with protesters in the background. On a typical day they clog the pedestrian traffic in the area, which is often bustling with financial district employees pushing their way through.
Jackie Qualizza of Bucyrus, Kansas, challenged protester Art Udeykin, asking him to explain the purpose of the demonstration, which has inspired similar activism in many cities across the nation and around the world. "Right now, we don't have a goal — except to back away from the system that's not working," replied Udeykin, a 23-year-old Russian-born Iowan.
"This is a way to feel free, to feel normal." Qualizza said she couldn't see herself demonstrating, but added, "I don't disagree with them. The government bailed out everyone, and things are still not working. Something has to change."
The protest against corporate influence in government and wealth inequality has many of the things tourists look for, including photo-worthy moments and even some trinkets. In this case, the T-shirts and buttons offered by protesters are generally free, though they accept donations. The double-decker buses offering tours of Manhattan pass by on Broadway, with guides pointing out the park site and tourists — in sunny weather — often waving sympathetically at protesters from the top decks.
Wednesday was rainy, but visitors included a group of Chinese tourists accompanied by an interpreter and a guide. Visitors do get a show at times. Shawn Lahey, a ruler factory worker from Poughkeepsie, watched a dancing man holding a pole marked "corporation," attached to a noose marked "financial system" — from which another dancing man was "hanging."
Masked drummers provided a thumping soundtrack. "I think it's great — they're trying to make a point," Lahey said, though he added with a wry smile, "... I don't think it'll make any difference ... The government won't make any changes, because it's all about money."
Molly Schwad, a jeweler from Kansas traveling with Qualizza and other friends, said she was surprised by what she saw, compared to the TV coverage of the protest movement. She saw a rather quiet encampment in the rain, of only about 200 people. At times several hundred people have camped at the park, and some of the demonstrations organized as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement have drawn thousands.
"I thought it was much bigger," Schwad said. "We were afraid there might be violence here."
Marsha Spencer, an unemployed seamstress knitting in the rain at the park Wednesday, gives visitors a view of the protests they may not have expected to see. She returns to her home in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood at night but spends most of each day at the protest. "When people see a 56-year-old grandmother sitting here, knitting — they pay attention," she said. "... I tell them I'm here because I want things to change for my five grandchildren."
Some visitors echoed her concerns, including Karen Conrad of Johnstown, Pa., who was in New York last week to visit family and stopped by to show her support. "I'm a middle-class mother and I can't get ahead. If anything I'm going downward," she said.
She said her two children are burdened by debt from college loans and "won't be out of debt until their own children are ready for college probably."
Demonstrator Julian DeMayo, a law student from Montreal bundled up against the wind and rain, said the tourists' attitude toward the protest has changed over the weeks. "At first, they seemed skeptical, looking at this like it was a circus show," he said.
But more recently, he said, many visitors "looked genuinely interested, and inspired. And they seem impressed by the level of infrastructure." He added, "I think they also see that there's a huge variety of people here — young and old, of all races, from everywhere."
Some nearby businesses are far less enamored of the protesters, and say the hubbub outside their doors is costing them money. Stacey Tzortzatos, manager of Panini & Co., a casual restaurant that's normally bustling as it serves financial district clients, said the eatery has been losing business because police barricades discourage customers from coming in, and media vans are blocking the view.
But the biggest problem, she said, was protesters coming in to use the bathroom — "30 at a time." She said she put locks on the bathroom doors in response. "They take showers using the sink, they brush their teeth, and they make a huge mess," she said. Tzortzatos said she's been harassed and verbally abused by protesters, who have come in eating donated food.
"I was called 'evil' for asking whether they were customers, when they came in eating their free pizza, smelling so bad," she said. "It's a constant battle, and it's getting worse as the weeks go by."
Other food venues didn't mind. "Business is business!" said Alex Gervis, who works behind the counter at Manon, a cafe near Zuccotti Park that sells imported Italian coffee and Belgian chocolates. He said protesters have come in "six, or even 10, at a time. And as long as they buy something and don't make a mess, we're happy to have them."
The only disruption came several days ago, "when they tried to play guitar," he said. "We can't have that."