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Mayor Bloomberg vs Artists: The Battle for the Soul of New York City

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Last week a bubbly woman from Ohio stopped by our table in Union Square. "This is why I love coming to New York!" she explained as she flipped through our silkscreens. "Everywhere else I go, it's the same imported crap in the stores. But out here, I can meet local artists making art with their own hands."

Well, not for long...

Mayor Bloomberg's legal henchmen have unilaterally issued an administrative ruling effectively barring most art from New York's City's parks. Under the false guise of "public safety" and "congestion" they've crafted a complex set of rules banning 80-90% of artists from even displaying their work in Columbus Circle, Union Square Park and any other public park in Manhattan. The rules range from permitting only four artists to set up in Columbus Circle to barring artists from coming within fifty feet of a monument or five feet from a garbage can.

The effect of the de-facto art ban, according to the Associated Press, is to "dramatically alter a colorful part of the cityscape that has for decades served as an outdoor gallery popular among tourists in a city known worldwide for its arts."

Bloomberg deems us a "public nuisance" because we do not fit neatly into plan for New York as an uninterrupted commercial venture where public space is rented, bought and sold. As Robert Lederman, president of the 2000 member group ARTIST, points out:

If preventing congestion in public parks was a genuine concern...why are there daily corporate promotions in NYC parks by companies like Disney, Nike, Best Buy and JP Morgan Chase and a thousand others that involve huge displays, giant trucks, powerlines and other dangerous infrastructure?

Bloomberg's rationale for the new rules is that artists are blocking walkways and creating a safety hazard. But the administration allows -- indeed, encourages -- commercial vendors to set up at these same locations, as long as they are paying rent to the city. In Battery Park, for example, artists are to be chased out but eight hot dog vendors will be allowed to stay in the most high congestion areas. Bloomberg isn't worried about congestion; these rules are part of his larger plan to privatize and "monetize" our city's parks.

New York Law School's City Law journal wondered this week if Bloomberg and his Parks Department are privately "feeling hypocritical about their proposal", since last year the administration "successfully defended in court its decision to install a commercial restaurant in Union Square's pavilion." Bloomberg argued that Unions Square is a "traditionally commercial area."

My partner and I have been selling on the streets of New York City for nearly a decade and not once have we seen Mayor Bloomberg in a city park -- although we've often seen his political minions blocking walkways to campaign during election time.

While he's been dreaming of higher office and courting Wall Street, we've quietly joined musicians, farmers, social justice activists, gardeners and others in an effort to breathe life back into public spaces and revive a local, sustainable cultural economy in Manhattan. We choose to display and sell our work in city parks rather than in cloistered Chelsea galleries or Soho boutiques. We see ourselves as part of a long tradition of New York artists embedding ourselves in local community efforts to make the world a better and more beautiful place.

Bloomberg, who chooses to spend many of his weekends golfing at his Bahama resort, might find our work of little value, but average New Yorkers tell us every day that they treasure this flowering of grassroots culture in their parks. Just last week a 100 random NYC park-goers were stopped and asked if street artists enhanced or detracted from their park experience. Ninety-four of them stated that artists enhance New Yorkers' park experience.

Our cracker-jack first amendment lawyers tell us we have a decent chance of beating Bloomberg in court -- as we did against Giuliani in 1996 when a federal appeals court ruled that artists are protected by the First Amendment. And just this week the ACLU called on Bloomberg to withdraw his proposal. According to NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg:

Parks have historically been recognized as vitally important for social, artistic and political expression. The Parks Department should make every effort to accommodate our city's artists, poets and authors. It must withdraw its proposal until it can publicly demonstrate it is meeting its First Amendment obligations.

But at the end of the day this battle is about far more than artists' first amendment rights. This is a battle for the cultural soul of New York City -- and every New Yorker has a stake in the outcome. As Lederman warns, Bloomberg and the Parks Commissioner see themselves as real estate agents "trying to get the highest price per square foot for all of our public parks. If the people of NYC don't wake up to this soon, there will be no more truly public places left in America's greatest city."