Washington Square Park “Step Up Sergeant” Begins May 1 for Music Decibel Monitoring, More: Will This be a Good Thing?

Sergeant Rivera Coming to Washington Square Park PEP (Park Enforcement Patrol)
Sergeant Rivera Coming to Washington Square Park PEP (Park Enforcement Patrol)
Sergeant Rivera Coming to Washington Square Park PEP

Will Washington Square Park Become Uber–Regimented like Madison Square Park with introduction of Park Enforcement Patrol “Step Up Sergeant?”

For a few years now, voices around Washington Square Park, some louder than others, have complained about issues at the park such as random skateboarders, bicyclists, loud music. But will these complaints, now being responded to with the addition of a Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP) Step Up sergeant, lead to the unanticipated outcome of an overly regulated park?

In 2011, there was a performance crackdown at the park, and the community fiercely fought this. Curiously, since then, there have been complaints that the music has, at certain times and due to actions of a few, been too loud. Now, decibel meters are being put into play, and other rules. What will it mean long term?

At Community Board 2’s Parks Committee meeting April 6, the Parks Department presented its plan to implement the use of decibel meters to ameliorate complaints of loud music reaching across the park, drums pointed to as the primary culprit. Although the idea of decibel meters was introduced last year with the intention of being utilized last summer, the concept never ended up in play.

Washington Square Park Administrator Sarah Neilson also announced that the Parks Department will be adding a “Step Up sergeant,” Sergeant Rivera, present at the meeting, to the Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) team at Washington Square Park. The Step up sergeant is used to oversee the other PEP officers. The Deputy Inspector from the agency, who oversees the sergeants, said: “This is a model we tried at Madison Square Park and it was very successful.” He added that Sergeant Rivera is “the shining star of PEP.”

“This is a model we tried at Madison Square Park and it was very successful.”

As the overly sanitized, commercialized and privatized space that Madison Square Park is, it should be noted that what would be considered “successful” there would likely be quite different from what would be successful at Washington Square Park.

Music Volume Monitoring: Decibel Meters Really Coming

In 2011, there was a performance crackdown which included mass ticketing of musicians at Washington Square Park. After the resulting community outrage, the Parks Department, then led by Commissioner Adrien Benepe, stopped the ticketing and allowed music to return freely, as long as any money exchanged for a performance was by donation.

Curiously, in the last few years, the sound level of the music in the park has become an issue. It is unclear if it is the redesigned park that is not as friendly to varying music levels (remember the Fountain Plaza was slightly sunken so this buffered the sound) or a new influx of performer.

Sarah Neilson said of the park: “We want it to be a lively place. Sometimes it tips too loud and people don’t like it as much.”
As such, one clear rule continues to be: “No amplified sound without a permit.”

Neilson said (Rivera) “will be supervising PEP officers using the meter on a regular basis. The goal is voluntary compliance. Nobody wants to summon anybody.”

“The goal is voluntary compliance. Nobody wants to summon anybody.”

C.B. 2 Member Jonathan Geballe asked how many officers will have the decibel meters. Answer: “Just one.”

Neilson said the meters will “test ambient sound and then test additional levels at 30 feet away.” This is considered more “lenient” than the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) standard noise code of 15 feet. (Bill Castro stated previously that the Parks Department also has its own sound volume rules.)

[Decibel meters are also known as sound level meters. DNAinfo explained their interpretation of how the meters will be used here.]

The park administrator said there have been discussions with the Legal Department at the Parks Department as far as what was actually allowed as far as regulation and did not interfere with First Amendment Rights.

Park Administrator Sarah Neilson; Step Up Sergeant Rivera, Washington Square Park
Park Administrator Sarah Neilson; Step Up Sergeant Rivera

Presently, “the nite crew of PEP has been going around at 9:30 letting musicians know music stops at 10 p.m,” added Neilson.

Parks Committee member Sharon Woolums said, “At nite on summer evenings when it’s really hot, some of the best jams have happened after 10 p.m.”

Looking irritated (Woolums had mentioned this before at another meeting), Neilson replied that no music “after 10 p.m. is a city wide rule.”

(While this might technically be true that it is a “rule,” it was allowed.)

Musician Bruce Martin said that there are artists being allowed to solicit and that this was illegal which led to a discussion about the difference between actually soliciting and seeking donations.

While the performance crackdown and ticketing began in 2011 and ended quietly in 2012, it was in 2013 that the Parks Department confirmed the reversal of the earlier policy, stating that asking for donations with a cup or hat or guitar case on the ground, for example, were fine.

However, fears still remained as the agency, represented by Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro, would not commit to this in writing.

[At the recent meeting, the Parks Department provided this phone number for sound complaints if a PEP officer is not nearby: #646.613.1200]

2 Fifth Avenue

A few people from 2 Fifth Avenue, across from the park, discussed their issues with hearing music in their apartments, some complained about music during the day as well as at night. Two people suggested there should be no music played under the Arch. This seemed really swinging the wrong way.

Will more enforcement change the whole tenor of the park?

When asked by an audience member how many summonses the PEP officers issue a year, the Deputy Inspector replied around 15. The man replied, “Well, there is your problem.” The Deputy Inspector said, “I don’t think that’s where the problem is. If you’re consistent with your enforcement, it works.”

I would also offer that a kinder park with less ticketing is the way to go to begin with, less focus on rules for the sake of rules. It becomes/is its own ecosystem. While some people may have complained about lack of enforcement, there are benefits to this.

When asked by WSP Blog if the Step up sergeant is being paid out of the $200,000 it had previously been stated that New York University provides annually to pay for the PEP officers at the park, Neilson replied yes.

The PEP officers will work the park in 3 zones: Zone A, Zone B, and Zone C. The PEP officers will be assigned to different areas within those “zones.” There will be 3 in the morning and 3 in the evening. (WSP Blog note: have to confirm this is immediately the case.)

According to the NYC Parks department, the Step Up sergeants are seasonable positions and work to address local issues more effectively. There are 57 of the sergeants in New York City with 16 working in Manhattan; 38 of these are year round.

Sergeant Rivera is scheduled to work with Parks Enforcement Patrol officers at Washington Square Park from May 1st to October 31st.

Community Board 2 Chair Tobi Bergman said at the meeting, “20 years ago, I was Chief of Operations for Central Park. I think this is a step forward. That means… we’ll give you a chance.”

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This is Part II of the report back from this meeting.

Part I can be found here: Chains of Fools? The Push for Gates & Conformity at Washington Square Park

Previously at WSP Blog:

The Right to Perform Music at Washington Square Park – April 1961 Folk Riot and Now April 27, 2015 (provides overview of the performance crackdown and music history at WSP)

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WSP Blog note: Probably more than should be gets sorted out at the Community Board meetings (separate, of course, from those things C.B.2 works out behind the scenes in advance with the Parks Department, a bit dodgy). The meetings are not well publicized; items will be marked as public hearings with no background information given. Nonetheless, people may not realize how important it is to attend: a mix of voices remains important and it ends up mattering.

Photos: Cathryn