Will Performance Crackdown – Ticketing and Fining of Entertainers and Buskers – Be Reinstated at WSP?

This blog broke the story on May 10th — “City Reverses course of performance crackdown at Washington Square Park – no more fining of “entertainers and buskers”” — and all seemed right in the world. So, I was not sure what to think when I got the word yesterday from artist and activist (and artists’ activist) Robert Lederman that the reversal of the performance crackdown may be short lived and fining and ticketing may resume at the park. Lederman has a lawsuit ongoing against in the city in relation to the “expressive matter vending rules,” put into place by the Bloomberg Administration in 2010, which limit artists and artistic expression, previously protected by the First Amendment, in public parks. The “expressive matter” rules began being applied to musicians and buskers in the fall at WSP. After community outcry, the Parks Department seemed to back down. Common sense prevailed. And now this. It’s a bit confusing to say the least.

WSP Blog story May 10th:

In a victory for the community and park goers, the New York City Parks Department has quietly reversed their policy of ticketing and fining of musicians within 50 feet of the fountain or monument (such as the Arch, Garibaldi) or 5 feet from benches in Washington Square Park. This new “rule” was first implemented in the fall of last year; once uncovered, it sparked tremendous outcry and negative press. These rules basically set off-limits large swaths of the park (pretty much all performance public space) and restricted musicians from performing as they traditionally always have at Washington Square Park.

Through the diligent work of Community Board 2 which held a public hearing and issued a letter to the Parks Commissioner (proclaiming the rules as “overly restrictive and unnecessary”), New York City Park Advocates, which held a press conference and worked with lawyers Norman Siegel and Ron Kuby and the artists, media coverage, and the community and artists speaking out, this rule is no longer in effect.

Parks Department spokesperson Phil Abramson confirmed, “Busking and entertainers are not subject to the expressive matter vending rule.” He added, “They must still abide by other park rules though such as they cannot block benches or paths, play with amplified sound, etc.”

So, although not technically admitting a reversal in policy, the Parks Department previously had been applying the “expressive matter vending rule” mentioned above – set up primarily to regulate the locations of street artists in public parksto the musicians performing in WSP. That is no longer the case. At least the city agency was willing to switch course. In addition, all summonses previously issued were dismissed. Yay!

Now, from yesterday’s (6/6) Village Voice, “Will the City Ban Performers from Parks Again?”:

[Robert] Lederman said that in mid-May, the city changed its enforcement practices for performing artists, allowing them to set up near park monuments and benches, but failed to inform the Southern District court that it had done so. On June 4, the Corporation Counsel for New York City — which represents the Mayor’s Office and city agencies in legal matters — said that the reprieve was only temporary and that buskers and other performers would again be subject to summons and arrests if they broke the rules.

and ….

Broken down … the City seems to claim that the vending rules always applied to entertainers, but have just been put on temporary hiatus because another lawsuit (“Skyline”) puts to question the regulations. This seems to directly contradict what Department told us — that these guidelines never applied to entertainers in the first place.

Again, here’s what we were told earlier: “The expressive matter rules have not changed. Generally, expressive matter vending rules do not apply to buskers and entertainers.”

So, judging from these filings, it seems that the Department has two planned moves: if Skyline goes in its favor, then it will apply the “expressive matter” rule to entertainers again, meaning they won’t be able to perform. If Skyline doesn’t go in its favor, looks like Parks and Rec might try to figure out other ways to give them the boot, as it “will consider other solutions to address its interests.”

As far as what “Skyline” is… this explanation is from Robert Lederman:

The City’s response … is that the cessation of summonsing performers is only temporary and is due solely to the Skyline ruling, which is about guys selling tickets to the Empire State Building simulated helicopter ride on the sidewalk outside the Empire State building.

??

From today’s 6/7 The Villager “City changes its tune yet again on buskers in parks”:

“I told them [community board] — you think this is just going to affect street artists,” [Robert Lederman] said. “It’s going to affect everybody. They thought that wasn’t true. Then Parks started arresting performers [in Washington Square Park] that people love, and [the community boards] started seeing it is true.

“The full expression of it hasn’t happened yet,” Lederman warned. “Wait until they start arresting people for putting out a table with political literature and a donation can. Then they’ll see what this is really about. It’s about totally taking away the right of freedom of speech in parks.”

Strangely, I don’t think the Villager ever reported that the reversal happened – after being the ones to break the original story back in October.

I have to give a nod to Community Board 2 Chair Brad Hoylman who in all his comments warned to keep an eye out for the possibility of the fining and ticketing reoccurring. Even so, I really hope this does not come to bear. I think the Parks Department got caught in a legal maneuver and is now bound up in their own rules, which never should have been installed to begin with.

