Mayor Bloomberg vs Artists: The Battle for the Soul of New York City

Last week a bubbly woman from Ohio stopped by our table in
Union Square. "This is why I love coming to New York!" she explained as
she flipped through our silkscreens. "Everywhere else I go, it's the
same imported crap in the stores. But out here, I can meet local artists
making art with their own hands."

Well, not for long...

Mayor Bloomberg's legal henchmen have unilaterally issued an
administrative ruling effectively barring most art from New York's
City's parks. Under the false guise of "public safety" and "congestion"
they've crafted a complex set of rules banning 80-90% of artists from
even displaying their work in Columbus Circle, Union Square Park and any
other public park in Manhattan. The rules range from permitting only
four artists to set up in Columbus Circle to barring artists from coming
within fifty feet of a monument or five feet from a garbage can.

The effect of the de-facto art ban, according to the Associated Press, is to
"dramatically alter a colorful part of the cityscape that has for
decades served as an outdoor gallery popular among tourists in a city
known worldwide for its arts."

Bloomberg deems us a "public nuisance" because we do not fit neatly
into plan for New York as an uninterrupted commercial venture where
public space is rented, bought and sold. As Robert Lederman, president
of the 2000 member group
, points out:

If preventing congestion in public parks was a genuine
concern...why are there daily corporate promotions in NYC parks by
companies like Disney, Nike, Best Buy and JP Morgan Chase and a thousand
others that involve huge displays, giant trucks, powerlines and other
dangerous infrastructure?

Bloomberg's rationale for the new rules is that artists are blocking
walkways and creating a safety hazard. But the administration allows --
indeed, encourages -- commercial vendors to set up at these same
locations, as long as they are paying rent to the city. In Battery Park,
for example, artists are to be chased out but eight hot dog vendors
will be allowed to stay in the most high congestion areas. Bloomberg
isn't worried about congestion; these rules are part of his larger plan
to privatize and "monetize" our city's parks.

New York Law School's City Law journal wondered
this week if Bloomberg and his Parks Department are privately "feeling
hypocritical about their proposal", since last year the administration
"successfully defended in court its decision to install a commercial
restaurant in Union Square's pavilion." Bloomberg argued that Unions
Square is a "traditionally commercial area."

My partner and I have been selling on the streets of New York City
for nearly a decade and not once have we seen Mayor Bloomberg in a city
park -- although we've often seen his political minions blocking
walkways to campaign during election time.

While he's been dreaming of higher office and courting Wall Street,
we've quietly joined musicians, farmers, social justice activists,
gardeners and others in an effort to breathe life back into public
spaces and revive a local, sustainable cultural economy in Manhattan. We
choose to display and sell our work in city parks rather than in
cloistered Chelsea galleries or Soho boutiques. We see ourselves as part
of a long tradition of New York artists embedding ourselves in local
community efforts to make the world a better and more beautiful place.

Bloomberg, who chooses to spend many of his weekends golfing at his
Bahama resort
, might find our work of little value, but average New
Yorkers tell us every day that they treasure this flowering of
grassroots culture in their parks. Just last week a 100 random NYC
park-goers were stopped and asked if street artists enhanced or
detracted from their park experience. Ninety-four of them stated that artists enhance
New Yorkers' park experience.

Our cracker-jack first amendment lawyers tell us we have a decent
chance of beating Bloomberg in court -- as we did against Giuliani in
1996 when a federal appeals court ruled that artists are protected by
the First Amendment. And just this week the ACLU called on Bloomberg to withdraw his proposal.
According to NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg:

Parks have historically been recognized as vitally important
for social, artistic and political expression. The Parks Department
should make every effort to accommodate our city's artists, poets and
authors. It must withdraw its proposal until it can publicly demonstrate
it is meeting its First Amendment obligations.

But at the end of the day this battle is about far more than artists'
first amendment rights. This is a battle for the cultural soul of New
York City -- and every New Yorker has a stake in the outcome. As
Lederman warns, Bloomberg and the Parks Commissioner see themselves as
real estate agents "trying to get the highest price per square foot for
all of our public parks. If the people of NYC don't wake up to this
soon, there will be no more truly public places left in America's
greatest city."

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