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Washington Square Park performers deserve celebration, not policing

Mark Hodson Photos | Flickr

Street performers and artists foster the bohemian environment that makes Washington Square Park an enduring symbol of New York City’s diversity, creativity and political organizing.

They deserve celebration, not harassment from the New York Police Department and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, spurred by complaints from wealthy gentrifiers.

The city’s attitude towards creatives is not only unfairly punitive but also inconsistent.

Washington Square Park dancer Kanami Kusajima was happy to be the face of a poster City Hall commissioned in 2021 declaring that there was “NO STOPPING NEW YORK” despite the pandemic’s toll. However, the city used her likeness for free and then NYPD officers repeatedly tried to stop her performances, Curbed, an urban design website, reported.

According to Curbed, the crackdown began as a result of wealthy residents complaining about the noise from parties and early Black Lives Matter Protests. However, if they wanted silence, New York City has no shortage of playgrounds for the ignoble rich, such as the gated Gramercy Park.

There is no need for them to sterilize Washington Square Park, long known for its bands and instrumental music, drugs and political demonstrations. This includes the annual Dyke March and Queer Liberation march, a rally against anti-transgender legislation and protests that erupted in the wake of the killings of Tyree Nichols and Jordan Neely.

The park’s unique culture has endured, despite a pattern of surveillance and over-policing. Additionally it prospered despite plans to build a highway through it during the 1960s and its grim origin as a pauper’s cemetery.

Other creatives in Washington Square Park have suffered similar treatment to Kusajima. Painter and printmaker Eric Cook rings a bell at protests against vending restrictions or whenever police or Parks Department officers approach the fountain to dispense summons or violent arrests.

What distinguishes the problems faced by artists in New York City from other types of vendors such as food sellers who have their own issues caused by a shortage of licenses, is how complicated it is for the artists to understand the regulations placed on them.

Artists and performers – whether they profit from their work or not – have a first amendment right to public space. 

The NYC Parks department’s regulations confirm that, “Persons may vend expressive matter as defined in section 1-02 of this title, on property under jurisdiction of the Department without a permit.”

Anyone selling original or mass-produced paintings, prints, photographs, reading material or sculptures is selling expressive material. Additionally, people who provide entertainment in exchange for a fee or donation, such as musical performance, juggling, or dance, are permitted.

However, police in Washington Square Park claim the narrow definition of the park’s regulations creates strange loopholes.

“Handmade jewelry is not considered expressive matter under the regulations and so is not allowed in the park — unless it carries a religious, political or some other message, like a crucifix or peace sign,”The Village Sun reported.

Washington Square Park-specific rules, dating from 2013, dictating the spacing of vendors from pedestrians, monuments and curbs, pose another obstacle.

To preserve the culture at Washington Square Park cultivated by performers and art vendors  , the parks department must partner with them to revise and simplify their regulations and reduce NYPD presence.

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    Erjon MarkuSep 26, 2023 at 6:29 pm


    I am vendor in the park on most sunny days, but lately since the post did a piece on the park, the policing has been unberable at times. I have been an expressive matter vendor for the past 10 years and have delt with the pep officers ever more often since the pandemic hit our loving city, when the tourists left, i changed locations from my usual location in west village to union square, ever since then some pep leaders have been on my case about putting a price on my original art that I sell, they want no prices which makes no sense, in some designated spots in the city where there is a medallion this kind of policing should not exist but yet it has happened to me in more than 5 occassionas, i have been fined 2 times for pricing in Washington Square Park, fir ticket was dismissed because the judge ruled in my favor because it states 6 RCNY 2-307b
    “For all items offered for sale you must show the price, exclusive of tax, as follows:
    on the individual item by a stamp, tag, or label OR
    on a sign that is plainly visible where the item is displayed.”

    Even though i gave the officer the rule of law stating that i need to show prices I was issued a second ticket.

    1 month ago, my umbrella was confiscated because it was a sanitation depart violation for $150,

    My name is Erjon Marku, I and Eric Cook are regulars of the park and my stand is usually the first one you see when you come to the park on sunny days. My handle name is dabronxi

    But i am resilient and won’t back down as long as I know that I am right. This movement has gotten alot of attraction and I salute Mr. Cook every day for his passion for justice.

    Plus I have a promotion of a free art piece for 50 pushups, its 100 for the officers on our neck just to keep them on the playing field.

    See you at the park