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Living on the edge: Washington Square artist vendors want back into fountain plaza

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Artist vendors in Washington Square Park lately have been pushed to the limit, literally — now being allowed only a small fringe of space around the edge of the park’s fountain plaza in which to set up their tables and sell their creations.

At the end of last month, though, they say, the squeeze got even tighter: A Parks Enforcement Patrol officer, in response to an artist’s protest that he was an “expressive-matter” vendor, responded, “This is not an expressive-matter park.”

One of the park artists, requesting anonymity, told The Village Sun, “Around 11 in the morning [on Wed., Aug. 30], PEP officers spoke to me and said there was to be ‘no expressive matter today.’ Later they said, Washington Square Park ‘is not an expressive-matter park.'”

The artist videoed the interaction and posted it on Twitter.

Sharon Volpe, another artist vendor regularly in the park, said in an e-mail to The Village Sun on Sept. 1, “I arrived at 10:30 a.m. to 4-5 PEP officers (2 white shirts [supervisors] and 3 or more brown shirts) waiting for us. They were already speaking to an artist about ‘This is not an expressive-matter park.’ So we can’t be in the park’s outer ring. The inner ring was already off limits. I set up 60 ft from the fountain anyway. I was able to work it out with another vendor to set back farther up against the grass as you leave the park. They (PEP) stayed in the central area and waited for artists so they could tell them no. A poet was turned away. As well as others. They were very rude about it. I follow the expressive-matter rules. I have only original art — watercolor work, postcards, prints and paintings of NYC that I create, and actually my WSP art is set to be featured on ArtonLink [the city’s Wi-Fi sidewalk kiosks] in September — but the park itself hates artists. … They have rules that are new every day depending on how they feel. All they kept saying was: ‘It’s not an expressive-matter park, stay in the circle and risk summons or arrest. ‘ I really don’t want a ticket or arrest as I am a teacher of art for the NYC Department of Education.”

Artist Sharon Volpe shared a photo of what her vending table looked like on Aug. 30 when PEP officers kicked artists out of the park’s fountain plaza in the morning. The artists returned to the plaza, though, later that same day. (Photo by Sharon Volpe)

Another artist who was booted from the plaza that day told The Village Sun that any statements from her and her wife would come through their lawyer. Subsequently, a week later, both women were arrested in the park in connection with making an underage weed sale to a 19-year-old.

Vending of expressive-matter material — such as art or literature — legally does not require a permit from the city, since the courts have ruled it a First Amendment, free-speech activity. However, the Parks Department does require vendors to use tables — and, in turn, has rules on where tables can and cannot be set up; artwork and other wares are not allowed just to be laid on the ground.

The artists on the morning of Aug. 30 were told to clear out of the entire Washington Square fountain plaza — and were not even allowed to stay on its very edge, as they had been told to do starting in mid-July. Later that day, however, the creatives found that they were able to quietly slip back into their usual spots.

As seen in a photo from Sept. 6, Parks Enforcement and police officers have been keeping the Washington Square fountain plaza largely clear of vendors. This has been going on since mid-July. (Photo by The Village Sun)

Starting on July 15, PEP and police officers have been cracking down on vending in the park. The ramped-up enforcement came on the heels of a New York Post article reporting that not just marijuana but also hallucinogenic mushrooms were now being brazenly sold by some park vendors. One vendor explained to The Village Sun that he conducted his actual sales of ’shrooms — either plain or in chocolate — outside of the park.

After the recent crackdown on the park’s vendors, artists had been told to set up on the outer rim of the fountain plaza — though also told they had to keep 5 feet away from the black granite benches that encircle the plaza.

Under Parks Department rules, vendors are not allowed to set up their tables within 50 feet of monuments — including the Washington Square Park fountain — or within 5 feet of park benches or other furniture.

After the plaza-clearing PEP action, Eric Cook, a leader of the Washington Square artists resistance to the crackdown, acknowledged to The Village Sun that the distance from the fountain to the black granite benches actually is a full 50 feet — meaning artists legally are not allowed to vend within the space.

“I measured it,” he said.

As Cook put it previously, “This park is, for all intents and purposes, like a Wild West: We’re tolerated but we’re not allowed. The whole thing is we want some kind of détente — and [to] work out the enforcement.”

Asked for comment on the PEP officers clearing all of the vendors out of the fountain plaza on Aug. 30, Kelsey Jean-Baptiste, the Parks press officer, said, “Washington Square Park is a bastion of artistic expression. We support expressive-matter vendors performing in parks, following long-standing related rules.”

In short, Parks says it’s policy on vending in the Greenwich Village Park has not changed.

However, Cook said, this was “the first explicit use” of the 50-foot rule to kick artists out of the plaza.

“The ejections have been rare but there have been probably a few times each season since 2021,” he said. “They just make up a reason about public safety, like, ‘A protest is coming, so you have to clear out.’ This is the first explicit use of the 50-foot rule to eject [artists vendors] that I know of. It has been just a threat till now. And this is the first time a PEP has declared Washington Square Park is ‘not designated as an expressive-matter park.’ PEP stopped enforcing the 50-foot rule later in the afternoon [that same day].”

