BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Washington Square Park’s vendors were on edge Monday — literally. They had been pushed to the outer rim of the park’s historic plaza fountain. And they were, well…feeling a bit edgy about it.
So, in a rare sight, the heart of the park’s central plaza was basically free of vendors. (In something else that’s also uncommon for the park, no skateboarders were skating and doing tricks in front of the arch, either.)
A vendor selling artwork and books — and also pre-rolled marijuana joints hidden under her table — on the plaza’s southern outskirts, said police and Parks Enforcement Patrol officers recently ordered the vendors to follow some new rules. For starters, they notified them to stay out of the fountain plaza, and also to keep a bit of distance from the black benches that circle the space’s perimeter.
“They say [keep] 50 feet away from the fountain and 5 feet from the benches,” she said.
The woman declined to share her name.
The vendors were also told they can no longer use big beach umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. She said police would confiscate the umbrellas.
“That’s inhumane,” she protested.
These “new” rules started being enforced about a week and a half ago, she said.
As for who has been telling the vendors about these regulations, she said, “The Parks [officers] and the cops — the cops mostly.”
However, one table — not a vendor’s — was set up too close to the fountain. A sign on it in Spanish urged people to write on a piece of paper something they wish they had told someone and drop it into a fishbowl atop the table.
But the vendor predicted, knowingly, “They’re gonna make him move.”
Meanwhile, she said she herself is doing nothing wrong — and is not selling drugs.
“Weed is legal,” she declared. “Weed itself is not a drug — it never has been. It’s a plant. It comes from the earth.”
Nearby her, a few other pot sellers were seated at their own tables, also hugging the plaza’s outer rim. One of them had some art displayed — including blown-up comic-book covers. Another had a sign saying, “Charging Station.” But their main business is selling pot. There were some vendors selling jewelry, too, which police believe falls under protected “expressive matter,” so they are allowing it.
At another spot along the circular market, another female weed vendor, when a reporter approached holding a notepad, quickly snatched away her small whiteboard sporting a list prices.
“Nah, nah,” she said. “We don’t want to talk.”
The Village Sun is reaching out to the 6th Precinct about the new enforcement effort to keep the fountain plaza free of vendors’ tables.
Robert Lederman, the president of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics), is a veteran street artist and activist who fights for artists’ constitutional right to vend on the city’s sidewalks and in its parks. He has litigated this issue all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and, in doing so, become extremely well versed with the laws.
Lederman has always said that – based on the Parks Department’s existing vending laws — basically, vending is not legal anywhere in Washington Square Park. In fact, vending is not allowed in any New York City public park plaza, under the regulations, he said: The regs say vending must be done near a curb, he said, and there are no curbs in plazas.
“I told everybody since 2010 — if you actually read the park rules, which I do, but no one else does — there’s no vending in any plaza in any park,” the activist explained. “All they gotta do is go in there and enforce the law and they can clear the space,” he said of Washington Square Park.
In addition, vendors must stay 50 feet away from any monument — which, in Washington Square, includes the arch, the fountain and the Garibaldi statue, among others. Even a bronze plaque in the ground is technically a monument that vendors must stay away from, Lederman noted. Meanwhile, vending isn’t allowed on grass lawns or near trees, either.
Some New York City parks have a medallion system to designate a limited number of spots for artist vendors — such as Union Square, the High Line, Central Park and Battery Park — but that system hasn’t come to Washington Square Park — at least not yet.
Lederman wasn’t that impressed by the new enforcement in Washington Square and pushing the vendors out to the edge of the plaza.
“They enforce it sporadically,” he shrugged. “Like with prostitution — enforcement comes and goes. It’s like everything else in the city.”
However, the activist said, over all, the city treats Washington Square Park pretty gently.
“Because it’s a cultural icon, the city doesn’t feel it can sterilize it completely, like Union Square,” he said. “If they do that to Washington Square Park, that’s like ripping up the ’60s, the counterculture, the Constitution, the First Amendment, hundreds of thousands of rallies that happened in the park.”
Asked why some vending is still being allowed around the plaza’s outer rim, Lederman said the police and Parks Department are just basically improvising, at this point.
“They’re making it up,” he said.
For example, jewelry, even handmade jewelry, generally isn’t considered expressive matter under the law — unless it has some message, for example, it’s a crucifix or some other religious symbol, he noted.
“I’m not complaining,” he said of jewelry vendors, “but you need a park permit or a vendor’s permit to vend.”
Vendors are supposed to use tables, but no tables legally can be set up anywhere in Washington Square Park under the rules, he noted. Vendors’ goods are not supposed to be displayed on the ground, either. Theoretically, though, someone could stand or sit in the park holding books or paintings for sale, he explained.