Will Parks Dept. Once Again
Regulate Art Vendors?
While the chefs d’oeuvre displayed by the art vendors outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art might lack in quality compared to their counterparts inside, they’re still coveted by many; how else to explain the vendors’ enduring presence throughout the years? But after lengthy-and heretofore unsuccessful-efforts to rein them in, the city is now gearing up for a push to regulate the display and sale of art in Central Park.
In response to what has been labeled a “nuisance” and a “safety concern” by some, the City Council is preparing to vote on Intro 160, legislation formulated by the Bloomberg administration that would allow the Parks Department to regulate the number of art vendors in the city’s parks. In preparation for this vote, the Mayor’s office and the Parks Department have been seeking friendly resolutions from various community boards throughout Manhattan.
Community Board 6, at its full board meeting on March 12, passed a resolution in support of the bill, which has also found support from Board 5 and Board 8, with a vote pending from Board 2.
Preceding its own vote, however, Board 6 member Lou Sepersky objected to the resolution, reminding his colleagues that visual art, like speech, is protected not only by the First Amendment, but even more explicitly by the New York State Constitution, which states that “no law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech …. ” However, Gary Papush, the chairman of Board 6’s parks committee, replied: “It’s the responsibility of the courts to decide the constitutionality of the law, not for the community board to decide.”
When reached by The Observer , Mr. Sepersky responded by saying that he “deeply and profoundly disagreed” with Mr. Papush’s statement. “It is our responsibility as citizens to defend the Constitution. The courts are the line of last defense. We are the people who exercise those rights, individually and collectively …. If those rights mean something, we must protect them.” Mr. Sepersky’s comments were echoed by others within the arts community. Robert Lederman, an artist and the president of Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics, which was formed in response to the Giuliani administration’s earlier efforts to regulate the sale and distribution of art in city parks, told The Observer that if Intro 160 makes it into law, it will not only be a blow to the personal freedom of artists who exhibit and vend their wares in the city’s parks, but will also have a collateral effect on other facets of personal liberty, such as the distribution of written materials on public land.
In 2001, Mr. Lederman won a lawsuit that resulted in a federal court decision overturning a Giuliani-era edict requiring artists’ permits for parks sales. Mr. Lederman questioned the motives of the Parks Department, arguing that the city was motivated more by financial gain than by concern for congestion in the parks. “The artists are competing with the concessions, which basically pay for the park,” he said. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, speaking to The Observer , denied that his agency was seeking to fill its coffers by leasing the vendors’ space to more lucrative concessions.
Supporters of Intro 160 insist that the law, if passed, will be expressly designed not to infringe on anyone’s First Amendment rights. Joseph Addabbo, chair of the City Council’s Parks and Recreation Committee, said: “Obviously, neither the City Council nor the Mayor would ever put out a piece of legislation that has any First Amendment infringements in it.” He added that the City Council would hold at least one more hearing to determine the appropriate language for the bill, in order to “equitably and fairly” distribute the permits without infringing on anyone’s protected rights. Mr. Addabbo said the permit system was needed in part because of the safety issues raised by such a dense concentration of vendors. He cited the need of “emergency vehicles to get through,” and also pointed out the rampant “copyright infringement” that some vendors engaged in by selling reproductions of copyrighted images found on the Internet.
But speaking of his concern that the bill would violate a constitutionally protected right, Mr. Sepersky told The Observer : “We’re talking about something consciously and deliberately protected in the most basic document of the Republic. And there’s a reason for that …. It’s the fundamental right to argue a case, or to present material that changes how people think, act, behave and see the world around them.”
-Matthew Ian Grace
Can Street Fairs and Religious Holidays
Live Together in
They say that religion and politics don’t mix. If anyone needed further convincing of this, they likely got it at Community Board 5’s March 13 meeting, when the issue of granting street-activity permits over a particular fall weekend had board members questioning their role in matters not only civic, but religious.
The conflict arose after two faith-based organizations, St. Barth-olomew’s Church and the Muslim Foundation of America Inc., submitted street-activity applications to Board 5’s consents and variances committee. As both groups have been granted permits in previous years, their applications for Sept. 28 street events seemed likely to get rubber-stamped. Or so they thought.
According to the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah falls this year on the weekend of Sept. 26. “[Rosh Hashanah] is a holiday of quiet introspection,” said board member Judy Breidbart, who opposed any parades taking place during the holiday weekend. “It’s insulting for other groups to disturb that tranquillity.” Ms. Breidbart was among the members of the consents and variances committee who voted 5 to 1 to approve the Muslim Foundation’s application, though with the stipulation that the date be changed. (St. Bartholomew’s agreed to change the date of its event and was approved by the committee 6 to 0.)
“They had passed [the requests of] all the other groups” applying for permits, said Ade Rasul, chairman of the Muslim Foundation of America’s parade committee, speaking to The Observer . (In fact, one other group, the Alliance of Guardian Angels, was initially approved for a street permit and later asked to amend its proposed Sept. 27 date.) But “when it came to St. Bart’s and us, they asked us to change the date. I told them I couldn’t change the date. We’ve been planning our event for a year.”
When the resolution was presented at the full board meeting later that evening, the reactions ranged from amusement to anger.
