BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | As police and Parks Department officers have recently been focusing on pushing vendors away from the Washington Square Park fountain — and telling them to ditch their oversized beach umbrellas — artists, in turn, have been pushing back.
Eric Cook, a painter and printmaker from East Harlem, has been leading the resistance.
The Village Sun was in the park Thursday evening trying to find out more about what happened to Will Morrison, the park’s administrator, who was assaulted there a few weeks ago while videoing “illegal activity.” Police have been cracking down on drug sales — including of pot — in the park. Rumors swirled that Morrison’s arm may have been broken in the attack — and, indeed, he was spotted wearing a sling. It turns out it was reportedly a fractured elbow.
At any rate, the Sun couldn’t find out more about that story last Thursday night — but bumped into Cook, 56, at his usual spot, on the outer edge of the fountain plaza, just east of the park’s famed ornamental arch. He was about to pack up his artwork for the night and head home. Cook hadn’t heard about the attack on the young park administrator. But he was more than willing to talk about the artists’ efforts to raise awareness about their situation and work out “a compromise” that everyone can live with.
Originally from the West Coast’s Bay Area, Cook has lived in New York City for 20 years. For the first 10 of those, he was an actor, then pivoted to art. He really enjoys being in Washington Square Park and interacting with parkgoers and the whole scene. As he tells it, selling his art is almost secondary for him to simply being in the park.
The artists charge that the new stricter enforcement, at times, has been actual harassment, plus that the rules often seem to shift. Also finding themselves in the enforcement crosshairs recently are performers, who are technically required to have a permit if they want to use amplified sound.
“They threatened to arrest Kanami [Kusajima] for being to close to the fountain,” he said, referring to a Japanese “ink dancer” who often performs in the park. “A PEP [Parks Enforcement Patrol officer] told one artist he could put his stuff on a tarp on the ground; then a cop said the art can’t be on the ground. They’re playing very hardball with the language now. It’s arbitrary and capricious. Today they evicted a fashion vendor from the fountain circle.”
In Cook’s view, it’s mainly been a lot of “petty, Miss Manners enforcement.” However, he said, “There are artists who have been intimidated out of the park” by it.
In one recent incident, things escalated. A female clothing vendor was arrested after she brushed off orders to take down her umbrella, then refused to show her ID. As police moved to handcuff her, a struggle ensued.
On the past three Wednesdays, the artists have held a protest at 6 p.m., during which they march around the fountain plaza for at least 6 minutes, sometimes longer. Cook leads them, ringing a vintage New York City train conductor’s bell. Kusajima is “sort of the heart of the whole action,” he said. They might do two trips around the fountain — but sometimes have gone for as many as seven or eight revolutions.
“We had our third one yesterday,” Cook said of the protests, noting that they are also meant for “community building.”
In fact, he rings his classic bell — from the old Third Avenue El — whenever police or PEP officers enter the fountain plaza. It’s not just a warning to the artists — but to the officers, too.
“It’s mostly to let them know that we know —that we see them,” he said. “That we aren’t just going to take being harassed in the circle.”
Police are continuing mainly to focus on drugs while leaving vendor enforcement mostly to the PEPs.
“The crackdown started on July 15 — when the Post article came out,” Cook said.
He was referring to a New York Post article about some of the Washington Square pot vendors — who openly sell from tables — now starting also to sell psychedelic mushrooms. (The Village Sun had spotted ’shrooms being sold in the park a week before then — and planned to include it in a larger article on vending in the park — but the Post beat the community newspaper to the punch.)
But even before the Post’s sensationalistic ’shrooms story, influential stakeholders in the Greenwich Village community — including the Washington Square Association and Community Board 2 — had started to call for the park’s rules to be enforced on everything from drugs sales and illegal vending to skateboarding. Then, right after C.B. 2 passed a resolution in June calling for consistent enforcement of the park’s rules, a homeless man was stabbed to death in the park’s drug-drenched northwest corner.
Police and PEP officers have recently started enforcing the Parks Department regulation that expressive-matter vendors keep 50 feet away from any park monument — which includes the Washington Square Park fountain. Also, the artist vendors must keep 5 feet away from benches and trees. So the artists are now setting up on the fountain plaza’s outer edge, but 5 feet away from the ring of black granite benches that encircles the plaza.
“Expressive matter” refers to things like literature, artwork and performance. General vending is not allowed in the park without a permit. Selling clothing, for example, is not allowed, per the rules.
