The Curious Case of Mayor Bloomberg and The NYC Parks Department vs. The Artists of NYC

I firmly believe that for any society to endure it must place paramount importance on art and free expression. When you think of New York City, what thoughts come to mind? Sure, first maybe the bright lights of Times Square;  the incomprehensibly high Empire State Building, the sea of yellow cabs flowing on 5th Avenue; people walking shoulder to shoulder in Midtown, the subways thundering underneath.  But what does New York City symbolize to you? Think about that while you read the rest of this post.

As some of you may be aware,  I sell my photography in Union Square Park in New York City. For those of you who have know idea where or what Union Square is, I have a short analogy for you. New York City is very much a living, breathing entity. Union Square is the heart that keeps the blood flowing. It is the convergence of the NRQW, 456, and L trains. The amount of people above and under ground at Union Sq at any given moment is just staggering.

My endeavors there are why it is so hard for me to keep up with this blog, and for that I apologize. Anyway, enough of the BS. The long and the short of it is this; Michael Bloomberg and his flunkies at the NYC Parks Department are seeking to revise the rules with regards to the Artists that sell in 4 NYC parks.  The Artists of Central Park, Union Square Park, Battery City Park, and the High Line Park are in the cross hairs of these revisions. Currently there are 60 pages of rules that regulate what we can and cannot sell, where we can and cannot set up, and the size of our displays, etc. Currently there are no regulations on how many artists can set up on a given street, or a given park. The new rules seek to change just that. The old rules remain in effect, however the proposed ones severely limit how many artists can set up in the a fore mentioned  parks. Below are the proposed numbers:

* Battery Park, only 9 artists allowed
* Metropolitan Museum of Art (between 79th and 81st streets) 12 artists.
* Fifth Avenue (between 84th and 85th streets) 12 artists.
* Union Square Park 18 artists allowed.
* Columbus Circle, 4 artists.
* Wein Walk (near the Central Park Zoo) 8 artists
* High Line Park, 3 artists
* Central Park South, 5 artists
* Grand Army Plaza (by Plaza Hotel), 8 artists

So as you can see Union Square is only allowed 18. I took a head count on Saturday, and by 11AM there where 127 vendors present. I guess what you are all wondering now is why? Surely there must be a reasonable and logical justification for this.. I will present an excerpt from the Statement of Basis and Purpose of the new proposal as the argument for revising the existing rules.

These rules are promulgated pursuant to the authority of the Commissioner of the
Department of Parks and Recreation (the “Commissioner”) under sections 389, 533(a)(9) and
1043 of the New York City Charter.  The Commissioner is authorized to establish and enforce
rules for the use, governance and protection of public parks and of all property under the charge
or control of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

The proposed rules provide reasonable opportunities – by and through limited time,
place, and manner restrictions – for expressive matter vendors to display and sell their wares on
parkland.  These rules not only provide greater clarity for vendors regarding where and how they
can operate on parkland, they also ensure that our parks do not become so congested that they do
not provide the public with enjoyable and accessible open space.

The Department determined that it was necessary to promulgate these rules to address
concerns raised by park visitors, vendors, and other members of the public, as well as
Department staff, related to the proliferation, in certain parks, of expressive matter vendors and
the impact they can have on parkland and other park visitors.  In fact, in the absence of
Department rules regarding expressive matter vendors, the number of these vendors combined
for Battery Park, Central Park, and Union Square Park has almost tripled since 2001, when the
Department ended its old lottery system for vendor permits in these parks pursuant to the New
York City Administrative Code.  This dramatic increase in the number of vendors has resulted in
changed conditions in certain parks, which required the Department to develop regulations in
order to strike a balance between expressive matter vendors and other park visitors, and address
other concerns related to maintaining and operating open space under the jurisdiction of the
Department.

For example, expressive matter vendors at Union Square Park have increased, and
continue to increase, in number to the point where they occupy almost the entire south-west
corner of the park.  This not only presents a concern regarding potential hazardous and unsafe
conditions stemming from undue congestion and pedestrian gridlock, it also detracts from the
experience of those park visitors who wish to experience and enjoy the park in other ways.

Now I realize to many of you I may seem predisposed to bias for favor of the artists, so before I issue my counterpoints, I will provide a few links in the interest of being fair.

