Don’t ban the buskers

Washington Square buskers are decrying a crackdown by the Parks Department, which admits it is applying new anti-vending regulations against them.

At a Dec. 4 press conference, three busking acts said they had received 21 summonses collectively in the past three months.

New regulations on expressive-matter vending went on the books in July 2010 but didn’t go into effect till this May. These rules limit the number of vendors of First Amendment-protected matter — such as paintings and books — in high-traffic park locations, such as Union Square, Battery Park, the High Line and Central Park. The new rules also state that artist vendors must stay 50 feet from park monuments and 5 feet from benches. A temporary restraining order against the new regulations’ enforcement was lifted. But a federal lawsuit, by Robert Lederman of ARTIST (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics) remains alive.

Under the new rules, artist vendors can’t be in Union Square’s southern plaza, but must compete for marked spots on the square’s western and eastern sides. According to Lederman, it was only after he complained, in his suit, that musicians were still being allowed to perform in the southern plaza, that Parks moved to apply the new rules to buskers, too. In fact, to our knowledge, the legislation does not specifically mention performers, musicians or buskers. It thus seems likely that enforcement against musicians was only started to defend the artist-vendor rules against Lederman’s litigation. A Parks spokesperson denied this, saying the rules always included buskers.

In addition, attorneys Norman Siegel and Ron Kuby dispute that buskers are even vendors. Anyone can watch tumbling tandem Tic and Tac, Colin Huggins (a.k.a. “The Crazy Piano Guy”) or sand artist Joe Mangrum, but payment is optional. It’s different than having a sidewalk artist paint your portrait for a set fee. And if just putting out a hat means “vendor,” then what’s a homeless panhandler selling?

Also, it may now be impossible to busk at all in Washington Square: There may be no point that isn’t 50 feet from a monument or 5 feet from a bench, given that the park has the arch, the fountain (deemed a monument) the Garibaldi statue, the Holley monument and scores of benches.

One can still play music for free in the park, but to nix busking deprives the square of an essential part of its creative, spontaneous character.

Parks says the new rules prevent congestion and ensure that people can see the park monuments. And yet — in a clear double standard — Parks’ own Union Square vendors Holiday Market is now causing major congestion and is within mere feet of the Washington and Gandhi statues.

In addition, Benepe stated, the rules are also so parkgoers can enjoy the “sounds of silence” — but, hey, isn’t that a Simon and Garfunkel song, commissioner? Meanwhile, Bob Gormley, Community Board 2 district manager, said the board gets zero complaints about loud music in the park.

Plus, existing regulations already state decibel levels must be reasonable. Loud drummers were an issue a few summers ago — but told to tone it down, they did. There are also already rules requiring permits for amplified sound and large gatherings. In other words, new regulations limiting busking in parks aren’t needed.

C.B. 2 held a speak-out on the issue on Mon., Dec. 19, at the N.Y.U. Kimmel Center on Washington Square South, at which the public was invited to speak for or against Parks’ actions. Every member of the public who testified — including several buskers — spoke against the new regulations. No one spoke in support of the new rules, except for Bill Castro, the Manhattan borough Parks Department commissioner. However, Castro did say Parks would review the rules. That’s a start. We have a strong hunch that these new restrictions will not hold up to review, and will be changed — and that is how it should be. Again, there are enough rules already on the books governing buskers in the parks — and these new ones are overkill and flat-out wrong.

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