I roll my eyes every time someone says that New York is the greatest place on earth.
The inhabitants of the greatest places on earth have freedom. The people of New York, well, we have civil liberties that are in line with the plutocracy in which we live.
I spent 2009 through early 2012 living primarily in a collection of places that should be noted for their strong offering of individuals freedoms. One needn't flex the imagination too hard to extol the virtues of life in San Francisco, where it seems like 99 percent of all legislation is progressive. From marijuana decriminalization to recycling programs to living wages, San Francisco knows what's good for citizens in a supposedly enlightened democracy. (That said, 82 San Francisco bus drivers made more than $100,000 per year during the depths of the recession, which, is not only absurd from the standpoint of a recovering English major who will never rake in such sums, but also a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.)
And I spent a good chunk of the past three years in Denmark, Amsterdam, and the U.K., where, with all of their cradle-to-grave protections, one can, at the very least, enjoy the simple pleasure of sipping a beer in a public park with friends (oftentimes paired with a BBQ).
Adults living in a free society should have the inalienable right of beverage choice in public parks. However, in New York, this is not the case. I learned this the hard way on Memorial Day weekend in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, because, while attending friends' anniversary party, I had the misfortune of being seated beside two completely EMPTY beer bottles when a trio of cops decided to write summonses for having "alcohol in the park" to three of the six of us present. (My anger only heightened when I discovered that being cited in the park isn't the worst of it, because under New York City's draconian laws, you can't even drink a beer on your own stoop.)
Not one to pay a $25 fine for an offense that I didn't commit, I went to court and fought the ticket. It wasn't the money that was the problem, it was that I was erroneously issued a summons by one of "New York's Finest" for a crime that never happened. That said, my summons was issued at the end of the month, and as a shocking episode of This American Life revealed, NYPD officers have quotas to fill (even though they usually deny this), and I was more than likely just a victim of the system.
And while this alcohol policy is set by the city, it's not the city government, nor the taxpayers, who are paying for the majority of upkeep, maintenance, and other critical day-to-day administration of city parks. Rather, it is such groups like the Central Park Conservancy and Prospect Park Alliance that provide the funds to make New York's parks awesome. The latter pays two-thirds of Prospect Park's $12 million annual budget. That said, these organizations don't set policy, so their leaders should pressure the municipal government to change these Kafkaesque laws.
Going to court to fight my "alcohol in park" case opened my eyes to an even more shocking problem in the New York City parks: Thousands of ordinary people are charged with being in the park after dark, because New York City parks can close anywhere from dusk until 1 a.m.
During the 90 minutes that I waited to plead my case (which, for the record, I won in about 23 seconds, with the summons being dismissed and the case being sealed), I heard a few dozen other people defend themselves in front of the judge at the Red Hook Community Justice Center. By far, the most common accusation was for being in parks after dark.
Nobody wants junkies or other nefarious people residing in our parks during off hours, but until the NYPD solved every murder, rape, and robbery, all the way down to the misdemeanor level, enforcement of "park after dark" laws should be the NYPD's lowest priority (even though a female college student has even been arrested and sent to jail for 36 hours for this crime).
It's necessary to make a clear distinction between being in a park after dark and subway-jumping -- petty crime crackdowns that Malcolm Gladwell famously discussed in his first pop sociology staple, The Tipping Point. In Gladwell's book, he demonstrates that, according to "Broken Windows Theory," it is important to reduce petty crimes because the same individuals who don't pay for the subway are likely to be the same folks who are offenders in more serious cases.
However, the vast majority of the people I witnessed defending themselves seemed to have entered these parks after dark by accident.
Taking a late night jog to let off some steam after a long day at work? Think again! Going for an after dinner stroll with friends to burn off some chocolate cheesecake? Not so fast. Don't read English well? You're SOL.
Tara Kiernan, in the Public Affairs department of New York City Parks, said her department did not keep statistics about the number of offenses committed in parks. She wrote in an e-mail, "Closing times vary by parks but generally parks are open 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. unless otherwise stated on parks signage -- rule on our website."
However, the problem is that New York's 1,700 parks have wildly fluctuating closing times. Some close at dusk. Others close at 10 p.m. There seems to be little logic behind the variation in closing times. And from poking around parks to research this piece, I can say with certainty that many park entrances are not clearly marked, making entering a park after hours incredibly easy.
For the past month, the NYPD has adamantly refused, despite 10 phone calls and four e-mails, to provide me with city-wide data and statistics about the number of "alcohol in parks" and "in parks after dark" violations from recent years. One can infer from what I witnessed at a single court in Red Hook that many thousands of New Yorkers and visitors are affected by this nonsense each year.
So what can New Yorkers do to stop this nonsense?
Step 1: Petition your New York City Council members and the Bloomberg administration to change the silly no alcohol in parks rule so that it is no longer a petty offense to drink alcohol in parks. (If this fails, I imagine that an Occupy Prospect Park Protest, with thousands of New Yorkers linking arms, each clasping beers between them, will be necessary.)
Step 2: Require that the Parks Department post clear signage, in multiple languages, at every possible park entrance. And make it such that it is only an offense to be in a park after dark if you are engaging in some other activity other than merely walking, running, or sitting.
Step 3: Require that the NYPD reveal statistics that show just how many citations are issued for petty park related offenses, as this will reveal how many resources are dedicated to this. (The $25 summons that I had dismissed cost the city way more than that in terms of the amount of time and energy that a judge, clerks, police officer, legal aid lawyer, and administrator had to spend dealing with my case.)
Step 4: Once the laws are changed, enjoy your beer in the park at a time when it is open, and save me one if you can. (I prefer Hogaarden or Guinness.) Thanks.
This article first appeared on PolicyMic.