Volume 22, Number 51 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | April 30 - May 6, 2010
Downtown Express photos by Albert Amateau
Before the April 23 hearing, artist vendors protested proposed new regulations that would limit their numbers in four Manhattan parks.
Vendor regs pit artists vs. parks conservancies
By Albert Amateau
More than 300 passionate people, pro and con, turned out at the Chelsea Recreation Center last week to demonstrate and testify at the Parks Department hearing on proposed rules to limit the number of First Amendment-protected vendors in four Manhattan parks: Union Square Park, Battery Park, the High Line and Central Park.
Instead of the free-for-all array of expressive-material vendors of art and purported art in the four parks, the city wants to reduce their numbers by at least 75 percent — to 18 in Union Square Park, nine in Battery Park, five on the High Line and a total of 49 along six stretches in Central Park.
The city says vending rule changes are desperately needed because the number of vendors of all kinds has tripled since 2001. At Union Square Park, for example, vendors now occupy nearly all of the south plaza. They now compromise the public’s safety and right to enjoy the park, according to the Parks Department.
Most quasi-government park organizations — including the Battery Conservancy, Central Park Conservancy and Friends of the High Line — along with residential and corporate neighbors, agreed that the number of vendors interferes with the peoples’ enjoyment of the parks.
“Access is a major concern,” Warrie Price, executive director of the Battery Conservancy, the nonprofit partner of the city in the administration of the 23-acre park at the tip of Manhattan, told the Fri., April 23, hearing. “Yesterday, I counted 91 expressive-matter vendors lining our paths. It made it hard to enjoy our very artful park,” Price said.
But artist vendors, led by Robert Lederman, who massed outside the W. 25th recreation center for a rally before the hearing, denounced the proposed rules.
“If you pass these rules, you’re going to have to arrest us every day. Then we’ll sue you and win,” said Lederman, who in past years has sued the city on the right to vend material protected by the First Amendment and won. “It’s a question of whose park is it — the people’s park or Mayor Bloomberg’s, his corporate friends’ and the business improvement districts?” he said.
Lederman charged that the public-safety reason for proposed vendor limits was a ruse and that the city was seeking to extend commercial franchises that pay for their use of park space. Corporate events, as well as the Christmas-season Holiday Market and the Greenmarket, take up much more space in Union Square Park than artist vendors, said Lederman.
Lederman and other advocates contended that there are already extensive rules about vending, including pertaining to First Amendment material, specifying locations, spacing, pedestrian circulation and the size of vending tables. The city, however, has refused to enforce those rules, vendors say.
Vendors at the hearing said the proposed rules threatened to curtail the way they made their living, a significant concern in an uncertain economy.
The proposed rules call for a first-come, first-served basis for each of the expressive-material vending locations in the four parks. If a dispute arises among vendors for a location, all those involved in the dispute would be evicted from the location, according to the proposed rules.
However, Councilmembers Rosie Mendez, Dan Garodnick and Melissa Mark-Viverito found fault with the proposed rules, even though they agreed that the concentration of vendors was a problem.
“Parks is seeking to force an estimated 300 individuals currently vending in the four parks to fight over a total of 81 vending locations,” said Mark-Viverito, whose East Harlem-centered district includes Central Park. She also criticized the first-come, first-served allocation of space, and suggested a permit system based on a lottery.
Removing all vendors who are disputing a location was also unfair, she added.
Mendez said that some restrictions are necessary for Union Square Park, which is in her district; but she noted that someone walking around the park seeking signatures on a political petition would also be violating the proposed rules.
“As they are written, the vendor regulations sweep up some forms of free speech that should not be regulated,” Mendez said.
Garodnick, whose district includes Central Park South, said he believes the city has a right to regulate all vendors to ensure public access to public places. But he also questioned whether the small number of locations and the first-come, first-served basis were appropriate.
Jennifer Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership, the BID that covers the park, and Joshua David, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, also testified in favor of the proposed rules.
David said the elevated High Line park, which now extends from Gansevoort to 20th Sts., has already had 2 million visitors since it opened a year ago despite its narrow paths. He supported the proposed rules, which he said, “do not forbid vending but designate areas where it can occur while maintaining the safety and enjoyment of other park users.”
Falk said the Partnership supports vendors, but she added, “The large volume of pedestrians and subway traffic in the Union Square area demonstrates the need for some regulation of commercial activity in the park.”
Noting an estimated 35.5 million subway passengers per year use the Union Square station, Falk said she believed the rules are a step toward “creating a fair balance between the commercial interest of vendors and the public’s right to enjoy Union Square Park.”
Jane Crotty, representing The New School, which is also a member of the Union Square Partnership, said the new rules should not be seen as restrictions but as a way to allow everyone to enjoy the park. She suggested, however, that vendors should be assigned locations on a rotating basis.
But Jack Taylor, speaking for the Union Square Community Coalition, said the coalition unanimously passed a resolution against the proposed rules.
“Limits should not be placed on the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, which the proposed new rule for artists would undoubtedly do,” Taylor said.
“The U.S.C.C. board believes that the existing park rules, in conjunction with the 60-plus pages of New York City vending restrictions, are sufficient to control congestion,” Taylor said. He noted that vending material not protected by the First Amendment is expressly prohibited, but that the rules are inadequately enforced.
However, Susan Kramer, a Union Square resident and former co-chairperson of U.S.C.C. but no longer a member of the coalition, testified in support of the proposed rules.
“Vendors have commandeered all of the south end of the park,” she said. “People selling mass-produced work are not artists, and control is needed.”
Kramer suggested that vendor locations be assigned by a weekly lottery.
Henry Stern, a former councilmember and former Parks commissioner who served under Mayors Koch and Giuliani, said he too supported the proposed rules. As a councilmember, he recalled, he sponsored vendor rules “to allow poets and people who produced their own art to vend their products in the park.”
But Stern said that images of John Lennon are being sold at 100 places in Central Park, “hiding behind the First Amendment.” Stern said he believed the proposed rules would survive a court challenge.
Two executives for The Related Companies, one connected with One Union Square South, the residential-and-commercial building on the south side of Union Square, and another connected to The Caledonia, a residential project adjacent to the High Line at W. 17th St., testified in favor of the rules.
Michael Burke, who runs the Statue Cruises ferry service to the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island — which picks up its passengers in Battery Park — also supported the rules.
“It’s common sense over chaos,” he said.