Parks Department Vows to Save New Yorkers From Menacing Street Life

CIMG2162.JPGLook out! Vendor "congestion" in Union Square Park. Photo: Ben Fried

The parks department will hold a hearing Friday on plans to clamp down on what it sees as an unnecessary, untamed incursion into some of the city’s most vaunted public spaces.

Of course, we’re talking about art vending.

The idea dates back to at least the 1990s — in 2003, the creators of Central Park’s "The Gates" appealed to Mayor Bloomberg to drop it — and is based on the city’s claim that artists are taking up too much room, causing congestion and safety issues for park-goers. The new rules [PDF] would curtail the number of vendors and vending locations by up to 80 percent in Union Square Park, Battery Park, on the High Line, and in some sections of Central Park (see maps here). Tomorrow’s hearing will be held at 11:00 a.m. at Chelsea Recreation Center, 430 W. 25th Street.

It’s not clear who’s clamoring for a vendor crackdown. In an informal survey, the advocates at the Street Vendor Project found that most people in Union Square Park like the art vendors just fine.

Whatever the motive, this seems like a solution in search of a problem. The vendors don’t impede pedestrian movement any more than the Union Square
Greenmarket or the line snaking around Shake Shack in Madison Square
Park. Regardless of personal opinions about the quality of their wares, art vendors bring life and vitality to areas intended for human-scale activity. Clearing them out of public spaces en masse misses the point of what city gathering places are all about. To quote urbanist William H. Whyte, "What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people."

If Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe is truly concerned about safety, and park patrons being crammed into tight, contested spaces, he could start with this:

Earth_Day_10_3.jpgPhoto of Central Park loop on Earth Day 2010: Ken Coughlin
  • Free Wheel

    There are cop cars parked on the sidewalks and along Union Square everyday… No problem for our parks’ commish there.

  • Hard to understand why art venders in Union Square are bad but the annual Christmas Village is good.

  • BTW, we just posted a somewhat similar video, but from the perspective of the Union Square artists themselves: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rK4OCns3-9k

  • I think you’re being too critical of the Parks Dept. on this issue. I’m all for streetlife but sometimes the vendors do cause congestion. I see no problem with the Parks Dept. wanting to regulate the number of vendors in what is public space.

    Streetsblog is always making an issue of how free on-street parking is a total public give-a-way. No argument from me on that issue but the reality is that vendors that pay nothing to set up shop in parks are doing exactly the same thing.

  • The idea that these artists/vendors cause problematic congestion is ludicrous. Yeah, it’s crowded there–which is what makes it attractive. And sometimes it’s congested. But that’s not the artists’ fault.

    I walk through and around Union Square all the time–weekdays and weekends–and at the most crowded times, these vendors slow me down by about three seconds. The farmers market, on the other hand, while is hellish for ped congesion at peak hours. That’s not to say that it’s not a wonderful and welcome institution, but to point out that the congestion complaint about the artists is crap.

    The real #1 culprit as far as pedestrian congestion in that area (and most) is the fact that so much space (roads) is off-limits to pedestrians, who are herded, ineffectively, into insufficient pedestrian space. That’s not the fault of these artists.

    The #2 culprit at Union Square, WHEN it’s congested, which it isn’t always, are performance/dance groups and the like. And you know what? They’re welcome there too.

    As far as danger, the only dangerously over-crowded pedestrian spot at Union Square I can think of is where the south side of 14th Street intersects with 4th Ave, and there are no artist/vendors there.

  • Want to see real congestion in NYC parks? Look no further than the the holiday season peddlers’ villages that Parks Department erects at Union Square and Columbus Circle. Parks couldn’t give a damn about congestion, it’s revenue that’s driving this. Are they going to reduce these peddlers’ villages by 80%?

  • Since when are those HOMELAND SECURITY t-shirts with photos of Native Americans on them considered “art”?

  • Kristen – Since when do distasteful, distracting comments that are clearly unenlightened, reflect poorly on the person who wrote them, considered – appropriate for an otherwise cordial, honest and sincere blog? Unless I missed something your (commentary?) on art nor its racist implications are welcome.

  • James Figone

    If they closed Union Square West to traffic, everybody would have plenty of room. That said, Getting to the subway entrance from 14th & Union Square West can be difficult because of the vendors so it would be nice to have some restrictions in place on the locations of vendors.

  • Jed

    The vendors are gigantic f’n nuisance… They are clearly the cause of considerable pedestrian congestion and make navigating the edge of union square even more unpleasant than it used to be (when you had to elbow your way past the hookers and junkies). I wouldn’t complain if these parasites they were selling something useful, like drugs, but they are mostly selling knick-knacks and laser printed “art” to tourists and NYU undergrads (two classes of people who should be banished off the Island). I wouldn’t mind seeing those christmas chazarai “villages” carted off to the east river either. Send the carnies back to jersey.

    While we’re at it, could Parks and the city please do something about the gauntlet of “bicycle rental” and “pedicab tour” sales reps who turn the SE corner of central park and 59th street at 6th and 7th avenues into pedestrian clusterfuck the second temperatures climb above 60degrees?

