Amidst Confusion, Community and Performers to City’s Parks Department: Commit in Writing — No “Performance Crackdown” at Washington Square, and all NYC Parks

Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro came before the Parks Committee of Community Board 2 last night at downtown’s Grace Church Tuttle Hall to address the many conflicting things being reported about whether performers at Washington Square Park specifically, but other parks generally, will begin (again) being targeted and ticketed for performing beginning May 8th.

Before all this, we met new Washington Sq Park Park Administrator Sarah Neilson — but that will be a separate post. We also heard about the Jackson Square Alliance and their first art project in the park and I’ll come back to that too.

But first, Manhattan’s Parks Commissioner Bill Castro’s beginning statement at last night’s meeting:

 Washington Square Park is a park for decades where musicians have flocked to play music. [This new rule is a] technical change … it is not going to affect musicians who come to the park to play. If you sit on a park bench, open a guitar case, put a hat out, that’s fine. That is not going to change. You don’t have to be x feet away from anything. You can play under the Arch, as long as there is some distance and people can walk through the paths…and you’re not blocking the sidewalk. It is not an issue we consider particularly difficult. It’s not anything we saw as a problem at Washington Square Park. The Community Board has said ‘we don’t want commercialization of things.’ 

Then, he stated that the only change coming is, that, if a performer has product such as CDs, he or she “can sell those but you have to get a stand. So people don’t trip over them, you have to get a stand. That goes into effect next week. We will make sure our PEP (Park Enforcement Patrol) workers know this. We know it can be confusing [when you hear] 5 feet from a bench, 50 feet from a monument… The only issue is if you decide to sell CD’s. We are doing a Q&A sheet that we’re handing out.”

So far, so good. That seemed clear enough. Then, former Parks Committee Chair Tobi Bergman, still a member of the committee, asked, going back to 2011 when performers began getting summonses for doing things that they didn’t “normally” get ticketed for at the park, “What happened then, so we can understand” Bergman asked, “and why?” (Good question.)

Commissioner Castro replied, “Somebody went off and enforced the strict letter of the law. [Back in 2011], I came to that Parks meeting and said this is not going to be our policy. We don’t intend it to happen [anymore].”

Committee member Shirley Secunda then said, instead of this “informal statement,” she suggested that “the best way to make this absolutely clear would be to pass legislation.”

“[The Parks Department rules] go back to Frederick Law Olmsted,” Commissioner Castro responded. “That’s the genesis of them.” The implication being that they are difficult to change (tho’ they have clearly changed them).

(Olmsted died in 1903 at age 81, surely these exact rules we are living with today don’t come from him…? Writer and activist Mitchel Cohen later asked, “does that rule about amplification come from Olmsted?” I also can’t imagine Olmsted saying, don’t feed the pigeons and squirrels. But anyway…)

Sand artist Joe Mangrum, whose art is a frequent site at the park, said that a PEP officer told him, back around the time of the “crackdown,” that there is one spot 12 feet in diameter on the west side of Washington Square Park where the “rules” (which, to some in the room, still felt up in the air) — the 50 feet from a monument and 5 feet from a bench — don’t apply.

Matt Borden from Assembly Member Deborah Glick’s office commented, “The next Parks Commissioner, if they don’t have the same ethos as you folks, [people] might have to fight this fight again.” He suggested that something more specific be laid out.

Commissioner Castro said the PEP officers are getting “special training [on the new rules] Monday” (May 6).

Then he outlined some of the context of the “expressive matter” rules that were put into place first in 2010 which, Castro said, applied to “several parks with select spots at Union Square, the High Line, Battery Park and southern part of Central Park” where something called “medallion spots” were put in play. A limited number of these “spots” are in these parks and artists (and performers) can only utilize these isolated spots to display their work or perform.

Confusingly, he then said, “the restrictions exist in all parks but there are no medallions in Washington Square Park.”

Pianist Colin Huggins got up and said that he was threatened with going to jail when playing his piano in WSP during the “crackdown” and it wasn’t just one PEP officer, it was “all of [the park’s] PEP.” He said, “There should be something in the rules to clarify this isn’t going to happen again.”

Bill Castro replied, “We are going to make it clear in a few days. [We’ve] demonstrated over the last year and a half what we meant by this.”

Joe Mangrum then said that he had been told previously, “if you are accepting donations, you are ‘expressive matter’ vendors.”

The conversation swung back and forth like this throughout the meeting. Artist and activist Robert Lederman, head of A.R.T.I.S.T (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics), discussed his federal lawsuit against the Parks Department about the “expressive matter” rules and said the Parks Department had filed papers in their response to the suit which contradicted what Commissioner Castro had just stated. There was a bit of tension, shall we say, at this point with no clear resolution.

It felt very much like the Parks Department is trying to set some rules in specific parks, mainly focusing on artists however they don’t want to appear to be not regulating the musicians  – so they have included them. Although some musicians who performed at other parks mentioned problems they have been having.

What is clear is that thus far the city agency does not want to change the language of these rules to indicate or clarify that performance and art are ‘safe’ at these other parks, particularly Washington Square Park, which is what is making people very wary and nervous. Understandably.

It is a little suspect that New York City, known for its culture, and art, and street sense, is now, under the Bloomberg Administration, being basically pacified and sanitized by the enforcement or even threat of these rules. Unless these “new” rules that are unveiled are very clear, no one is going to know whether to believe them.

Towards or at the very end, Geoffrey Croft from New York City Park Advocates got up to speak. Commissioner Castro had left shortly before hand. Croft said that he was sorry Bill Castro left because he stated it was “disingenuous [for Bill Castro] to say  — his exact quote — ‘someone went off’ [when the mass ticketing occurred], that is factually incorrect. This was a Bloomberg Administration policy carried out by Mr. Castro. To throw out a PEP officer under the bus, when this was a policy, is disgusting. Through legal pressure and the help of the [community] board, [change occurred]. Every single person [at the hearing held by Community Board 2] was against the policy, the only person in favor was Bill Castro.”

Croft said he’s been working with lawyers Norman Siegel and Ron Kuby and, as far as he’s been informed, the rules are not going to affect performers and musicians… which is, actually, also what Commissioner Castro said. Croft also mentioned that the issue of Conservancies and NIDs (Neighborhood Improvement Districts) was really important and he hoped the board would adequately address the “privatization issues.” (Ah… more on that to come…)

At the end of the day, I think it would make everyone feel better and somewhat reassured – and I can see no reason why this would be a problem — if this was all stated clearly in writing: no performance crackdown at Washington Square Park and parks in New York City. And also if the Bloomberg Administration would please stop trying to sanitize our city before the Mayor’s seemingly endless third term ends. He’s done enough already.

Read more on the “performance crackdown” at WSP here.

Photos: Cathryn

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2 thoughts on “Amidst Confusion, Community and Performers to City’s Parks Department: Commit in Writing — No “Performance Crackdown” at Washington Square, and all NYC Parks”

  1. Olmsted did have strong opinions about what constituted appropriate behavior in parks but (1) parks uses and needs have changed since his time and (2) Washington Square Park is not an Olmsted park nor is it a large, pastoral park where uses were originally segregated/separated.

  2. Hi Georgia, I should have realized you would know! I will have to read up more on Olmsted … this is true that parks uses and needs have changed since his time. It would be interesting to find a set of the original rules and regulations that he drew up. But this is what the Manhattan Parks Commissioner pointed to when someone asked (and more than one person after that) if they could make these ‘rules’ more clearly worded.


    p.s. oops and I spelled his name wrong which I will now correct.


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