Volume 81, Number 9 | July 28 - August 3, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by Aline Reynolds

Chinese opera groups, like this one last weekend, perform in Columbus Park with singers using microphones for amplified sound.

Opera groups hitting sour note with park neighbors

By Aline Reynolds

Some Chinatown residents have had it with the loud, live music streaming out of Columbus Park on the weekends.

Several musical and dance ensembles entertain scores of tourists and local senior citizens with Cantonese opera tunes on Saturdays and Sundays. The groups amp up the sound using microphones and even loudspeakers to compete with one another in attracting as many passersby as possible. Some of the groups lack the proper city permits to perform at all.

For the musicians and dancers, performing in the park is a beloved pastime. For some neighbors, however, the makeshift concerts have become a major disturbance to their once-peaceful weekends. With the situation reaching a head, there was discussion at a Community Board 3 meeting late last month on whether to recommend temporarily denying the ensembles amplification permits altogether.

“It looks like the groups are vying for certain areas of the park, and they’re trying to outdo each other,” said Ralph Musolino, manager for the Park’s Department’s Districts 1 and 2, who met with C.B. 3 last month to discuss the issue. “So, instead of one group having a louder system than another, we thought, ‘Why don’t they just all be on equal footing and play without the amplification?’”

For the meanwhile, Musolino said he would be limiting the number of permits he approves.

“I try not to give out several permits the same day, because it’s going to be an issue,” he said. An amplified-sound permit combined with a “special event” permit costs $70 per gig. Musical groups that host events with 20 or more people in a city park are required to have “special event” permits, although the rule is selectively enforced.

The police have been more strictly enforcing the permit rules by giving summonses and fines to violators in response to noise complaints. The crackdown resulted in the the arrest of Yi Zhuo Wu, a musician with the Street Musical Club, in early May. The elderly Wu reportedly allegedly refused orders to stop playing music, then was tackled by a group of police, leaving him bloodied. He was charged with resisting arrest.

This reporter approached Wu at the park on Saturday for comment, but he didn’t speak English, nor did he return several follow-up calls from a translator who volunteered to assist the reporter. A woman who claimed to be a member of the Street Musical Club said the group has been waiting for two months for permit approval, and that they’ve been using smaller, less conspicuous microphones shipped from China in the meantime.

“The seniors have nowhere else to go,” she said. “It’s very important for them to have entertainment.”

“They don’t want to stop playing. That’s the only thing they can do in the park,” said Eddie Chiu, senior advisor for the Lin Sing Association. “They should just be left alone.” 

As a compromise, the Parks Department has agreed to arrange a Columbus Park concert for the fall, in which all of the ensembles would be able to perform using amplification.

“It’ll bring them together, so they can meet each other and make sure they’re all on the same page,” said Musolino. “We’re going to try to see if we could do it several times.” The city would give community members plenty of advance notice about the concerts, so the event doesn’t come as a surprise to neighbors, Musolino said.

This solution, however, didn’t sit well with some community members who are still hoping the amplified music goes on a permanent hiatus. Among them is the former vice president of Friends of Columbus Park, who said the music awoke her at 6 a.m. on a recent Saturday, when she was staying at her family’s apartment on Mulberry and Bayard Sts.

The woman, who requested anonymity, said she has filed several complaints with the Fifth Precinct and the 311 phone hotline about the amplified noise. But dislodging the musical groups from their favorite corner of the park has proven impossible so far.

“They always wants to come back because they want to show off,” she said of the performers. “When they do that, they should consider the other people living around here.”

When it comes to issuing permits, the woman said, “They should listen to the government and obey the rules.”

Karlin Chan, whose Mulberry St. apartment faces Columbus Park, said the noise has become unbearable. He said he shuts his double-paned windows once a performance begins, but still has trouble even hearing his own TV.

“You can have fun, but you don’t need to put concert-sized speakers out there,” he protested. “I listen to opera occasionally, but I can’t be force-fed. They just have no concern about the residents.”

Even some of the park’s regulars are complaining. Wee Wong, a member of the Lin Sing Association neighborhood organization, said he no longer jogs and reads in the park because he can’t stand the music.

“These opera groups are ridiculous,” he said. “They make too much noise. I’m against all these people using it for their own purposes. The park is for everybody.”

The opera groups, Wong said, should perform at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and other local community centers.

Neighborhood seniors, however, contend that the park has become their preferred social hub and a place where they can find free entertainment.

“I have a lot of friends here. I get very lonely at home,” said nearby resident Wai Mui Yit, who frequents the park every weekend.

“We like to come to the park so we can enjoy the music,” chimed in Lower East Sider Katie Leung. “It makes us happy, which is good for the health.”

Leung defended the groups’ use of amplification.

“If it’s not loud enough for us,” she said, “what’s the point?”

Councilmember Margaret Chin said she is working with the city and her constituents to find solutions to the problem.

“The community relies on the park as a ‘living room’ of sorts,” the councilmember said. “It is where generations of residents have socialized, met and enjoyed the outdoors. But use of the park needs to be fair and equal for all — for area residents and those who come to the park to perform.”

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