The Folk Riot at Washington Square Park – sometimes referred to as the Beatnik Riot – occurred on Sunday, April 9th, 1961 after the Parks Department of that time suppressed performance at the park, musicians fought back, a protest ensued on that date. The police were heavy handed and mass arrests took place resulting in widespread media coverage and further mobilization of the community.
Sunday was the big day for “the folkies” to meet up. In fact, the famous 17 minute film by Dan Drasin about the folk riot is simply named “Sunday.”
The day that it was clear the folk singers had won the right to reclaim the space was two weeks later on Sunday, April 23rd.
Four years ago, a 50th anniversary event was planned but it unravelled due to a dispute between the organizer and Izzy Young, a key figure of the day, who was scheduled to come to NYC for the event from Sweden.
The Performance Crackdown under the Bloomberg Administration
Around the time of the 50th Anniversary, Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a letter commemorating the importance of the Folk Riot. Yet shortly thereafter, the Parks Department began instituting a new performance crackdown at Washington Square Park.
At the time, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said, “If Bob Dylan wanted to come play there tomorrow, he could … although he might have to move away from the fountain.”
In 2012, this policy was quietly reversed. Two years later, it was still being discussed, yet, the Parks Department would not commit to their reversal of position in writing.
Present Day: New Signs Limiting Performance at Night Go Up
Musicians are allowed to perform at Washington Square Park. However, the volume of some music at the park, viewed as either too loud in decibels or attributed to intense drumming, has been brought up by park users.
Last summer, a Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting was ambiguously announced as addressing “operational issues” at Washington Square Park. In reality, this meeting was about “noise” – which is how they describe the music -, skateboarding and “closures” at the park. Due to the camouflaged agenda item, the public was never properly notified and there was no substantive community input.
This is in sharp contrast to how the Community Board proceeded under Chair Brad Hoylman in 2011 when they convened a Washington Square Park Speak-Out, a public forum to discuss the performance crackdown at that time. Whether the current issue needed a public forum, perhaps not, but some advertising of the fact that the community was being invited to discuss this at a meeting and proper notification would be appropriate.
Following the committee meeting, in July of 2014, the full Community Board passed a vague resolution directed to the Parks Department. CB2 Board member Carter Booth summed it up well stating, “We as a Board have existing resolutions for the park not to have gates and to also allow musicians to perform. I think we have to be very careful how we request this [so they understand] it is not a line in the sand. It is a very grey area.” He encouraged to ask Parks Department for feedback and other approaches and come back to the Board.
At the last two monthly meetings of the Parks Committee, the music at Washington Square Park has been discussed (although not publicly announced on the agenda). Earlier this month, Sarah Neilson, Washington Square Park Administrator, stated that the PEP (Parks Enforcement Patrol) officers were being trained to use decibel meters and this would be in place shortly. She also said to make any real change in the rules, there would have to be a resolution by the Community Board which was also signed on to by elected officials in the area.
Recently, new signs went up around the park:
The Threat of a Slippery Slope: What People Actually Wanted to See Happen
The general consensus of people concerned about the volume of the music was not to make the park shut down earlier. It was to enforce monitoring of the music levels. There was no discussion of the signs and the implications of them before they went up. This is the problem when the Parks Committee tells the rest of their Board and the public that something is coming back for their review but leaves that language out of their actual resolution to the Parks Department.
That being said, it is very possible the signs were in the works when Sarah Neilson and Manhattan Parks Chief of Staff Steve Simon came before the CB2 Parks Committee earlier this month yet omitted mentioning them.
To go back some 54 years, Janos NYC recently wrote a nice overview of the 1961 Folk Riot
In 1961, beatniks were ascendant. Ginsberg and Kerouac were mainstream hits, and the West Village was the American centre of bohemia. Some had taken to playing guitars and hanging out in Washington Square Park. When Parks Commissioner Newbold Morris insisted the folk singers acquire permits to play in the park, then summarily rejected their permit requests, folk singers and Beatniks responded by holding a protest on April 9, 1961, which did not end well. The mass arrests were captured in a documentary made by videographers who happened to be on hand.
At that point, the folk movement started organizing. The Reverend Howard Moody, pastor at Judson Church, founded the “Right to Sing Committee,” and led a major rally calling against the Parks Department: “We believe – myself and my church – you have the right to sing in Washington Square.” Political newcomers like Ed Koch and Carol Greitzer took the side of the folk singers.
On the other side of the fence, Commissioner Morris denounced the folk movement for attracting “elements from the Bronx and so on,” and was supported in his efforts to restrict access to the park by the NIMBYist Committee to Preserve the Dignity and Beauty of Washington Square Park.
On April 23, a crowd of two thousand led by Rev. Moody sat in the park, sang songs, and played guitar. The NYPD looked on, but took no action against them this time around. Meanwhile, a lawsuit against Morris’ ban wound its way through the court system, eventually ruling in favor of the commissioner. At that point, lawyers for the singers realized that the old requirement for permits itself only applied to “minstrelry,” which is defined as singing accompanied by instrumentation. The singers returned to the park, sans guitar, and sang “This park is your park” and other protest songs a capella.
Mayor Wagner, watching all of this unfold in an election year, decided to minimize his headaches, and overruled Commissioner Morris. The folk singing could continue, with guitars, as before. The only new rule: no bongos. This compromise, amusingly similar to a compromise brokered during Occupy Wall Street at Liberty Park, satisfied everyone except for the bongo-loving beatniks. The folk scene continued to thrive, the turmoil resolved just as its newest member, Bob Dylan, rolled into town.
postscript: I had never heard of the Committee to Preserve the Dignity and Beauty of Washington Square Park. (What does this recall? The whole “safe, clean and beautiful” mantra perhaps?)