Volume 75, Number 7 | July 6 - 12, 2005

Villager photo by Bob Arihood

Maria Dantoni says the Parks Department has been hassling her about vending her natural, handmade soaps in Union Square, deeming them “not expressive items” and thus not protected under the First Amendment.

Soap seller drained by worries of vendor cleanup

By Cathy Jedruczek

Who’s to say soap can’t be art? That’s what a Union Square vendor is trying to suds — or rather — suss out.

“Who are they to determine what art is and what is not?” said Maria Dantoni. “What I do is far more creative than what passes as art according to the [Parks Department] rules.”

Dantoni sells soaps (three for $10), and it’s not Irish Spring or Dove, but soap she makes with her own hands and cures for two weeks. She even makes her own labels. Dantoni says she’s been an artist her whole life and that she started selling soap right before her husband passed away last year in April. It’s been her only source of income and vending in Union Square’s new expanded south plaza has been a place where she makes the most money. She vends there every Saturday, arriving at 4:30 a.m. to get the best possible spot.

Her trouble started last year, when Parks Department officials threatened her with a fine. She was told that the soaps she sells are not considered art and that she does not fall in the First Amendment vendors category. Such vendors, according to New York City’s vending rules, are permitted to sell or distribute paintings, books, newspapers, pamphlets, tapes, CD’s or DVD’s or any other material of original content and they don’t require a license.

Recently, the rumor has been going around among the vendors that Parks officials will give $250 fines to those without permits who are not First Amendment vendors. Dantoni also fears she could be arrested and the products of her labor confiscated. That, she said, would cripple her financially.

“Handcrafts such as soaps are not considered expressive matters and are not protected by the First Amendment,” said Warner Johnston, Parks press secretary. “She’s breaking the law. We have to ensure Parks regulations are enforced and managed. She’s been given a generous treatment. She’s not selling expressive items, she’s selling soaps.”

Johnston advised that Dantoni apply for a general vending permit. But with a legislated limit of only 853 licenses and thousands on a waiting list, it’s unlikely she would receive one any time soon.

Robert Lederman, head of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics) who won four federal cases against the city that involved free speech, said that Dantoni is just one person in a pool of many who “make something in a medium the city doesn’t recognize” as expressive art. Lederman explained that many artists think that creating something with their own hands gives them First Amendment protection. They forget to notice, he said, that in order to fall under that category they have to create something that makes a “political, religious or purely expressive claim.” Lederman said that even some members of A.R.T.I.S.T get arrested for selling mobiles that they make; the city doesn’t recognize the hanging sculptures as expressive art, Lederman stated.

“The Second Circuit Federal Appeals Court changes the definition of art periodically,” Lederman explained. “It is up to the court to describe what art is. The city has a narrower definition of what art is because they want to keep as little people as possible from selling on the street.”

Lederman said he thinks if Dantoni transforms her products so they are “clearly motivated by an expressive idea” she would be allowed to vend without a permit. He suggested she make her natural soap into sculptures, because sculpture is regarded as expressive art by the city. Dantoni has been evading the $250 fine by selling postcards of herself making soap (also three for $10) and giving soap away when someone buys the cards. “If they see an image, it’s O.K.,” Dantoni said of the department’s Park Enforcement Patrol officers. She’s also been collecting signatures under a petition that states that her art is an asset to Union Square Park. She has received a lot of support.

But not everyone is sympathetic. Susan Kramer, co-chairperson of the Union Square Community Coalition, says the coalition has been working with the Parks Department to regulate the number of vendors permitted to sell in the park because there are too many of them and the situation has gotten out of control.

“Vendors have taken over the recently renovated plaza and turned it into a flea market,” said Kramer. “They obstruct the walkway and sometimes the fountain. We don’t want the whole plaza to be taken over by one group of people. We should have a balance so that everyone can enjoy the plaza. The park is a place to relax.” She thinks Dantoni should find “a more appropriate spot” to sell her soaps, or get a license.

Kramer added that U.S.C.C. is a champion of free speech, but that some vendors sell toys and manufactured items that clearly are not protected by the First Amendment. They operate without a permit and they don’t pay taxes, Kramer noted.

Dantoni thinks Parks wants to reduce the number of vendors to a minimum because they want to make more space for the farmers’ Greenmarket that has been operating in the park since 1976. “There are so many vendors that they will start knocking people off,” Dantoni said. “They will start with the weakest link, people like me.” She charged that the Greenmarket pays the city a large sum for its permit, so the city is more willing to accommodate it than the First Amendment artists who don’t need a permit.

Tom Strumolo, Greenmarket’s director, explained that the organization has a very specific area to operate in outlined in the permit and that it “expands or contracts” seasonally. No matter how large the market gets, Strumolo emphasized, there will always be space for the artist vendors in the square. He did not disclose how much the farmers’ market pays for its permit at Union Square, but pointed out that a certain percentage of the organization’s revenue goes to the general fund of the city, which uses it to pay for various services.

While looking into legal ways to sell her work, Dantoni, who grows herbs on her property in Upstate New York that she uses to make organic cosmetics and shampoo, applied twice for a permit with the farmers’ market. She was rejected, because, she says, the market didn’t have a “natural cosmetics” clause, though it promised it would look into expanding its charter. She still thinks she should be allowed to sell her all-natural in the Greenmarket products and plans to apply for the permit for a third time.

Strumolo explained the Greenmarket is a small organization and was created to benefit regional farmers who want to sell their products. “There are many people selling different things in New York City,” he said. “We have rules and regulations to govern what’s sold. She doesn’t qualify according to our rules.”

Dantoni may face even more hardship if an overhaul of the city’s vending law is approved. Sponsored by City Councilmember Philip Reed, the proposed changes may drastically alter the way food, goods, art, newspapers and books are sold on the streets of New York. Reed’s legislation was the subject of heated hearings a few months ago. Councilmembers are to revisit the law in September.

“It will affect me because I’m an artist and I’m part of the community,” said Dantoni. “I’m on the edge. I would never in my wildest dreams think that I would be selling soaps in the park. But it is something I have to do.”

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