New York Seeks Limits on Art Vendors in Parks
Published: April 16, 2010Street vendors who have become fixtures at some of Manhattan’s busiest parks — hawking paintings, kitschy souvenirs and all sorts of ephemera — may find themselves a lonelier crowd, as the Bloomberg administration proposes to cut their numbers by 75 percent.
Benjamin Norman for The New York Times
On Friday, the Department of Parks and Recreation is scheduled to hold a hearing on a proposal to slice the number of vendors allowed in parts of Central Park and all of Union Square Park, Battery Park and the High Line Park. If the proposal is approved, as expected, the restrictions would begin to take effect in a month.
The reason for the change, said Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, is safety — because the vendors block sidewalks and hamper pedestrians, creating hazards. But, he also said, too many vendors are turning the parks into “year-round flea markets” and “selling stuff that you wouldn’t consider expressive art” as protected by the First Amendment, like “refrigerator magnets, small sculptures that are mass produced, books, DVDs, CDs, signs with funny slogans.”
“The artists can vent,” Mr. Benepe said. “The people who sell other goods can vent. And everybody will adjust. This is not the end of art. It is just a very slight and strategic moving of where people can sell art.”
To some art vendors, though, the administration’s proposal smacks of an attempt to remove them as much as is legally permissible — or at least to hurt their incomes — as if they were eyesores or nuisances to tourists and corporations. And one casualty, they believe, will be the kind of spontaneous and messy mingling of art and commerce that makes New York so New York.
“New York City is not a hospital operating room, yet Mike Bloomberg is continuing the sterilization campaign that Rudy Giuliani started in Times Square,” said Robert Lederman, a longtime foe of Mr. Benepe’s and the founder of A.R.T.I.S.T., an advocacy group with approximately 2,000 members. “And the parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, sees himself as a real estate agent who’s trying to get the maximum price per square foot for all of our public parks.”
The proposed regulations would limit the number of vendors of printed texts and visual arts in congested areas of the four parks, which are among the city’s busiest, to a total of 81, compared with the more than 300 there now. Vendors would be limited to designated areas on a first-come-first-served basis. The rules would also dictate the dimensions of a seller’s table, as well as a table’s proximity to public property like monuments and benches.
One supporter of the proposal is Edward Wallace, a former councilman who helped to write the original 1982 law that allowed vendors to sell “expressive matter” under the First Amendment’s right to free speech.
Mr. Wallace, who is now a lawyer and a lobbyist but does not represent any clients in the current battle, said his goal was simply to allow poets and other artists the liberty to speak freely on street corners. “This is the law of unintended consequences,” Mr. Wallace said.
Some constitutional law experts were uncertain whether the city would be able to change the rules, as planned.
Ira C. Lupu, a law professor at George Washington University Law School, said that while it was true that “the city can regulate the place, not the content,” it also had to give “reasonable access to the distribution of art.” And reasonable, he said, “is a term of art.” He also said he was troubled by the first-come-first-served provision.
“I don’t know what that means,” Professor Lupu said. “I would be constitutionally more comfortable with a lottery system that you could do online a week ahead of time.”
Lee Stuart, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy group, said the plan had the right balance between protecting the parks, and granting the vendors enough room. “I don’t think this is a blanket restriction at all,” she said.
But several artists were dubious about the plan. At the southeast corner of Central Park, Dario Zapata, a caricature artist from the South Bronx, said: “The First Amendment is protection for artists. What will happen if the city limits us to eight spots here? Maybe hundreds of people will sleep on the benches to get a spot.”
Some pedestrians said they were troubled by the idea, too. Walking through Union Square, glancing at paintings, was Kristan Hibron, who studies marketing management at Pace University and works for an outdoor advertising company. “I love that I can come into New York and have a huge, diverse collection of art to choose from,” she said. “I really appreciate it. I respect artists. And this is one of the only venues they have for selling. They need to make money.”