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Union Square Showdown: Holiday Market Versus Art Vendors

By Amy Zimmer | December 21, 2010 6:40am

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

UNION SQUARE — The sprawling bazaar that takes over Union Square for the park’s annual holiday market has become a hub for gift-shopping New Yorkers.

But one local artist fighting with the Parks Department over its rules to limit street artists in the park the rest of the year sees the city's preferential treatment of the market as a double standard he thinks could help his case.

Robert Lederman, the outspoken leader of the artists who filed a lawsuit to block the vendor restrictions, claims that money — not public safety or aesthetics, as the city purported — motivated the revised park rules.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe admitted to a Daily News columnist that money was a big factor in welcoming the market, which pays the city $1 million to takeover the southern end of the park where street artists usually decamp.

"It's public parkland. If you want to use it for private commerce, you pay for the privilege of using public land," Benepe told the paper. "Income is important right now."

The parks regulations proposed in April — on hold because of the lawsuit — would limit the total number of art vendors in parts of Union Square, Central Park, Battery Park and the High Line to roughly 120 from more than 300. The Parks Department said the artists created hazardous conditions for pedestrians.

Lederman, who invoked the artists’ First Amendment right to sell there without having to pay the city, is hoping the Parks Commissioner may end up eating his words.

"That the city put a 200-vendor holiday market in the exact south plaza area where the new rules completely ban all artists shows the utterly false nature of the pretext," Lederman told DNAinfo. "That Benepe publicly claims it's okay because they paid him $1 million, is the icing on the cake."

Lederman called the holiday market a "huge public safety threat," claiming it blocks one of the city’s busiest subway entrances and obstructs monuments — which the artists must be 50-feet away from.

But the city's law department argued that during the weeks the market operates, the park isn't used as much anyway.

"...The Holiday Market is allowed during the time of the year when it does not significantly interfere with the use of the Park because weather conditions reduce the number of people who come to enjoy its facilities," Gabriel Taussig, a chief in the Administrative Law Division of the NYC Law Department, said in an e-mailed statement.

He also said that it was not inconsistent for the Parks Department to collect fees from commercial enterprises using city property while at the same time imposing restrictions on non-paying "expressive matters vendors."

The throngs nudging their way around covered stands filled with jewelry, animal-shaped hats and candles on Monday seemed oblivious to the controversy as they focused on their last-minute gift shopping.

"It’s great to have all of this in one place," said Sarah Stark, 22, a recent transplant from Austin, Texas, who bought a pumice stone and a few God’s eyes. "It’s nice to have unique vendors. I wish there were more unique ones."

"Every year I make an effort to come here," said Natalie, 30, a musician from the Upper West Side, who declined to give a last name. "[The market] is only here for a few weeks, how much of an intrusion can it be?" She said she also enjoys browsing the year-round artist vendors.

Some of these artists set up their tables just north of the holiday market, including Zane Fix, who referred to market sellers as "mere merchandisers"

"A certain amount of respect should be left for people who are real artists and artisans who add to the real and raw beauty of the streets of New York," said Fix, who has been selling his Japanese-style wood prints of rock and roll images in the park for six years. "This park should not be set aside for business. It’s for the enjoyment of citizens and the expression of citizens."

If anything, Fix would like the law to delineate "artists" like himself versus "vendors," he said, pointing to a man a few feet away from him selling generic photo reproductions.