“As a Jew, that’s a really bad argument,” said Sharon Friedman, voicing her opposition to Ms. Breidbart’s argument. “A lot of street fairs take place on Saturday, on the Sabbath. We don’t make people close their businesses on the basis of our holidays. We’re a governmental body. If we start nit-picking over every holiday that coincides with street fairs, there will be no more street fairs.”
“That’d be a good thing,” mumbled a voice from the crowd. A few board members chuckled in solidarity. Each year, Board 5 approves over 50 street-fair applications, earning it the distinction of being the district with the most street fairs in the city. But despite the frustration some people expressed with the preponderance of events, the idea of one group’s religious holiday overriding another group’s street fair didn’t wash.
“[Not granting permits in these cases] seems hypocritical, because we don’t know which other religions have holidays throughout the year,” said board member Phil Beer. Board member David Rabin agreed: “Why this religious holiday and not another holiday?” he asked.
“It’s one of the holy days of the Jewish calendar. It’s a sign of respect,” replied Lola Finkelstein.
With the Muslim Foundation of America unwilling to find another date, and many board members voicing support for its application, another issue was raised: that of security. “The synagogues are already under protection from the police. Wouldn’t this stretch their services even more?” asked board member Maxine Teitler. “It’s not our role as a board to decide if the police can handle security,” replied Mr. Rabin.
According to the Muslim Foundation of America, security has never been a problem in the 18-year history of the parade. “Last year, we had a large contingent from the Police Department marching with us. They were very gracious and generous,” Mr. Rasul told The Observer . Asked whether the current state of affairs made security more of an issue, Mr. Rasul responded by challenging the frequent association of Islam with terrorist activity. “Now, with the advent of war, it’s even more important that we have a voice and show that the religion is not at fault,” he said.
After much debate, the full board voted in favor of approving all three permits for the dates originally requested. But for some members of the board, the resolution failed to acknowledge the sanctity of Rosh Hashanah. “Some of us find this so offensive,” said Ms. Breidbart. “Maybe there needs to be a citywide policy on respecting other people’s faith.” Then she quipped, “If they can’t change their date, next time we’ll have to move Rosh Hashanah.”
Board 1 Grapples With Latest
Community Board 1 is doing what it has always done: advocating for the people who live in lower Manhattan. But recently, the board members’ hope for underground parking at the World Trade Center site has put them at odds with the desires of some of the victims’ families.
Downtown residents say they welcome the economic and cultural vitality that a Twin Towers memorial would bring to lower Manhattan, but don’t relish the increased traffic that’s certain to come with it. Even after the W.T.C. cleanup-when the trucks and heavy equipment were gone and most of the transportation routes restored-droves of mourners and the curious overwhelmed downtown sidewalks, and tour buses clogged the streets.
At its March 18 public meeting, the full board wrestled with the question of where to put a parking facility for future memorial visitors. The Port Authority estimates that 24,000 people will visit the World Trade Center memorial each day, and about 20 percent of them will arrive by tour bus, adding up to about 160 tour buses daily.
In early March, when the Port Authority first presented a tentative plan for raising the floor of the memorial “bathtub” and putting a parking facility beneath it, some victims’ families expressed outrage, saying this would diminish the memorial and defile any human remains there. In part for her support of the plan, some even called on Board 1’s chairwoman, Madelyn Wils, to resign from the board of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.
At the meeting, however, Board 1 members expressed support for Ms. Wils and her advocacy on behalf of local residents, who fear increased congestion and pollution around the site.
“She has been vilified by the victims’ families on this, and we owe her a huge debt of gratitude,” said board member Liz Berger. “This is an important residents’ issue.”
Board members said they are sensitive to the feelings of the victims’ families and want to maintain the integrity of the site. But with no other clear alternatives available, they voted to recommend that the space beneath the W.T.C. memorial-including, if necessary, the tower footprints-be used for a large bus-parking facility.
“This is a very important piece of the plan for the future of lower Manhattan,” said Richard Kennedy, chairman of the board’s W.T.C. redevelopment committee.
The Port Authority says its idea for an on-site underground facility is only one possible solution to the parking problem. Off-site arrangements are another option, which would have to be pursued by the city and the LMDC. Ideas range from constructing a visitor parking facility elsewhere downtown to putting it in another area of the city altogether and ferrying people to the memorial. (Neither city nor LMDC officials returned calls for comment.)
“All sides agree that there has to be an alternative to allowing hundreds of tour buses to idle on city streets while visitors pay their respects at a memorial,” said Greg Trevor, a Port Authority spokesman. “We presented the parking facility under the site as one possible alternative. The Port Authority is not ruling anything in or out at this time.”
The decision about where to direct traffic likely won’t be settled until after a memorial design is selected, which the LMDC has said it hopes to do by the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
March 25: Board 3, P.S. 20, 166 Essex Street, 6:30 p.m., 212-533-5300; Board 12, Columbia University, Black Building, 650 West 168th Street, Alumni Auditorium, 7 p.m., 212-568-8500.
April 1: Board 7, the Jewish Home and Hospital, 120 West 106th Street,
7 p.m., 212-362-4008.