Artists make up a vital part of the fabric of Union Square Park. On Friday, April 4th, they were given word that they are being evicted out of their longstanding space due to Mayor Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe’s plans to further privatize the Park. These plans, as outlined previously, include expanding the restaurant space in the historic Pavilion for Union Square Partnership member and restauranteur Danny Meyer, thereby reducing the amount of space for artists, the famous GreenMarket(founded by Parks Commissioner Benepe’s father, Barry) and free speech protesters in the Park for TWO years during construction. The expansion for this restaurant, largely unwelcome by the community, will also mean the destruction of 14 stately trees by our city’s Parks Commissioner.
Here is an excerpt from a notice from Robert Lederman who organizes A.R.T.I.S.T., an organization representing, and comprised of, street artists in our city:
On Friday, April 4th 2008. the Parks Department told artists working in Union Square Park that for the next two years they would no longer be allowed to set up in or around the park on Wednesdays and Saturdays due to a construction project at the North end of the park. A restaurant is being built there on behalf of a board member of the Union Sq Partnership. As a result of the construction, the entire Greenmarket will be relocated from the North and West sides of the park to the South and West sides, the exact location artists have set up in for years.
I explained (to the Parks Department) that artists have no problem with the Greenmarket and are willing to reasonably cooperate in making space for the construction project but that we also have NO intention of giving up our First Amendment rights in the park.
Some background: The Mayor deliberately under budgets the Parks Department each year. As a result, the Parks Department must somehow earn hundreds of millions of dollars each year in order to pay the bills for running the vast NYC parks system. They make up for the lack of funds by selling concessions, letting corporations rent public parks for special events and by privatizing public spaces, as is being done in USP with the new restaurant.
They also deal with this deliberate under budgeting by allowing private corporations like the Union Square Partnership, The Central Park Conservancy, the Battery Park Conservancy and the Bryant Park Conservancy to take over most, or in some cases all, of the operations in a particular park. In exchange for the funding, they are allowed to gradually transform NYC’s public parks into corporate run privatized parks, not much different than Disneyland or a private mall.
For more information or to be updated consistently, please contact Robert Lederman at artistpres -at- gmail.com.
A message from Robert Lederman, President of A.R.T.I.S.T.
On Friday, April 4th 2008 the Parks Department told artists working in USP that for the next two years they would no longer be allowed to set up in or around the park on Wednesdays and Saturdays due to a construction project at the North end of the park. A restaurant is being built there on behalf of a board member of the Union Sq Partnership. As a result of the construction, the entire Greenmarket will be relocated from the North and West sides of the park to the South and West sides, the exact location artists have set up in for years.
Upon learning this I got in touch with Parks Department officials to try to resolve this issue. I explained that artists have no problem with the Greenmarket and are willing to reasonably cooperate in making space for the construction project but that we also have NO intention of giving up our First Amendment rights in the park. The Parks Commissioner and various members of his staff are trying to figure out exactly how to accommodate both the artists and the Greenmarket in what is now a smaller space. I will keep you up to date on any new developments.
Later I contacted a director of the Greenmarket. We both agreed that artists and the Greenmarket could coexist, and that we would try to proceed carefully over the next few weeks as this is being worked out.
On Saturday morning April 5th the Parks Department made a temporary accommodation, backing off of the order that no artist could set up. They allowed artists to set up in a number of areas around the park, including around the traffic triangle at the southeast end. I spoke on the scene with various Park enforcement officials, explaining to them that this arrangement was still not satisfactory. As is often the case, the Park Enforcement officers (PEP) had a number of mistaken ideas about what is or is not legal for artists to do in a park. Among their notions was that it is illegal for us to set up anywhere inside any park. This is absolutely not the case.
At 9 AM we held a meeting in A.R.T.I.S.T. member Tony Chisholm’s apartment with 20 USP artists to discuss our long term strategy for dealing with the situation. Tony has an audio recording he will make available for any A.R.T.I.S.T. member who is interested in hearing the meeting. Those who attended all agreed that we would do whatever was necessary to defend our rights in USP.
At 10 AM we distributed protest signs and held a brief but spirited protest inside the park. For the remainder of the day artists sold both around, and in a few cases, inside the park, without any problem or incident. Only time will tell how this situation develops over the next few days and weeks.
I urge all artists who sell in USP to seriously consider the following points:
1. The ONLY reason artists are allowed to sell in any NYC park (or on the streets of NYC) is that A.R.T.I.S.T. won a series of Federal lawsuits which established that we have a First Amendment right to create, display and sell visual art in all the public spaces of NYC. While making money may the primary reason most artists are displaying their work in NYC parks, we must never lose sight of this being a Constitutional issue of free speech, not merely an issue of commercial vending. Our right to be in USP is not based on the Parks Department or any NYC agency allowing us to be there. It is a Constitutional right of free speech, exactly the same as the right to hand out a leaflet, protest or sell a newspaper. Unlike the Greenmarket or the many food and souvenir concessions that are now located in NYC parks, we are not there because we paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a permit that can be revoked at any time. We neither seek nor need the Parks Department’s permission to set up there.
2. Regardless of having a Constitutional right to sell art in any NYC park, we are still subject to reasonable rules regarding where we can set up a display and how large it can be. Those rules cannot be invented by parks enforcement on the spot nor can they be arbitrary. It is possible that the Parks Department’s short term approach to the USP issue will be to issue one or more new rules. To the extent that artists can smoothly, reasonably and intelligently get along with the Greenmarket relocation and restaurant construction arrangements, those new rules may be fairly easy for us to deal with. To the extent that artists get into a daily conflict with the Greenmarket, or begin fighting with each other over the limited space, we can expect those new rules to be very severe. A.R.T.I.S.T. will be negotiating on your behalf with the Parks Commissioner and his staff. We ask that you do everything in your power to cooperate with us in this regard. Please use common sense in deciding where and how to set up your art and please encourage each other to do so as well.
