Volume 19 Issue 46 | March 30 - April 5, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

Skyler Aronson, 4, watched as Patrick Stecher made a wire sculpture of her face on W. Broadway near Spring St. last weekend.

Vendors say police get picture wrong

By Chris Bragg

Although she’s a comedian, Whoopi Goldberg said there was nothing funny about police treatment of Soho’s street artists as she walked down W. Broadway Saturday morning.

“I think it’s atrocious what they’re trying to do,” Goldberg, a Soho resident, told Downtown Express. She had just passed a group of sidewalk artist vendors who were staging a protest against what they charge is harassment by the First Police Precinct.

In recent weeks, long-running tensions between police and art vendors on W. Broadway have heightened. While many residents, business owners and the art vendors themselves agree a crackdown on illegal street peddlers is needed, there’s concern police are targeting the wrong vendors.

On Saturday morning, 10 police officers came to W. Broadway and Spring St. around 10 a.m., and asked a number of art vendors to move their stands, witnesses said. Vending laws require stands to be 20 feet from business entrances.

Robert Lederman, president of ARTIST or Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics, said police were harassing street artists even though they have the First Amendment right to sell on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, Lederman said, vendors selling bootlegged art and jewelry were largely left alone.

“Every single person they went after was selling their own work,” he said.

Lederman said later he was trying to get arrested but in the end, no one was arrested, no art confiscated and no one issued a summons, according to witnesses.

Lederman shot a video of his interaction with police and posted it on YouTube. The video shows Lederman talking to an officer whom he later identified as Lieutenant Jack Konstantinidis, in charge of First Precinct special operations.

“I assure you, no hard feelings either way,” Lederman says on the video.

“It’s only a game, I know,” Konstantinidis replies.

On the video, Konstantinidis goes on to explain why the officers came to W. Broadway on Saturday: “The residents here, you know they keep complaining…. Whether they’re right or wrong, whatever it is, they don’t want people in front of their residences or their commercial [businesses].”

Lieutenant Konstantinidis did not return calls seeking further comment on the police action.

Many residents and business owners are concerned about the congestion of Soho streets, which can make it difficult to walk or do business in the area. On the other hand, artists say street art has historically given Soho its unique flair.

Lawrence White, a dance photographer who is a leader of the Soho International Artists Cooperative, said the real problem is illegal vendors. He said he saw 20 to 25 illegal displays in a quick walk around the area just an hour after police left on Saturday. But instead of dealing with those vendors, he said police instead harassed Lederman.

“Why not just go right across the street to the people selling illegally?” White said, adding that he felt police did not have the proper training to determine who was legal. “They can’t tell the wheat from the chaff.” Instead, he said, artists were being targeted based on which businesses or landlords had called the police.

White added that business owners needed education about vendor rights.

“They need to be told, ‘On this block, food vending and art vending are allowed,’” he said.

Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, which has fought congestion in the area for years, said he also couldn’t understand why police were focusing on W. Broadway.

“I’m happy the police are doing something,” he said, “but I wish they’d focus on Prince and Spring Sts.” On these narrower streets, First Amendment sellers are banned on weekends, yet the sidewalks are still jammed with illegal general-merchandise vendors.

C.B. 2 unanimously passed a resolution on Jan. 18, addressed to the First Police Precinct, praising it for actions against illegal vendors and calling for further action. But C.B. 2 district manager Bob Gormley said the board only encouraged police action against illegal peddlers.

“We have no problem with street artists,” he said.

After police left on Saturday, the situation on W. Broadway calmed. But at noon, an employee of a new gallery at W. Broadway and Spring St., the Delorenzo Sculpture Gallery, opened its doors. The employee asked Lederman to leave the area in front of the store. That prompted Lederman to organize an artist protest in front of Delorenzo.

In a stirring oratory, Lederman, who said he has been arrested 40 times and received 100 summons for art-related protest, proclaimed, “If you don’t like artists selling in front of your store, we’ll give you something you’ll like a whole lot better,” threatening to bring 100 artists outside the store next weekend, rather than the 10 that protested Saturday.

Lederman blames the gallery for calling police each weekend since its opening and prompting the recent police presence. But Sweeney doubts that’s the case.

“If the Soho Alliance can’t get any police down there and the community board can’t, I don’t know how an art gallery would,” Sweeney said.

The gallery employee, who did not want to give her name, said she was unaware of any calls made to police.

White, who has a narrower view about what constitutes legitimate street art than Lederman and has clashed with him over the years, said he respects Lederman for standing up for artists. Still, he said protests are not the long-term answer: “It isn’t necessary. Somehow, logic must prevail.”

City Councilmember Alan Gerson is currently working on a bill to deal with the problem, which he says could be finished in several weeks. While he didn’t speak about specifics, he said in a telephone interview that the bill “seeks better enforcement and regulation through the clarification of ambiguities and the closing of loopholes.… Right now, it’s just so confusing.” Gerson said First Amendment-protected vendors were only “the smallest part of the puzzle” in the scope of the whole bill.

Since 2001, the City Council has considered legislation to require permits for artists in city parks and proposed a cap of two artists per block, though neither has passed.

Gerson said City Council lawyers were looking over his legislation to make sure it’s constitutional. He said this is important, since Lederman has helped lead street artists to four victories in federal court, overturning city rules requiring vending licenses and permits for street artists.

Sweeney, who has supported Gerson in the past, said he had been kept in the dark about the legislation.

“What, Gerson speak with his constituents?” said Sweeney, adding that even as the head of the Soho Alliance, he rarely consults with Gerson.

Meanwhile, White, who is also an art gallery owner, said that a new law isn’t necessary — what’s needed is proper enforcement of the current law.

“Just the simple thing,” he said. “Nobody’s tried that yet.” 

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