Robert Lederman: Robert is a NYC artist and activist (He is the head of a pro artist group called A.R.T.I.S.T.). Thanks to Robert’s tireless vigil we are able to display and sell (continue to display and sell) our art on the streets and in the parks of NYC.

Squaring Off: Post from NYC artist, writer, and dear friend Richard Kriheli  that offers more insight into the Parks Department’s motivation for requesting approval in amending the rules for vending.

NY Times: NY Times article presenting arguments for and against the proposed rule changes. Includes a full copy of the Dept. of Parks resolution.

Ok kiddies, here we go!

I’m not going to go in to all the 1st Amendment hoo ha, and allegations of privatization, those are arguments that have and are being made by others much more eloquent then I. My rebuttal represents the situation on the ground at a place I spend more then 40 hours a week, every week at.

1: The term “Expressive Matter Vendor“. This is a derogatory term and it is one I especially detest. While technically it is correct, it serves no other purpose then to offer no delineation between artists who create art and those who merely vend art. I’ve spent a lot of money on my education, and nearly all my adult life honing my eye and my craft. I am an effing Artist and don’t you forget it!

2: According to the Statement of Basis and Purpose “..the absence of
Department rules regarding expressive matter vendors, the number of these vendors combined
for Battery Park, Central Park, and Union Square Park has almost tripled since 2001, when the
Department ended its old lottery system for vendor permits in these parks pursuant to the New
York City Administrative Code.

Absence of Department Rules? Are you kidding me? There are 60 plus pages of rules and regulations pertaining to vending on NYC Streets and in NYC Parks.  If you compare the Vending Rules for Artists as they have existed for at least the last ten years to what the Parks Department is proposing, you will find thing only thing that changes is that now they want to regulate number of artists in certain parks. The only thing that is absent is the enforcement of the existing rules. We will get into that one more later in this post.

3: “…the number of these vendors combined
for Battery Park, Central Park, and Union Square Park has almost tripled since 2001”

Ok, so where are these numbers coming from? Did the Parks Department conduct a census of artists in 2001, and then again in 2010? And where is the breakdown of numbers for each park and each year between 2001 and 2010 to substantiate such a claim? How many Artists and vendors where in the parks in 2008 vs. 2010. Do these numbers reflect the severe recession that is going on and the record number of people are unemployed? (nearly 10%) In any case there is a serious lack of evidence other to back up that statement. I would also like to point out (and this is a very important point they very conveniently leave out) There are numerous people who illegally vend in the parks. In NYC and under the 1st Amendment, Artists are allowed to sell and display their art on the streets and in the parks without a vending permit. If say you want to sell bullshit that is made in China you have to get a nearly impossible to obtain Vendor Permit. That being said, many vendors circumvent this by attempting mingle in with the artists in the parks. The day I counted 127 vendors, I counted 42 people illegally vending (selling jewelery, clothes, nick knacks, coffee mugs, cigarette lighters, dream catchers, pan flutes, beads, salt and pepper shakers, all manner of stuff deemed illegal to vend by the current rules). By days end nearly all of those vendors where still present.

4: My last point. “…For example, expressive matter vendors at Union Square Park have increased, and
continue to increase, in number to the point where they occupy almost the entire south-west
corner of the park.  This not only presents a concern regarding potential hazardous and unsafe
conditions stemming from undue congestion and pedestrian gridlock, it also detracts from the
experience of those park visitors who wish to experience and enjoy the park in other ways.

Only on days where the Green Market is present  do the artists take up the south west corner of the park. And that is because the Market forces the artists to begin setting up in that location. In all honesty, when the Green Market is busiest (Saturdays during the summer months) it takes of the entirety of the north and west sides of the Park. As for “pedestrian gridlock”, anyone who attempts to venture through the Green Market on Saturdays will experience that to an infuriating degree. Even on the busiest days, it is still possible to move freely though the corridor occupied (in accordance with existing rules) by the artists. “…This not only presents a concern regarding potential hazardous and unsafe
conditions stemming from undue congestion.”

What a joke! I cite Exhibit A!