3. In order to get the full picture of what we are facing, it is important to understand the political and financial background to this problem. The Mayor deliberately under budgets the Parks Department each year. The yearly operating expenses for NYC parks are hundreds of millions of dollars more than they are given by the city. As a result, the Parks Department must somehow earn hundreds of millions of dollars each year in order to pay the bills for running the vast NYC parks system. They make up for the lack of funds by selling concessions, letting corporations rent public parks for special events and by privatizing public spaces, as is being done in USP with the new restaurant.
They also deal with this deliberate under budgeting by allowing private corporations like the Union Square Partnership, The Central Park Conservancy, the Battery Park Conservancy and the Bryant Park Conservancy to take over most, or in some cases all, of the operations in a particular park. These wealthy private corporations even pay the salaries of the Park enforcement (PEP) officers (and frequently misuse them as if they were a private army that can ignore the civil liberties of the public). In exchange for the funding, they are allowed to gradually transform NYC’s public parks into corporate run privatized parks, not much different than Disneyland or a private mall.
The Parks Department and these park conservancy corporations see First Amendment protected artists freely selling in parks (and on streets) as a bothersome obstacle to this privatization agenda – and it is not hard to see why. The USP Greenmarket pays more than a million dollars a year to sell food in the park while artists sell in it for free. Hot dog and tee shirt carts in Central Park pay as much as $500,000 for each 8 foot vending spot. The food carts set up right next to artists who can sell there for free. Disney, Sony, BestBuy, Target and other huge corporations pay as much as a million dollars to rent a park for a single night in order to promote their corporate image.
These park conservancies then take a big cut of all the profits and the permit fees earned by selling concessions and sponsoring special events, concerts and promotions. The Parks Department and the private corporations that now operate most NYC parks would love to permanently eliminate all of the street artists, and to put more very profitable concessions and special corporate events in our place.
This is the entire basis for the conflict between street artists and the City of NY that has gone on for the past 14 years. So far, we have been winning this fight, both on the streets, in the media and in the courts. Once you understand this big picture, the small picture of suddenly being told you cannot set up in USP will be much easier to understand.
4. You might reasonably wonder how street artists can possibly hope to win this fight, considering the immense financial power and political influence of those who are our adversaries. The answer is that the public is NOT in favor of their public parks being privatized. The local residents who live near USP are very angry about the restaurant being built there. Likewise, they are unhappy with the gigantic Christmas Gift Market that monopolizes most of the park every November and December. Fortunately for us, most of these local residents like to see artists in the park. This gives us great potential to win this issue in the court of public opinion. The local residents also love the Greenmarket, which may be the single most popular thing the Parks Department has done in its entire history. The Greenmarket was started by Barry Benepe, father of the current Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe. This is why it is very much in our strategic interests to get along with the Greenmarket if we hope to maintain our position in USP.
5. In light of the political and financial aspects described above, I propose the following as our strategy to win this fight: We must align ourselves with the Greenmarket and with the local residents in opposition to the Union Square Partnership and Parks Department’s privatization agenda.
Union Square is a very small park. It is located in a neighborhood that has the most restaurants per block of any in NYC and the least green public space of any area of NYC. Allowing the Union Square Partnership to take a huge section of that small park away from the public, just so that one of its board members can build a restaurant in a public park, is absurd. We must play up this controversy as much as possible in order to win the war for public opinion. I spoke with many local people and Greenmarket vendors on Saturday. They are ALL opposed to this restaurant being built. Most are fully aware of and strongly against the larger privatization agenda. Whether or not we ultimately succeed in stopping the restaurant from being built, by aligning ourselves visibly and vocally with those who oppose the restaurant and the privatization of parks, we will be able to prevail in our effort to stay in USP.
A key part of winning public opinion is that we must not allow ourselves to be guilty of the same privatization agenda as the Union Square Partnership. If we unfairly reserve or try to permanently monopolize vending spots in the park; if we try to discourage other artists from selling there; if we act as if we own the public property we sell on; then we are small time privatizers, no better than the Union Square Partnership or the Central Park Conservancy.
6. The most important point to consider is this:
If we allow the Parks Department to evict us from USP even temporarily, it will very likely mean the end of artists selling there ever again. Once they succeed in getting us out, we can be certain they will neither invite nor allow us back in; not next week, not two years from now when the restaurant is built, not ever. Their likely strategy to keep us out will be to sell vending concessions in the exact spaces we now show art in, then claim that these permit/concession activities are occupying all the available space and as a result, artists can no longer set up there.
Moreover, if the Parks Department succeeds in getting us out of USP, they will likely use this technique of claiming renovation or construction to evict us from every park in NYC. Artists who sell in Battery Park, Central Park etc. take note. We need your full support and cooperation in order to win this fight, because the outcome will directly and permanently affect you as well. Artists who sell on the street in SoHo or Midtown or elsewhere, be advised that the outcome of this will affect us all regardless of where we sell.
How we handle this may set the stage for the future of artists selling in the public spaces of NYC. If we only consider the small picture; our spot; our immediate sales for the weekend; just our personal financial interests; we will not only lose our rights and our livelihood but the rights and livlihood of every artist in NYC, forever.
On the other hand, if we see and act on the big picture; if we hold foremost in our minds that we are First Amendment advocates fighting not just to sell our art in USP but fighting to defend the entire public’s right to have free and completely public parks, we shall prevail.
Please do everything in your power to help us succeed in this noble endeavor. The rights you save will be your own.
Robert Lederman, President of A.R.T.I.S.T.
artistpres – at – gmail.com
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