It’s official: Free-range parks performers face fines

Video by Alexis Morgan

These days, as blues musician Demarco Evans performs in Washington Square Park, he’s thinking about more than just hitting the perfect chords on his guitar.

He’s worried about getting fined.

Street performers are gearing up to abide by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation’s strict rules for vendors who operate in city parks, which as of May 8 will explicitly apply to them if they ask audiences for funds.

Since 2010, the city has steered art, book and other “expressive matter” vendors in parks to specific locations: along the curb, away from park furniture like benches and at least 50 feet away from a monument. In Union Square, Battery Park, the High Line and parts of Central Park, they may work only in designated vending areas.

Now singers, rappers, jugglers, dancers and contortionists — even human statues — will have to join them, if they perform in exchange for a fee or a donation.

As far as the Parks Department is concerned, the performers have been subject to the rules all along. The new change just makes it official, following a state appellate court decision in early 2012 that found “entertainment” isn’t automatically subject to rules restricting vending.

“While it was always our intent that the rules include performers and entertainers who seek donations within the definition of a expressive matter vendor, the rules will now state that explicitly,” explained Parks spokesman Phil Abramson.

But that doesn’t reassure Evans or other performers, who are bracing themselves for a long, expensive summer after a yearlong reprieve. Violations of the vending rules are a misdemeanor, and can result in a fine of up to $1,000.

Two years ago, when the parks vending rules went into effect, Evans was fined $250 three separate times in less than three months for playing in Washington Square Park and Central Park.

“The city went on a crackdown on us performing anywhere near the water fountains or statues,” recalls Evans, who has been playing guitar and singing blues for seven years to tourists in the area. “Then after protests for performers and activists they seemed to settle down. Now these new rules are going to start that all up again.”

Evans anticipates another round of enforcement specifically targeted at entertainers.

“After we protested and had most of the public support behind us, they just stopped fining us,” Evans said. “So recently, there have been no problems. Who knows how bad it could get again.”

John Hendricks, who plays a drums and guitar set-up in Washington Square Park, had a similar experience, and shares Evans’ fears. “In 2011, I was fined multiple times for playing to close to a monument here in Washington Square,” Hendricks said. “Now, It seems like the city is out to get us again.” And he always worries that still more restrictions could be in store.

“This amendment may not look so bad now, but after the last few years, I strongly believe it will snowball by adding more rules to stop our basic rights to perform for the public in a public space,” he said.

It’s official: starting in May, a musician can be fined for playing for cash almost anywhere in Washington Square Park. Photo: Aaron Martinez

The city’s restrictions on vendors in parks are being challenged in federal appeals court by Robert Lederman, an artist and longtime advocate against city restrictions on artists in the parks. A federal district court upheld the Parks rules.

“This is earth-shaking news in terms of this lawsuit,” Lederman said. “They did affidavits and testified orally in my case claiming that because of the ruling they had no choice but to take entertainment and street performers out of the park rules, and now they are putting them back in. They are going to get sued about this by every performer.”

DeShawn Johnson, who dances in Central Park with his brothers and nephews, considers the restrictions on entertainers a setback for the city. “Street performers are a vital part of what makes New York great for tourists,” he said, “and yet it always seems like the city is trying to hurt us performers by limiting what and where we can perform.”

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