Pillow Fight, Union Square, April 2010

Ok, so they are so concerned with preventing hazardous and unsafe conditions due to the presence of a bunch of artists, but sanctioning a pillow fight involving  (with no permit and requiring dozens of police officers to regulate ingress and egress) a couple thousand and more people beating each other.  Maybe to you a pillow fight seems benign, but I saw first responders carting off people that had passed out in the fray, and in my own display they where treating a 7 year old boy (not even a participant, just passing through the park with his father) who was bashed in the face and covered in blood. Are you effing kidding me? This is acceptable to the Parks Department? Events like this pose no hazard to park goers?

In conclusion, the reasons for changing the existing rules have no basis in reality. They definitely do not reflect the situation on the ground. Last Wednesday I attended a Community Board Meeting (#6). At that meeting the chairman asked Deputy Parks Commissioner Bill Castro about enforcement of the existing rules, and if he felt there had been adequate enforcement for the rules as currently exist. The response was that he did not believe the rules have been enforced to the degree that they could be. I can personally vouch for that. There are days where I have literally spent 20 or more hours in the park. There are no shortage of PEP Officers (Parks Enforcement Police). I watch them stroll up and down the walkways occupied by artists. I watch them flirt with cute girls illegally vending jewelry. I watch them shake hands and do fist pounds with vendors who engage in the practice of buying and selling spots (completely illegal, and an act of privatization) .  Rarely do I see them issue tickets, and even rarer is the instance of removing a vendor who is operating illegally. In short the enforcement of current policy regarding “expressive matter vendors” is completely non existent. They want us to believe that if these rules are allowed to be changed, they will create a better park going experience. They want us to believe that after 10 years of virtually no enforcement they are suddenly going to enforce policy knowledgeably and fairly? Yeah right.. So now the PEP Officers are going to be on duty 24 hours a day in order to insure the 18 spots in USP are delegated fairly. PLEASE!  Need I remind you that 15 years ago Union Square Park was a redoubt for junkies and criminals (hence the name “Needle Park”). Most people avoided the area like the plague. If these rules are passed, they will do nothing more then secure an embarrassing legacy for all those involved. It will guarantee new additions to the unemployment rolls, already at an all time high. It will create an artist diaspora that will be felt city wide.

Around 2200 words ago I asked you what NYC symbolized to you? To me it symbolizes the epitome of the American Dream. It is the only place where there is a market for anything. It is the only place where the mantra “if you can dream it, you can do it” exists. How many movies have been made about the dreamers who come from humble origins to endure trial and tribulation to attain success they never thought possible. That is NY. That is the essence of this city that courses through my veins everyday. For all of its sometimes seamy underbelly, I love selling my art in the park. I love the many talented artists I have met, most of whom I call friends. Never in my life have I had the good fortune to work with and befriend people from all over the world. It truly is amazing and sublime. And it is the quintessential New York experience. If they take it away, they will be taking away and essential piece of the cultural fabric of  New York City.

Don’t let them!

There is a public hearing at Chelsea Recreation Center (430 West 25th Street) on April 23 at 11AM. There will be a protest at 10AM. In addition you can write and voice our opinion to the following before April 23rd:

Alessandro G. Olivieri, General Counsel, Department of Parks &
Recreation, The Arsenal, Central Park, 830 Fifth Avenue, New York, New
York 10065, by April 23, 2010. You may also write him at this email

address: alessandro.olivieri@parks.nyc.gov

You should also send the same email to the Parks Commissioner,
Adrian Benepe.
His email address is:
Adrian.Benepe@parks.nyc.gov

Finally I will leave you with a link to this video. It is an inspiring and informative speech given to the USP artists by Robert Lederman last Saturday.

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One thought on “The Curious Case of Mayor Bloomberg and The NYC Parks Department vs. The Artists of NYC

  1. Commissioner Benepe sees himself as a real estate agent, trying to get
    the maximum price per square foot for all of our public parks. No one
    should be surprised that he wants First Amendment protected artists
    out of the parks to make way for more corporate owned vending
    concessions. He’s even tried to eliminate the Union Square
    Greenmarket, founded by his father, Barry Benepe, to make room for
    more lucrative corporate promotions. He’s the Parks Commissioner of
    Disney, Nike, Sony, Best Buy, Target and Chase Bank, not of the people
    of NYC.

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