Parks honcho to performers: We won’t enforce new restrictions

Starting today, a new rule tells performers in city parks who seek donations from their audiences that they’re barred them from playing in some of Manhattan’s most popular green spots, and face heavy fines if they do.

Now Manhattan’s top parks official is telling musicians, dancers, human statues and their ilk not to pay attention to the words on the books.

At a Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting last week in Greenwich Village, Manhattan Borough Commissioner William Castro of the Department of Parks and Recreation sought to assure creative artists that they were welcome in Manhattan’s parks.

“All the musicians and performers who come to play are fine,” said Castro. “You don’t need a permit. You’re not going to be told to leave the park. You’re not going to get a ticket. You’re fine. You can do that.”

The Drunken Catfish Ramblers play unmolested in Central Park, 2010, shortly after the city barred buskers from parks pathways and other hot spots. A crackdown came the following year. Photo: Andy Bird/Flickr

The only performers subject to the rules, he said, would be those who sold CDs. They have to put the goods on a table, and keep at least five feet away from park benches and at least 50 feet from monuments like Washington Square Arch.

Castro’s assurances came in contrast to performers’ experiences in 2011, shortly after restrictions on vendors went into effect and were interpreted by the department to include performers. Parks Enforcement Patrol officers fined performers who strayed from permitted areas. Violations of the vending rules are subject to a fine of $250 for the first offense and up to $1,000.

Parks Enforcement Patrol officers suspended the ticket blitz last year after an unrelated court ruling prompted the department to rewrite the rule to specify that artists counted as “vendors” under Parks Department regulations.

Asked why many performers received costly summonses in the past, Castro responded, “Somebody went off and enforced the strict letter of the law or whatever. It’s not even clear to me.”

“I explained to everybody, ‘Look, that is not going to continue,’” he said. “It wasn’t something that was our intent or policy.” He blamed a single patrol officer for the crackdown two summers ago.

“We are going to make sure our PEP officers know and explain it to them because it can be confusing, I understand that,” Castro said. He promised the department will spell out exactly what the rules are and how they will be applied in a FAQ online.

Performers and their advocates listened with skeptical ears. “There’s been a lot of deceptive statements by city officials about what these rules are,” contended Robert Lederman, an advocate for park artists and vendors.

“I think it’s unconstitutional and unnecessary,” he said. “There’s no pressing demand to eliminate performers from the city parks. They’re not hurting anybody. They actually enhance the park.”

As for Castro’s latest assurances, “I think some people believed him; I think some people didn’t believe him,” said Washington Square Park pianist Colin Huggins. “The test is going to be D-day, May 8th, and we’ll see if the PEP officers actually start to hand out summonses.”

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