The Right to Perform Music at Washington Square Park – April 1961 Folk Riot and Now

new york mirror beatnik folk riot mass arrests greenwich village
That day, Arch in background
That day 1961, Arch in background

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.”
new york mirror beatnik folk riot mass arrests greenwich village
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.

coyote and crow music washington square park
Sunday April 26 Washington Square Park 2015

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:

washington-square-park-new-signs-no music after 10 p.m.
Washington Square Park New Signs No Music after 10 p.m.

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.

folk riot washington square park
Folk Riot Washington Square

To go back some 54 years, Janos NYC recently wrote a nice overview of the 1961 Folk Riot

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Why the Parks Department “Back-Up Plan” to Barry Diller’s Pier 55 Island Should be the Actual Plan

Diller's Proposed Island
Diller’s Proposed Island

As outlined by DNAinfo today, the New York City Parks Department has a “back up plan” if the $151 million privately financed Pier 55 project proposed by “media mogul” Barry Diller and friends falls through. The Diller plan aims to transform a pier of Hudson River Park into a “floating paradise for fundraisers and theater shows.” The alternative plan would be somewhat more modest in nature. It would be similar to … the rest of the park. At this site, I have outlined before the problems when private influence takes hold at public parks – and this is no different.

City has Back Up Plan if Barry Diller pulls out of Island project:

via DNAinfo 

CHELSEA — Billionaire media mogul Barry Diller plans to build a $151 million island oasis in Hudson River Park — if the group that runs the park meets his demands to revitalize nearby dormant space along the waterfront.

Under a lease inked with the Hudson River Park Trust, Diller has the right to pull his money from the project at Pier 54 if overhauls at neighboring piers don’t meet his satisfaction.

The lease sets out expectations that two long-troubled points in the cash-strapped park — Pier 57, a dilapidated former garage, and Gansevoort Peninsula, a swath of unused land whose fate is tied to the construction of a waste transfer station — will be developed into parkland and a commercial space.

Diller’s donation is also predicated on the construction of a publicly funded $22.5 million esplanade that will serve as an entrance to the island.

The city has pledged $17 million toward Diller’s vision and the adjacent esplanade. But DNAinfo New York has learned that, to hedge against the possibility of Diller bowing out, the Parks Department and the trust created a backup plan, a more modest $30 million park at Pier 54.

DNAinfo reviewed a working draft of the contract between the city Parks Department and the trust, which reveals that if Diller pulls out, the city’s $17 million investment will go toward a park in the same spot — but it’ll come without the bells and whistles in the billionaire’s vision. The contract is still in the process of being approved.

The difference between the parks is dramatic. Where Diller imagines a floating paradise for fundraisers and theater shows, the alternative park would be similar to other pier parks along the Hudson.

Is that so bad?

A commenter at DNAinfo named punto said:

Though this is far from my neighborhood, Inwood, I have seen what happens when private interests get concessions for projects built on publicly owned land. What was supposed to be an enhancement to the area has turned into a magnet for huge crowds that overwhelm the neighboring streets all summer long.

Just build a park that maybe, just possibly, the nearby residents could enjoy rather than one more glitzy, overdone tourist attraction, encouraging expenditure and overindulgent behavior by weekenders and tourists. The city can supply its own “entertainment” without Mr. Diller’s help just by being itself. I have been to just about every waterside area the entire length of the west side people seem to be having a good time where the main amenities are benches, water fountains and maybe a bit of grass to sit on here and there.

Strings Attached

“Mr. Diller’s contemplated donation should be understood within context,”

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