Why It Remains Important
The Folk Riot at Washington Square Park – sometimes referred to as the Beatnik Riot – occurred on Sunday, April 9th, 1961 after the city’s Parks Department suppressed performance at the park, musicians fought back, and 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 at that time 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.
Performance Crackdown under the Bloomberg Administration in 2011
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. This was in 2011, suddenly, almost all areas of the park were considered off-limits if they were within certain short distances of a bench or monument, such as, notably, the fountain or Arch.
At the time, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told The New York Times, “If Bob Dylan wanted to come play there tomorrow, he could … although he might have to move away from the fountain.”
Two years later, in 2014, it was still being discussed, yet the Parks Department would not commit to their reversal of position in writing.
Musicians are, of course, 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 but only in more recent years, following the redesign of the park.
In 2014, 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 the music was described by the committee; also included as “issues” were skateboarding and “closures” at entrances to the park. Due to the camouflaged agenda item, the public was never properly notified and there was no substantive community input.
This was in sharp contrast to how the Community Board proceeded under Chair Brad Hoylman (now State Assembly Member) in 2011.
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 the Parks Committee to ask the Parks Department for feedback and other approaches and come back to the Board.
The city Parks Department’s Administrator for Washington Square Park at that time, Sarah Neilson, stated shortly afterwards that the PEP (Parks Enforcement Patrol) officers were being trained to use decibel meters and this would be in place shortly.
The Washington Square Park Folk Riot informs the very essence of the park to this day. Yet park users and community members have to stay aware and remain involved, as people did 57 years ago fighting for their right to perform and express themselves in a public space. There is also the threat looming of privatization of this special park, privatization inevitably makes public space less public. Stay tuned for what happens next as the weather gets warmer and the music resumes in full force.
“Sunday” by Dan Drasin, YouTube
Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:
Top Photo: Unknown
New York Mirror cover via Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York
Photo Musicians Coyote and Crow 2015: Cathryn