December 4, 2011
City Cracking Down on Performers in Washington Square Park
By LISA W. FODERARO
Colin Huggins was there with his baby grand, the one he wheels into Washington Square Park for his al fresco concerts. So were Tic and Tac, a street-performing duo, who held court in the fountain — dry for the winter. And Joe Mangrum was pouring his elaborate sand paintings on the ground near the Washington Arch.
In other words, it was a typical Sunday afternoon in the Greenwich Village park, where generations of visitors have mingled with musicians, artists, activists, poets and buskers.
Yet this fall, that urban harmony has grown dissonant as the city’s parks department has slapped summonses on the four men and other performers who put out hats or buckets, for vending in an unauthorized location — specifically, within 50 feet of a monument.
The department’s rule, one of many put in place a year ago, was intended to control commerce in the busiest parks. Under the city’s definition, vending covers not only those peddling photographs and ankle bracelets, but also performers who solicit donations.
The rule attracted little notice at first. But the enforcement in Washington Square Park in the past two months has generated summonses ranging from $250 to $1,000. And it has started a debate about the rights of parkgoers seeking refuge from the bustle of the streets versus those looking for entertainment.
At a news conference in the park on Sunday organized by NYC Park Advocates, the artists waved fistfuls of pink summonses while their advocates, including civil rights lawyers, called on the city to stop what they called harassment of the performers.
“This is a heavy-handed solution to a nonexistent problem,” said Ronald L. Kuby, one of the lawyers.
The rule is especially problematic in Washington Square Park, performers say, because there are few locations across its 10 acres that are beyond 50 feet from a memorial or fountain — whether the bust of Alexander Lyman Holley, who introduced the Bessemer steel process to this country, or the statue of the Italian liberator Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Then there is the park’s international reputation as a gathering place for folk music pioneers and the Beats.
“Washington Square is the live-music park of New York City, and it would be close to impossible for any one of us to follow these regulations,” said Mr. Huggins, who has received nine summonses with fines totaling $2,250.
But Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, argues that there is ample room for performers away from the monuments. And, he added, a musician who is not putting out a tin cup is welcome to sit on the edge of the fountain or under a monument.
“It’s the whole issue of the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ ” he said. “If you allow all the performers and all the vendors to do whatever they want to do, pretty soon there’s no park left for people who want to use them for quiet enjoyment. This is a way of having some control and not 18 hours of carnival-like atmosphere.”
Gary Behrens, an amateur photographer visiting from New Jersey, applauded the city’s efforts to rein in the performers. “I’m O.K. with the guitar, but the loud instruments have taken over the park,” he said.
The lawyers and advocates, however, challenged the idea that street performers were selling a product as a vendor does. And threatening a lawsuit, they faulted the city for creating what they called “First Amendment zones” through the rules.
“Is this place zany?” asked Norman Siegel, the former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “You bet. Public parks are quintessential public forums. Zaniness is something we should cherish and protect.”
Park visitation has soared along with the rise of tourism in the last 15 years, and with it vendors and artists interested in a lucrative market.
Mr. Benepe insisted that the rules would not scare off future music legends.
“If Bob Dylan wanted to come play there tomorrow, he could,” he said, “although he might have to move away from the fountain.”
Oddly, the dispute coincided with the 50th anniversary of the so-called Folk Riot in Washington Square Park, when the parks commissioner tried to squelch Sunday folk performances. Hundreds of musicians gathered in protest, the police were called in and a melee ensued.
In April, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wrote a letter commemorating the Folk Riot, saying he applauded “the folk performers who changed music, our city and our world beginning half a century ago.”
Colin Huggins, playing piano on Sunday in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village,
is among the performers given summonses for soliciting donations in an unauthorized location.
Kareem Barnes of Tic and Tac collected donations on Sunday.
Joe Mangrum showed his sand paintings on Sunday.
© 2011 The New York Times Company