Volume 23, Number 4 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | June 4 - 10, 2010
Less than artful rules on park vendors
By Josh Rogers
Almost everyone wants less crowded parks so it’s not surprising the city emphasizes congestion when promoting its plan to throw most of the art vendors out of the busiest parks.
Theoretically the new rules will create a more tranquil park atmosphere, but it’s hard to imagine how. The “expressive matter” vendors will have to jockey for the few available spots left to them under the proposed new restrictions.
It will encourage “artists to beat the crap out of each other,” Robert Lederman told me this week. He has led many art vendors for 16 years, and has repeatedly beaten the city in federal court on First Amendment grounds.
The new rules don’t seem like they will do much to dent the crowded feeling in two of the Downtown parks affected by the new rules, Union Square and Battery Park.
Walk through Union Square on a busy Saturday and you’ll find the art sellers’ area provides a respite from the hoards either trying to walk through the Greenmarket or buy fresh food. The farmers’ booths are many times bigger than the artists’ stands, whose tables can’t be wider than three feet under existing rules.
Battery Park draws a few million people a year, most of whom take the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. The security tents for Liberty and Ellis Island visitors not only block views of the harbor, they also obstruct part of the esplanade. Vendors are currently forbidden from blocking paths and entrances. Warrie Price, who heads the Battery Conservancy, said the National Park Service is finally close to agreeing to move the security to a less obtrusive place. I hope so, because it’s been a long fight waged by her and many others.
Price is a strong supporter of the new rules and says visitors deserve a little peace from the wall-to-wall sales pitches in the park. She is probably right that there are too many vendors in the park but the proposed limits go too far.
The city claims art merchants will be allowed “along the perimeter” of Battery Park, but there will be only nine available spots around a 23-acre park. That’s down from 50 or so vendors on a busy day. Union Square, which has seen as high as 100, will drop down to 18.
There is more room in both parks. Surely an artist on either side of a hot dog vendor would do little to add to the congestion in Battery Park.
In Union Square, the new limits could potentially make the park more hazardous. If the narrow tables on the south side of the park are eliminated, an absent-minded stroller could easily wander carelessly onto 14th St. and into busy, two-way traffic.
Lederman is confident he’ll win again in court and says if the city was really concerned with park crowds, officers would move first against illegal vendors who have no Constitutional guarantees. Peddlers selling jewelry, crafts, even artistic tee shirts with no political message are not allowed without a permit.
The city opened the door to the art vendors nearly 30 years ago, when it passed a law allowing poets to recite in parks. When the Giuliani administration moved against artists in the mid-’90s, the courts ruled they were entitled to the same First Amendment protections as poets. We should all be wary anytime government moves against speech.
Clearly what really vexes the city is vendors selling stuff in public parks without paying a permit fee.
People making money on public land should have to pay something, but the parks should also be open to free expression -- particularly Union Square, which has been a gathering spot for progressives for many decades and is also where crowds of New Yorkers went to mourn after 9/11.
Lederman says if the city rescinded the 1982 poets law and tried to impose even a nominal fee to people selling art, it would be struck down. Perhaps he’s right, but at least the city could make a more honest argument than park congestion, which looks to be false on its face. On the three days a week that the Union Square Greenmarket does not open, the city will not even allow one 3-foot table in the vacant market.
Park officers are telling vendors that the changes are coming at the end of the month, according to Lederman, although the Parks Dept. is being tight-lipped about when the new plan will take effect.
Whatever the day, Lederman is well on his way to preparing his next lawsuit. His last court victory was in 2001, and he is not concerned about the federal judiciary’s move to the right since then. Conservatives worry about religious groups’ free speech, particularly at places like abortion clinics, he said. “They care about the First Amendment, they care about the Constitution.