By Serena Solomon
CHELSEA — Hundreds of artists protested against the city's plan to tighten rules for vendors selling art in city parks at a public hearing on Friday, saying the new laws would impinge on their First Amendment rights.
The Department of Parks and Recreation said they needed to cap the number of artistic vendors in parks because their growing ranks were crowding precious space and creating a safety hazard.
At a protest held before the hearing, Robert Lederman, president of an advocacy group representing 2,000 artists, told his members the real congestion culprit is the Parks Department.
"The greatest threat to public safety in our parks is the Parks Department," Lederman said to the members of his group, A.R.T.I.S.T.
Lederman said the Parks Department fills city parks to the tipping point with farmers markets and food vendors, who pay fees to the city.
The city does not make any income from artistic vendors.
The proposed rules, which could take effect as early as late May, would limit the number of artists to 24 outside the Met, 12 in Union Square, and nine in Battery Park. The High Line, Columbus Circle and Wien Walk, near the Central Park Zoo, would each be limited to eight or less. The rationed spots would be given out on a daily first come, first serve basis.
Attorney Edward Wallace spoke in support of the rule change.
"The freedom to pass unmolested on the sidewalk is equally protected and equally valuable as the freedom to express oneself in print, on canvas, or on a soap box," Wallace said.
Dr. Jay Wisnicki, who is on the board of a condominium located near Union Square Park, also spoke out in favor of the rule. He said he wanted to see the square less congested. Other residents testified of being woken by early morning fights between artists vying for a good spot to sell their art for the day.
But artists, including Hugh Sun who moved here from China, said that the freedom to display and sell art on the streets was part of what made the city great.
"In China we have very little freedom," said Sun. He sells his photography outside of the Met.
"We could feel freedom is here, so that is why we come here," he said.
William Castro, the Manhattan borough commissioner for the Parks Department, denied suggestions by some artists that the proposed restrictions would soon lead to requirements of vending permits and fees for artistic vendors.
The proposed rule changes will be the sole decision of the Parks Department's commissioner, Adrian Benepe.