He said typically these ejections happen in the morning, when there are fewer people around to notice.

A rare scene since the pandemic and the legalization of pot — an open fountain plaza in the park on Sept. 6. A paid concession, however — a hot dog and ice cream cart — can be seen in the distance. (Photo by The Village Sun)

However, Robert Lederman, president of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics), says there still legally must be some spots made available in the small park — which is under 10 acres — for expressive-matter vending or the city would be in violation of federal law. Lederman wants to scrap the 2010 Parks Department rules on vending, which he said were drafted specifically to drastically slash the number of artist vendors in spots like Washington Square Park, Battery Park, the High Line and Central Park. At the same time, he said, police, the Parks Department and the Washington Square Park Conservancy all know that the park is a world-renowned symbol of creativity and free expression — and that what happens in it is watched very closely — so they basically let some things slide.

Lederman did offer a work-around for the artist vendors. He suggested they could display their art on a piece of cardboard that they would hold vertically and prop on the ground. If an officer approached, they would then lift the cardboard on top of their toes so it would no longer be on the ground.

Told of that tactic, a police source asked, “What if the officer saw it on the ground?”

Like Lederman, Captain Jason Zeikel, the commanding officer of the Sixth Precinct, also maintains that there are some spots in the park where vending is legal. He stresses, though, that currently the main focus of police in the park is enforcement against drugs. Yet, he acknowledged that many local residents don’t want the park to be overly commercialized.

The Aug. 30 PEP vending enforcement in the plaza occurred just an hour before Kanami Kusajima — a Japanese “ink dancer” — was set to lead one of an ongoing series of Zoom meetings with stakeholders that she recently launched on Aug. 2 and has been holding every two weeks. Last summer she similarly held a Zoom meeting — although only one — with the park’s buskers on enforcement against use of amplified sound in the park. But following the recent vending crackdown, the meetings have been widened to include the park’s artists, too.

Also on the Zooms are representatives of Community Board 2, the Washington Square Park Conservancy, Councilmember Christopher Marte’s Office and the Washington Square Association, plus some residents and artists. Marte himself personally attended the Aug. 30 meeting. The councilmember has said he wants to help find a compromise so the artists can keep vending in the park.

“I feel like we are making some progress,” Kusajima said of the ongoing discussions.

Personally, the dancer has been told for years by officers in the park that she can’t use her small audio speaker with her performances — plus was warned twice this summer not to perform in the fountain plaza.

On the first point, Kusajima scoffed that her JBL Charge 4 speaker is “smaller than a water bottle.”

And she rejects the idea of having to pay $70 for a permit each time she uses the mini-speaker to perform in the park. It’s especially galling, she said, since the de Blasio administration, in summer 2021, used a photo of her performing in the park as part of its post-COVID comeback campaign — though, she contends, without paying her for use of her image. The ad was prominently featured on bus shelters.

“If New York uses artists’ photos — like that bus stop photo [of me] — for free, you should be able to perform for free,” the dancer declared.

“The subtitle for my advertisement was: ‘There’s No Stopping Art,'” she said, laughing at its irony.

On July 20 she actually got a ticket for the first time for using her mini-speaker in the park.

“I tried to explain my whole situation with the Mayor’s Office,” she noted of the city’s use of her image, “but they just cut me off before I spoke. They come too many times, ask me to turn it down, shut it down. But this was the first ticket.”

On Sept. 6, the park’s fountain plaza was pretty much clear of vendors. (Photo by The Village Sun)

In the past, she said, there were usually more people in the famed Greenwich Village greensward who would rally to her defense, and the officers would back off. This time, though, it was in the morning, and fewer people were in the park.

“I think they’re more tourists than local people at that time,” she said, of why no one came to her aid.

What the ink dancer is proposing is for the city to allow amplified sound of up to 80 decibels in the park — without requiring a sound permit — from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Under current park rules, people can play acoustic music in Washington Square Park from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Drums in the park, for example, are allowed to be up to 120 decibels, she noted.

If the amplified music became a problem, she said, the Department of Environmental Protection has sound guns to monitor the noise level.

However, Captain Zeikel has said police cannot pick and choose who they give summonses to for use of amplified sound since that would be “selective enforcement,” which would cause issues of its own.

Meanwhile, as Kusajima understands it, as for the artist vendors, they want the 50-foot rule to be lifted, so that they can move back into their prime selling turf of the fountain plaza once again instead of having to perch on its edge. Jewelry vendors also want to be classified as expressive-matter artist vendors, not general vendors, she said.

“This distance thing is affecting all artists right now,” Kusajima said, “whether it’s writing [selling books or typing poetry] or painting.”