On Public Space: The Privatized Union Square Holiday Market and the Performance Crackdown at Washington Square

Union Square Holiday Market

As word of the performance crackdown at Washington Square Park spread in October, Parks Department spokesperson Phil Abramson told the Villager:

“At Washington Square Park the existing regulations are intended to keep paths clear and allow all park users to move about freely and see monuments and views,” said Philip Abramson. He confirmed that performers must stand 5 feet away from benches and cannot perform within 50 feet of a monument or fountain.

To be clear, these “existing regulations” had never existed before. They were written for artist vendors selling their wares (it was controversial with that application) in the city’s public parks. 

The crackdown and ticketing of performers at Washington Square Park has nothing to do with blocking views, paths or monuments. Likewise, the restriction of artists at Union Square Park is not about that.

The Parks Department has no problem with the Holiday Market (pictured above) now in place at Union Square Park – from which it makes over $1 Million. The Holiday Market clearly blocks paths, the 14th Street Plaza and views of the George Washington statue.

This is about controlling public space, money, and a loss of character and charm (the “blanding of New York City”) at our city’s public parks.

Last year, DNAinfo looked into the matter at Union Square:

The sprawling bazaar that takes over Union Square for the park’s annual holiday market has become a hub for gift-shopping New Yorkers.

But one local artist fighting with the Parks Department over its rules to limit street artists in the park the rest of the year sees the city’s preferential treatment of the market as a double standard he thinks could help his case.

Robert Lederman, the outspoken leader of the artists who filed a lawsuit to block the vendor restrictions, claims that money — not public safety or aesthetics, as the city purported — motivated the revised park rules.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe admitted to a Daily News columnist that money was a big factor in welcoming the market, which pays the city $1 million to takeover the southern end of the park where street artists usually decamp.

The Parks Department said the artists created hazardous conditions for pedestrians.

Lederman, who invoked the artists’ First Amendment right to sell there without having to pay the city, is hoping the Parks Commissioner may end up eating his words.

“That the city put a 200-vendor holiday market in the exact south plaza area where the new rules completely ban all artists shows the utterly false nature of the pretext,” Lederman told DNAinfo. “That Benepe publicly claims it’s okay because they paid him $1 million, is the icing on the cake.”

Lederman called the holiday market a “huge public safety threat,” claiming it blocks one of the city’s busiest subway entrances and obstructs monuments — which the artists must be 50-feet away from.

But the city’s law department argued that during the weeks the market operates, the park isn’t used as much anyway.

“…The Holiday Market is allowed during the time of the year when it does not significantly interfere with the use of the Park because weather conditions reduce the number of people who come to enjoy its facilities,” Gabriel Taussig, a chief in the Administrative Law Division of the NYC Law Department, said in an e-mailed statement.

That’s an interesting argument – the weather argument. People still come out of the subway in that location and walk through the park there, no matter what time of year it is. On milder days, people would be sitting or performing on the Plaza at Union Square. None of that can be done while the Holiday Market is there.

Since these articles appeared last year, the artist vendor – referred to by the city as “expressive matter” vending – restrictions were put into place at the city’s parks (Robert Lederman’s lawsuit against this is ongoing – a decision should be reached early next year).

The Parks Department’s interpretation of these rules, applying them to artists and musicians performing for donations, is new. It is being purposefully applied at Washington Square – and is yet another example of the city’s attempt to revise the image and historic usage of the park.

These rules, with their expanding applications, are about the Bloomberg Administration controlling and further privatizing our public spaces, not about protecting the public from “wayward” artists and musicians appearing on pathways and in our midst.

Washington Square Park Task Force Meets Tonite; Also, CB2 Parks Committee addresses Friends of the High Line Proposal and Public Hearing on “expressive matter” i.e., art in NYC Parks

The Washington Square Park Task Force and Community Board 2 Parks Committee meet tonite Wednesday, April 7th at 7:15 p.m. to discuss Phase III Washington Square Park redesign. The New York City Parks Department will be presenting a proposed design for the restrooms and Parks’ maintenance building — public comment is welcome.

Prior to that, at 6:30 p.m., the Parks Committee will discuss two other interesting issues. (How they will accomplish this in 45 minutes will be interesting!) These items are:

* Friends of the High Line will present their plan for a maintenance building to be located adjacent to the High Line in CB 2. (Update: This topic has been removed from the agenda.)

* Public hearing on proposed new Parks Department rules regarding vending of “expressive material” in parks.

— If you haven’t been following this, it’s quite controversial. It’s yet another way for the Bloomberg Administration to give private interests continued and additional reign over our parks and will limit artistic diversity and vitality, click here to read yesterday’s New York Times story. It’s not, as the Parks Department is asserting, that the artist vendors are taking up too much room and causing congestion in our parks by any means. To see that, go to Union Square when the GreenMarket is there on Saturdays or during the holiday market which takes up way too much of that public space in December.

Location for the meeting: NYU Silver Building, 32 Waverly Place, off Washington Square East, Room 401