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

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.”

* * *

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)

* * *
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

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

  1. On April 30 the group performing in the fountain were warned by a PEP about the drums. The PEP left and 5 minutes later the drums were louder. Just start confiscating loud drum sets. It seems the only way to get the message across. It really does make the park unpleasant. They were also soliciting money.

    • Hi Artsy Girl,

      There does seem to be a need for some better enforcement of certain rules for sure. I am not sure why the issues have magnified over the last few years, which makes me wonder. The situation you reported above should be fairly *easy* to regulate since it is pretty clear cut. But as they stated at the meeting, sometimes these are new PEP officers, recently graduated, and they dont really know how to handle everything. So maybe in that respect, this will be good. Hope for the best. Thanks for your comment and sharing what you saw.


  2. Since at least the very start of the 60’s people have always performed in the park be it music including drumming , dancing , singing , stand up comedy ,magic tricks and yes even Square dancing that is Washington Sq. park .You could always hear the music in the buildings around the square that is not new .So why is it a problem now?

    • Hi Missy,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree with you. I dont think right now they want to stop the music in general (although the Parks Dept tried that a few years ago) but for some reason there have been more complaints of loud music, even from those playing (acoustic) music in the park. I am not sure why the music, with regards to the surrounding buildings, is an issue now. Hard to say but I have wondered the same thing!

      Square dancing in the Square! That would be fun!


    • On that one, as far as I know, no. But that was the topic of another recent post (see Bernie Sanders Rally, although that happened which was heartening).


  3. The issue is not the music per se. It is the volume of the music. Groups such as Tic n Tac use the drums to attract a crowd away from the musicians and artists. So everyone gets louder and louder until no one can stand it anymore. There is a sax player there in the morning that is loud and what he plays is not considered music. There are people who play sax in jazz trios that are not loud and drummers that use brushes instead of sticks and that is no problem.

    The issue here is not music it is about volume.

    • I echo and applaud Artsy Girl’s comments here. The issue here isn’t about music, but about musical instruments being used by Tic and Tac to disrupt other performers in the park. If one listens closely to what their drummers do, it closely resembles what invading armies do by bombarding a target with heavy artillery before an invasion of ground troops: Basically, all other performers against whom Tic and Tac might have to compete for attention are disrupted and/or drowned out so that they have to stop performing, or leave Washington Square Park.

      The goal of decibel monitoring, and of the parks department probably isn’t to sanitize Washington Square Park or rob it of its uniqueness and historical significance as a place where Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie once performed, and where musicians from around the world continue to make pilgrimages. if anything, the goal of these measures would seem to save Washington Square Park from becoming a place where only Tic and Tac can perform, repeating the same routine up to six days a week, from 3pm until after sundown.

      Of note, I have no major objection to Tic and Tac performing, even though at this point I can probably recite much of their banter as well as they can. I do, however, object strongly to how they use drummers to create a cacophonous sound, and how they monopolize the park. There is nothing about their use of drums that should be protected under the first amendment. Tic and Tac already begin their show by announcing that “if you’re doing nothing, you might as well no nothing with us.” They don’t need drummers to amend that message to say “don’t look at anyone else, or do anything else, only look at us.”

  4. Loud music is a problem e.g. massive loud drumming, incessant bagpiping under the arch. There are many many appropriate & courteous musicians that enhance the fabric of the park. True…the real issue here is not music it is about volume.

    I could not make the meeting discussed in the article. Is it really possible that only 15 summonses were ever issued in a year for any offense? I guess if there is no patrol, there is no enforcement or consequence after appropriate warning.

    Music may very be one of the lesser problems in the park that needs to be addressed versus trash, rats, rats, rats, bikes, and skaters. I walk through the park en route to work at 6 am on a monday and see all Sunday’s trash pouring out of the cans, or on the benches, or out all over the grounds after the rats have had their feast all night. Why can’t there be more adequate trash cans? A night time clean up before the midnight rat buffet begins? Seems very simple to me. The uniformed park clean up workers work so very hard but they are every challenged with the volume of trash, lack of collection and woefully poor administration. The park should be a vibrant gems for all to enjoy; not a place to be abused and trashed.

  5. Sound meters can be insensitive to bass, so club noise complaints are judged by a city employee or responding officer visiting the complainant’s residence.

    Use of sound meters has other quirks too. Percussive instruments will have shorter measured peaks than drone instruments, but may have larger disruptive effect. Ambient sound levels are going to vary according to time of day with proximity of the measurement to traffic and other factors. When multiple musicians are playing, it may be difficult to differentiate the effects of each.

    If the city wishes to reduce any excesses in a rational way which can hold up in court, it should be sure it has obtained adequate professional advice on how to use meters accurately, and be sure that the staff using the meters is properly trained. Actual recordings of the sounds should be taken, and duration needs to be taken into account (start and end of a performance may naturally be a bit louder, just as in a theater), so the context of the measurement may also come into play.

    All of which is to say that making a close and far measurement and issuing a citation could rightfully be challenged unless the monitoring is clearly focused on truly egregious behavior. There is a large grey area in this issue.

    • What type of device would you recommend to record a performance, which would meaningfully reflect the decibel level of the performance? I’m no expert in this, but I had thought that decibel meters could also be used to measure sound pressure waves in a way that could capture the vibration/impact of percussive instruments.


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