Though police say they are mainly focusing on enforcing against drug sales in the park, they lately also have been trying more to make sense of the space’s sometimes Byzantine vending rules. For example, police are now saying that handmade jewelry is not considered expressive matter under the regulations, and so is not allowed in the park — unless it carries a religious, political or some other message, like a crucifix or peace sign.
Basically, Cook admits that the police are absolutely correct on the park’s rules, and that so is Robert Lederman, the president of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics). Lederman says the problems started when the city tried to revamp the Greenwich Village park’s rules for performers and artist vendors in 2010.
“This park is, for all intents and purposes, like a Wild West: We’re tolerated but we’re not allowed,” Cook said of the artists’ situation. “The whole thing is we want some kind of détente — and [to] work out the enforcement.”
On top of everything, Washington Square Park simply has gotten much more active — a combination of the pandemic and pot — he said.
“I’ve been setting up in this spot since 2016,” Cook said. “It’s a much more active park now. Part of that is the pandemic — kids needed a place to be outside. Part of that is the rollout of [legal] marijuana in New York State.”
In short, pot was legalized here at the end of March 2021 but it wasn’t until later that fall that weed vendors started setting up tables in the fountain plaza and brazenly hawking their wares. Basically, while pot had been legalized, the rollout of licensed cannabis dispensaries lagged far behind.
“You have [pot] tables not just in Washington Square Park but every street in the city,” Cook noted. “They buy it [in the park] because it’s here — and it’s been available for 60 years in Washington Square Park.”
He admits that some of the park’s reefer sellers are being tricky by posing as artists.
“The weed dealers know that they can shelter under the First Amendment,” he noted, adding the issue is now “spilling over onto artists.”
“You have people who are weed dealers — and there are [also] people who are vending art and a joint on the side,” he explained.
As for his stance on the park’s pot vendors, Cook said, basically, it’s a separate issue, stating, “I’m here for the artists.”
There are three “rings” around the fountain plaza, and the artists currently have been pushed to the outer of these rings. The rings are actually marked out on the paving treatment — though this was probably not landscape architect George Vellonakis’s intention when he laid out the park’s redesign in the mid-2000s.
As Cook tells it, the middle ring has always been kept open for walking, but vendors would fill the other two.
“We’re not unsensible. That’s always been for walking,” he said of the middle ring.
Now, though, the artists are being told to use only the outer ring.
“They point to that as a success — how it is open for views and walking,” he said, of how the inner ring is now mostly being kept clear. The flip side is that now the outer ring can get jam-packed with artists on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, he said. Most of the artist vendors are there in the evenings, as he tells it.
He’d like to see artists, though, be able to go back into the inner circle.
There have been some rumblings of starting a “medallion system” for art vendors, as exists in Union Square, Battery Park and Central Park and on the High Line, but that “would be terrible,” Cook said.
“What works here is what has worked for decades,” he declared.
Police, though, say they are not currently hearing talk of a medallion plan for the park — in which a limited number of markers on the pavement would show where vendors could operate.
As for who currently gets which vending spot, Cook said, “It’s figured out among the group. … Violence has never been an issue among artist vendors in Washington Square Park.”
One artist vendor about a year ago told The Village Sun that a pot vendor who wanted the same spot in the park as him flashed a large knife at him.
On the contrary, artists only add to the park’s quality of life, Cook argued, noting how they inform police and PEP officers if a dangerous or unhinged person is harassing people in the park.
“We want to be good community members,” he added. “We are the concierges of the park.”
As for the arrest on Sat., Aug. 12, as Cook tells it, the woman was roughed up. He said a group of PEP officers and police confronted her.
“She got punched in the face,” he said. “They were on top of her. She has a heart condition. They wouldn’t give her her medication.” He admitted the vendor “crossed her arms,” making it harder for officers to arrest her.
However, Captain Jason Zeikel, the 6th Precinct commanding officer, tells a different story. The incident happened around 3:10 p.m.
“The officers asked her multiple times to put away the umbrella, to take it down,” Zeikel said. “They were more than kind to her. She had a large umbrella.”
He said the officers made the requests while doing a number of “tours” through the park. Finally, after she would not comply, they moved to give the woman a summons, and so asked her for ID. But the vendor reportedly refused to provide her identification, then tried to leave the park with her umbrella. At that point, the officers moved to make an arrest.
The situation escalated as the woman resisted being handcuffed, crossing her hands underneath her while on the ground.
“She scratched and gouged one of the officer’s arms,” Zeikel said. “Also attempted to bite the officers. Also had on her a switchblade knife.”