Indeed, she herself was impacted by the new enforcement of the 50-foot rule — though she argues, “It doesn’t apply for expressive-matter performers, it only applies for [vendors] tables.” She said officers twice this summer — the first time it was a group of PEPs and police, the second time, just PEPs — told her she could not perform in the fountain plaza. The second time, they threatened to seize her equipment, including her speaker.

Kusajima dances atop a piece of paper on the ground, swooshing her limbs and torso over it to spread sumi ink to create her paintings.

“They didn’t say ‘arrest’ but they were pretty much threatening me,” Kusajima recalled. “I decided to switch from performance to protest: I just lay down on the blank paper and I said, ‘This is my right to protest.’ I wrote down some statement on the paper to say this is my way of peaceful protest.”

Her principled stand of lying down paid off, she said, noting, “They came back and said they read the rules and realized it only applies to artists.”

Kusajima said the second time this happened she had to call Lieutenant Brown, the Sixth Precinct supervisor in Washington Square Park, for help.

“I had to call Lieutenant Brown…. ‘Hello, hello — I’m having an issue,'” she said. “In my opinion, Lieutenant Brown is one of the few police officers that we can have a dialogue with.”

The ink dancer stressed that PEPs and police need to communicate more with each other, as well.

“If your job is park enforcement,” she said, “you have to learn the rules.”


  1. STEVEN G HILL STEVEN G HILL September 19, 2023

    No one wants WSQ Park to continue to be a Flea Market disguised as a Drug Market. PEP and the Police are not the ones with Bad Behavior, it’s the Drug Dealers, Flea Marketeers, Skateboarders and Bike & Motocycles driving thru the park. Park Rules are barely enforced by PEP and the Police. We need more consistent enforcement.I’m in the park daily…I see & I know!!!

  2. Carol Yost Carol Yost September 19, 2023

    I watched the Ink Dancer’s video, and the only thing that bothered me was the presence of quite a few skateboarders, who are NOT supposed to be in the park at all, as they pose a hazard to older people and others. Now they should be outa there! They made a lot of noise and posed a risk to people walking through the park and trying to enjoy themselves.

  3. Sharon Volpe Sharon Volpe September 18, 2023

    I think it’s important to note that original artists do not bring crime or illegal activity to the park. In fact, it’s the opposite. We help direct to the bathroom. Help those with questions. Fend off bad behavior. I set up yesterday and many locals came over to apologize for the bad behavior of PEP, NYPD and others pushing us out, in that their aggressive behavior toward the artists is unnecessary.

  4. Robert Lederman Robert Lederman September 18, 2023

    Concerning vending without a stand:
    Within the Park Department’s 2010 Expressive Matter Vending Rules is a concept called No Stand Vending. No Stand Vending means selling art without a fixed stand or table. Both the Park rules and the vending law for the streets recognize no stand vending as legal and legitimate.

    What it means in parks is that the 2010 rules no longer apply. You can vend in the plaza, right next to a monument, on a sidewalk or path of any width. You need not be by a curb. You can vend near a bench or a tree. On the streets using no stand vending there are no restricted streets, no 20 ft from a door rule, no 10 ft from a crosswalk.

    The reason this exemption from the vending laws and park rules exists is because the City cannot legally create a total ban on art vending. It is a fully First Amendment-protected activity. If the park rules or street rules did not have this exemption, they could be completely overturned by a lawsuit.

    It should also be noted that the excessively restrictive rules for artists were not intended to protect public safety, park aesthetics or any other legitimate purpose. They were devised solely to make art vending difficult, if not impossible. In contrast, none of the hundreds of park concessions, special events or any of the huge Holiday Vending Markets in NYC Parks have to follow any of these rules. They can use umbrellas. They can vend right on top of monuments. They can use amplified music without needing a special permit.

    It’s time to revoke or revise the park rules for artists.

  5. John John September 18, 2023

    13-year resident. Sorry, Lederman, there is a real crisis in the park with deadly drugs and violence. Your artists will need to sit on the sidelines while the adults in the room make our public space safe.

    The artists should help report criminals and provide insight to the police. This absurd complaint while there are real, life-threatening issues going on in the park is why progressives lose moderate voters. No one cares about this right now. Open your eyes to the serious problems right in front of you.

    • Robert Lederman Robert Lederman September 18, 2023

      The residents have entirely legitimate concerns about the drug dealing/use and violence in WSP. The artists and performers also want those issues addressed. However, these problems are not being caused by artists or performers. Police can surely address those serious issues without doing daily petty harassment of artists and performers and without violating First Amendment rights. Those rights are not a side issue, they are at the core of what makes this America and it is important to note that these are everyone’s rights, not just artists’ and performers’ rights. Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

    • Regular Artist in WSP Regular Artist in WSP September 18, 2023

      Your post is so “end of the world” dramatic. I am there all the time and only two deaths reported since June. You act like it’s the purge every day down there, when it’s actually a lovely place: There’s issues that have nothing to do with artists. We do help the police and let them know but there’s only so much we can do.
      More artists, fewer drug dealers.

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