On Wednesday, July 27, Community Board 4 put the kibosh on fashion trade-show production company ENK’s plan to tent over the basketball and handball courts of DeWitt Clinton Park, at 53rd and 12th Avenue, in order to hold an invitation-only “Fashion Coterie” womenswear trade show for 600 guests. The event would have occupied the space, for the set-up and tear-down as well as the show, from Sept. 12 to Sept. 27.
ENK’s proposal was originally approved by the board’s waterfront and parks committee, but when it reached the floor for a full-board discussion, the ideological differences ensued. At issue was the closing of a public space for the benefit of a private institution. Said board member Adam Honigman: “I don’t understand why there should be any co-option of this public space for private gain.”
Several other board members expressed the same sentiment, including Edward Kirkland, who said: “There should be no significant disruption of normal activities of the park, and I think that should be a principle the community board should maintain.”
Lee Compton, the Board 4 chair, told The Observer that locals usually use the handball and basketball courts. (The baseball courts at DeWitt Clinton Park, which ENK pledged to not interfere with, are frequently used by people from outside the area.) “[ENK’s] asking families to give up two weeks of their fall,” Mr. Compton said.
But fellow board member Margo Cates was more welcoming. Moved by ENK’s willingness to contribute minor repairs to some of the park’s decrepit stairs, she said: “There’s always going to be something that doesn’t work, but for these 12 days there’s something we can gain.”
The skirmish over the use of DeWitt Clinton Park is the latest salvo in a continuing battle over the private use of public facilities. In Union Square Park, neighborhood residents and activists have been slugging it out with the Parks Department for months over the $14 million renovation of the park’s northern plaza. Although the proposed design would substantially increase the area devoted to the children’s playground, at issue was the part of the plan that would allow the 1930’s-era pavilion to be operated as a year-round restaurant. Opponents of the Union Square plan included City Council member Margarita Lopez and State Assembly member Scott Stringer (both of whom are now also running for borough president).
In June, the Parks Department abandoned its plan for a year-round restaurant; the pavilion will only be used seasonally. The park’s current restaurant, Luna Park, has operated out of the park each summer since 1993.
Another battleground over the “creeping privatization of public space,” as some activists termed it, is Washington Square Park’s proposed multi-year, two-phase, $16 million renovation. Opponents of that plan claim that spiraling upkeep costs will necessitate private investment in the park, opening the way for restaurants and kiosks to operate out of the park—something they say is unreasonable in the “people’s park.” (Activists, including the Emergency Coalition to Save Washington Square Park, have recently filed a lawsuit to stop the Washington Square renovation; other opponents are pinning their hopes on an Aug. 3 Art Commission hearing to approve—or deny—certain elements of the plan.)
But city parks are frequently used for private events: N.Y.U.’s yearly graduation ceremony is held in Washington Square Park, and Fashion Week is held in Bryant Park biannually; there are also more than 40 restaurants, cafés and banquet halls throughout the city’s 1,700 parks.
But it seems that Board 4’s letter recommending denial of ENK’s request to use the park might have been unnecessary: Reached by The Observer by phone, Parks Department spokesman Warner Johnston said, “We are not approving this event.” He said the show would have closed parts of the park for an unacceptable period of time.
ENK president Elyse Kroll didn’t return calls for comment.