In the end, the vendor was charged with assaulting a police officer, criminal possession of a weapon, resisting arrest, obstruction of governmental administration and unlicensed general vending.
“It’s a felony charge,” Zeikel noted of assaulting a cop.
The day before that, an artist vendor was reportedly slapped with a $140 summons for using a beach umbrella.
However, the captain said the main priority of the police is drug dealing in the park, followed by keeping the fountain plaza open, and then things like getting vendors to take down their oversized umbrellas.
“The main focus is really on the drug dealers and not a lot of this nuanced stuff,” he said. “We push people back from the fountain so it has the feeling of a park — not a bazaar. It’s mainly to create a balance for expressive-matter vendors and what they’re doing and being able to enjoy the fountain.”
As for umbrellas in the park, Zeikel said typical rain umbrellas are allowed. They can’t be clamped to stands or chairs, though, but, well…can be held in one’s hand. Apparently, large umbrellas are not allowed in the park because they “block views” of its monuments, like the arch and the fountain.
However, Cook countered, “The sketch artists, they need an umbrella. People will not sit for a portrait if they’re not comfortable.
“This is a deep well of New York City bulls—,” he accused of the umbrella rule and other regulations that he considers niggling.
On the other hand, food vendors are required to have shade umbrellas under city regs.
Just the day before, a police officer had warned Cook not to follow him while ringing his bell — saying he would arrest him for disturbing the peace. The artist says he always tries to leave at least 10 feet of space when he trails police or PEPs. Meanwhile, Community Board 2 has convened a group of stakeholders — Cook is part of it — to try to craft a compromise solution regarding the park’s artist vendors. It was around 8:45 p.m. and Cook was about to chime in with a statement during a Zoom call with the group, but instead felt it was more important to give the officer a good ringing — only to wind up being threatened with arrest.
“I admit, I am annoying,” Cook said. “But we have something to say and the people that should be listening to us aren’t listening.”
At the first Wednesday protest, the artists chanted, “Get off our backs!” At the second, it was “We are living art!” For the third installment, it was back to “Get off our backs!” again, which seemed “appropriate,” Cook said, given how the female vendor was arrested on Aug. 12, with officers literally on top of her, struggling to handcuff her as she resisted them.
Aaron Gamman, a 23-year-old busker, came over to say hi to Cook. He’s had his own issues lately with the police and PEPs.
“I’m done — white flag,” he said, with a good-natured smile.
Gamman has been strumming in the park for five years. He said that two weeks earlier he was confronted by four PEP officers and two cops and hit with a $215 ticket for playing amplified guitar. In his defense, he says he consciously doesn’t play too loud, so that he can’t be heard from more than 15 feet away.
“I’ve been playing here with acoustic players,” he noted, of why he has learned to keep his volume respectfully low.
More than the pain of the ticket, though, Gamman was also warned that his musical equipment could be confiscated. He doesn’t want to lose it, so for now, is laying low.
Gamman also leads Dylan Day in the park on May 24, when guitarists gather there en masse to jam on Bob Dylan’s birthday. He gets a permit for that. But last Thursday night, in the wake of his recent summons, he wasn’t feeling so enthusiastic about the event anymore.
Lederman, the A.R.T.I.S.T. president, has been trying to advise Cook on the protests, and Cook appreciates the input. For his part, Lederman says Washington Square Park will never be “sanitized,” unlike some other New York City parks, simply because, for so long now, it has been a worldwide symbol of creative free expression.
For his part, the 6th Precinct’s Zeikel said he likes to see some art in the park, too.
The Village Sun asked Lederman: “Ideally, what would you like to happen in Washington Square Park? Do you want to ‘blow up’ the current rules on vending and revert to earlier rules — or craft all-new rules? In your ideal vision, what would Washington Square Park look like, in terms of artist vendors, musicians, pot vendors, etc.”
“Yes, I want a reversion to the pre-2010 rules,” Lederman said, slamming the 2010 rule changes as “an insult to the First Amendment rights of visual artists. My ideal vision would be reasonable rules, reasonably and fairly enforced, allowing what the courts have determined is protected expression.”
Last Thursday evening, Cook showed a reporter a painting titled “Endless Summer” that he did of a young woman coasting slowly on a skateboard around the Washington Square fountain. Skateboarding is not allowed in the park — but that was probably the last thing on Cook’s mind when he painted it.
“It’s emblematic of what the park is,” he said, “a lazy ride around the circle. I don’t want to be young again — but I want to feel what she was feeling in that moment!”