  • Shorter headline: city leaders hate the city.

  • Donnie Jeffcoat

    I think what the city is REALLY trying to say, or should have actually said is this:

    “A lot of people sell the same crap in really touristy areas and we’re just trying to consolidate that crap. This is not about the ‘expressive’ types, its about the million people selling the same ‘Gay Street’ sign picture to faux-trendy Europeans.”

    You know it’s true. It’s the sentiment that really could help save New York from becoming like everywhere else. Instead, they raised the ire of a bunch of aging hippies. Inevitably the city wins in the end, but their choice of words could have made their mission a lot more sensible to the commoner.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Actually, there are some places I’d be all for some limits. For example, there are now art and beverage vendors setting up shop more and more frequently on the Brooklyn Bridge and it is making crossing it even more of a headache.

    Once a group of about ten people were just hogging the peds space looking at some ridiculous guy’s “art” and the cyclist in front of me was knocked over – thankfully only going about 4 or 5 mph. He was hit because one of the tourists was being chased by another with a necklace he wanted to put on her and they ran into the narrow bike path.

  • Sohotimmy

    I’m sure the Street Vendors Project “survey” is completely scientific. They claim that 94% of the people who live in the neighborhood are for the illegal vendors. I absolutely sure that must be a correct number.

    To destroy a new park like the High Line with this crap (which is only sold to tourists) is disgusting.

  • J:Lai

    Park space is a public asset, and as such I don’t see a problem with public regulations on how it can be used with regard to commercial activity. Parks and public squares do not need to be anarchy zones – it’s ok to require permits to sell crap in the park, and to limit the number of permits available.

  • Casey

    Good for them for banning vendors on the High Line. That entire park is one giant choke point. You can’t stop your ice cream truck in the middle of the Gowanus and start selling. Likewise, you should be able to set up a 10-foot table in the middle of a pedestrian thoroughfare and start selling ugly, tacky stuff to tourists.

    Also, Robert Lederman lives for this sort of controversy. Take everything he says with a huge grain of salt.

  • Oddly enough, almost none of the Union Square venders are actually in the park. They tend to occupy sidewalks and plazas surrounding the park. For example, the area shown in the photo above was previously used for parking. Do these surrounding areas even come under the auspices of the Parks Department?

    This seems more like fallout from the City’s attempts to curb New Jersey artist Robert Lederman who has been arrested, several times, for selling his so-called art on the Highline. It’s really a shame that other artists may suffer because he insists on being such a jerk.

  • Listen – I go to the park to seek respite from the commercialization of the city streets. But in many parks, all I get is more people trying to sell me more stuff. That’s what I DON’T want.

    These vendors can sell almost anywhere, on thousands of miles of city streets. Or, I can suggest hundreds of vacant storefronts in my neighborhood alone where they might conduct their commercial activities. Can’t they leave the park for those who seek enjoyment of nature or leisure activities with fellow residents and visitors?

    I’ll accept limited commercial activity in a park as long as it supports the park or serves a public good. Shake Shack generates revenue without which the park would suffer (or we could all just pay more taxes). That’s an acceptable tradeoff to me, as is the Greenmarket which serves an important public good. Artists markets might also serve a similar good, but the current state of individuals raking in profits at the expense of the enjoyment of park-goers? Not for me.

  • Stacy:

    For example, the area shown in the photo above was previously used for parking. Do these surrounding areas even come under the auspices of the Parks Department?

    Yes, the neighborhood has been successful in removing cars from designated parks and restoring its use as park, not park(ing lot) – and this needs to happen in a number of other places (see: Brooklyn judicial parking). Even though it is hard surfaced, it is most certainly part of the park.

  • Lora Tenenbaum

    I sometimes think that if the Parks Department really wanted vendors out of the parks, they would be doing more plantings and benches rather than the stone walks we see here and in small parks. What they’ve been putting in place are particularly conducive to vendors and people just passing through. It would be really great if, in addition to trying to control the number of non-recreation-related activity (such as vending) that impedes on the purpose of our parks, they realized the need for more green as well.

  • Sohotimmy

    Very good point Laura. Except if you Google “Robert Lederman”, who is the leader of the “artist” groups, you will see that his group has advocated against new tree installations and trees and other plants in planters. They say that this takes away space for vending.

    I hope people are starting to get the picture that these people really aren’t acting in the best interests of City residents.

  • Woody

    Can we spread ’em around a bit? I’d suggest allowing a limited number of art vendors on the Broadway Boulevard north and south of Times Square, where a lane has been reclaimed from cars. The Times Square and Herald Square sections are already congested, but between 59th and 47th, and from 41st to 35th, there’s some often-vacant space where allowing two or three vendors per block wouldn’t hurt a thing. Then if we can get some more pedestrianized streets, perhaps 41st between 6th and 8th Aves, or 32nd between 6th and 7th, there’d be more space in touristy areas for sellers of art & schlock.

    I do favor some reasonable limits. Current zoning regs specify how close together you can plant trees along the sidewalks. Surely we can space out the vendors as well. And on the High Line, zero.

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