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BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | Puppeteer Ronny Wasser-strom and artist David Evirett-Carlson were nervous. They had just emerged from a Community Board 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee meeting on May 1 where Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro had faced a room full of expressive-matter vendors who were not shy about expressing their questions and grievances with the city’s parks rules and regulations.
Castro wanted to allay their fears about the “clarified” rules issued by the Parks Department on April 2. This clarification stated that as of May 8, musicians and other performers in parks would have to abide by the same rules as expressive-matter vendors of visual art. The rules state that in four heavily trafficked Manhattan parks — the High Line, Battery Park, Central Park and Union Square — musicians and other performers would have to set up their stations on a limited number of medallion-marked spots, just as those who sell paintings, photography, books and newspapers are already required to do.
In other parks, however, according to the written rules, the requirement is that expressive-matter vendors must stay 50 feet away from any monument and 5 feet away from any park bench, tree, wall, fence or sign, among other restrictions.
Despite Castro’s attempt to reassure the C.B. 2 audience, Wasserstrom and Evirett-Carlson figured they had just one week in which to continue to make a living busking in the city’s parks before a crackdown on expressive-matter vendors, like themselves, might slap them with substantial fines and the possibility of arrest. After May 8, they weren’t sure what would happen.
Though Castro’s remarks applied to all of the city’s parks, the particular one under discussion that evening was Washington Square Park, whose 9.75 acres have traditionally been a haven for musicians from all over the city, and indeed, from other parts of the country and other countries, as well.
Castro explained that “the slight adjustment” to the Parks Department’s rules announced on April 2 “is not going to affect musicians who come to the parks to play, with one exception.” He said it would be fine to sit on a park bench with an instrument case and donation can.
“You don’t have to be ‘X’ feet away from this or any of that jazz,” he stated.
The exception would be if a performer wanted to sell a lot of CDs, he said.
“You can sell those without a permit, but you have to get a stand so that people don’t trip over them,” Castro said. “As in the expressive-art rules that we issued a couple of years ago, you have to get a stand. It can be up to 8 feet wide. But if you’re sitting on a bench and you’re playing and you have the CDs on your lap, that’s fine. It’s so that you don’t obstruct things. It’s so that you’re not interfering with people.”
Castro said that the Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers who are charged with administering the rule would be informed in advance so they could “explain it to people, because it can be confusing.”
After hearing this, many of the expressive-matter vendors in the room said they were still confused.
A member of the audience asked Castro, “Would you put it in writing?”
“Yes,” Castro replied. “We’re doing a question-and-answer sheet that we’re going to be handing out.”
Tobi Bergman, a member of the C.B. 2 committee, said part of the audience’s confusion and distress stemmed from what had happened a few years ago when, he said, there were actually quite a few summonses issued “to people who didn’t expect them, because they were doing things that they had normally done when summons were not issued.” Bergman asked Castro to clarify what had happened at that time and why it happened.
“Somebody went off physically and enforced the strict letter of the law,” Castro replied. He indicated that that had not been Parks Department policy and that it had been a PEP officer who took matters into his own hands.
Colin Huggins, who plays a grand piano under the Washington Square arch, said that the summons issued to him in 2010 did not come from a single PEP officer.
“It was from all of them,” Huggins said, “and even Ray Brown [PEP director of operations] himself came up to me, and I have him on film saying it, ‘If you don’t take your piano out of here right now, you’re going to jail.’
“We want to make sure that there’s something in the rules to really clarify that this isn’t going to happen again,” Huggins said. “It wasn’t just a small incident. It was over a long amount of time, and I don’t think I was the only one who was threatened to be put in jail.”
Robert Lederman, who has been suing the Parks Department in federal courts for years over infringements to the free-speech rights of expressive-matter vendors, told the audience that Castro’s statements were at odds with Parks’ stated, written rules. He assiduously videotaped Castro’s comments at last Wednesday’s committee meeting.
“If you’re selling art, if you’re accepting a donation while doing a performance, you’re an expressive-matter vendor,” Lederman said. “And you therefore have to follow all of the expressive-matter vendor rules. The 2013 amendment, which they claim clarifies that, says the same exact thing [as rules put forth in June 2010], slightly reworded.”
Lederman took issue with Castro’s statement that the rules would not apply to performers in Washington Square Park. The activist called that “selective enforcement.”
“We’re going to arrest or summons every single artist that even tries to sell one picture in the park, but we’re going to let an unlimited number of performers basically do anything they want?” Lederman asked rhetorically. He said that Castro’s statements that evening directly contradicted sworn statements in a suit that Lederman has brought against Parks and that is now before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In its defense in that suit, Parks is saying that the rules are being applied equally to performers, visual artists and, indeed, to expressive-matter vendors of all kinds.
“Commissioner Castro,” one C.B. 2 member asked, “if someone feels they are being harassed, what kind of recourse do they have? Is there a phone number they can call?”
“Yes,” Castro replied. “They can call 311 obviously. They can call my office in Manhattan, 212-408-0201, or they can write or call the Parks commissioner.”
As she left the meeting, community board member Frederica Sigel remarked that Castro had come there to clarify the rules, but despite several hours of discussion, there was just as much confusion as ever.
“This struck me as a ‘ruly’ group,” she said of the expressive-matter vendors in the audience, “as opposed to an ‘unruly’ group. I think that most of them would try to obey the rules if they understood what they were.”