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Parks Department Plan will Bring Chaos to Union Square, Say Street Artists
Jose Morales sells T-shirts and crafts in New York's Union Square. Manhattan's most famous parks are lined with artists selling their sculptures, paintings and photographs, often of quintessential New York scenes, but city officials say the vendors have grown out of control and are trying to force many of them off the streets. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer.

By: Leslie Koch

NEW YORK, NY.- Street artists face a difficult choice under the Parks Department's proposed vending rules: compete with a gang of homeless people and other vendors for one of 18 spots in the park or find a new source of income.

Independent artists risk being shut out of Union Square Park under the new plan, which would allow a small group of vendors who arrive first to monopolize all 18 spaces.

According to numerous street artists, a gang of homeless people has taken over Union Square Park at night. They reserve up to 50 spots in the park, which they attempt to resell to artists.

This writer witnessed the practice first-hand during an early morning visit to Union Square Park on Saturday.

Many artists believe that the homeless-- or large families of vendors-- will control the 18 spots allotted by the Parks Department.

“It would be chaos," said Miriam West, 49, of the proposal.

"People already pay people to hold spots for them; imagine when there’s only 18 spots. Those spots are already spoken for. The only way I could get a spot would be if I spent every night here and lived on the street. I wouldn’t even try,” said West.

West lives in the neighborhood and is reluctant to leave Union Square Park, where she has sold her original work for six years.

The Parks Department has also proposed limits on vendors selling expressive matter-- which includes paintings, photography, prints, sculpture and other protected materials-- in Central Park, Battery Park and the High Line.

Robert Lederman, president of the advocacy group A.R.T.I.S.T., said the Parks Department plan would force up to 400 street artists to leave parks where many have been working for years.

“It’s going to be a huge dislocation of virtually the entire street artist population.”
With eight days to go before the April 23 public hearing, street artists are scrambling to find new sources of income.

“Are we all going to go work at McDonalds? With this many people?” asked Trent Stock, 36, a painter with a stand in Union Square Park. “There’s not much work to begin with.”

‘Gang of homeless’ operating at night
Street artists already face tough competition over desirable spots in Union Square.

“Most people don’t know that we do 15, 16 hour days here,” said Willy, 34, a painter from New Jersey who has worked in the park for two years.

“You get up at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning to come here, you’re ready to work and you don’t even know if you’ll be able to get a spot. You may get kicked out. You gotta worry about the junkies and the thieves. You are very much exposed here.”

On a typical Saturday-- the busiest day for art and Greenmarket vendors-- over 100 artists set up stands in Union Square Park. It is difficult to take an accurate tally, since latecomers arrive throughout the day and vendors occasionally change locations when better spots become available.

Some artists arrive at the park on Friday evening to secure a space.

“I got here at 10 p.m. last night to make sure I was getting a spot,” said Samyra Derouiche, 38, on a recent Saturday.

“I left my table here. Maybe 15 minutes later, a guy came and said all the tables have been reserved- almost 48 spots that he sold to other vendors.”

This is standard practice in Union Square.

“A gang of homeless people is actually taking spots there and selling them to artists,” activist Robert Lederman said at a Community Board 6 meeting earlier this month.

These homeless entrepreneurs have accumulated a large number of tables, traffic cones, wooden planks and crates, which they store in Union Square Park and use to reserve spaces.

Many artists prefer to set up their stands near the Greenmarket since it brings heavy foot traffic. As a result, the southwest section of the park is the first place the homeless reserve.

Last Thursday night at 10:30 p.m. four empty tables lined the inner walkway near Union Square West.

Several homeless people slept on nearby benches, and no Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers were in sight. A few police offers walked along the inside of the park but did not approach the tables.

A visit to Union Square Park at 4 a.m. on Saturday revealed dozens of empty tables stretching from 15th Street and Union Square West through the length of 14th Street.

Because the homeless reserve so many spaces in advance, artists who refuse to pay must arrive at the park before sunrise to secure a good spot. These artists spend hours sitting in the park or trying to warm up at local businesses until park visitors begin to arrive at 9 or 10 a.m.

Artists can purchase spaces from the homeless for as little as $20.

When asked, few artists acknowledged paying for spots. A.R.T.I.S.T. president Robert Lederman shuns the practice and urges Union Square artists to boycott the homeless resellers. He repeated the refrain, “one artist, one stand,” at an artist rally on Saturday.

One artist who wished to remain anonymous admitted to having paid someone to watch her table in Union Square.

“A few years ago at Christmas time, the last week we paid someone to watch our tables for that week because everyone was so tired. It didn’t feel right and I didn’t like doing it but we got caught up in the frenzy,” she said.

“I’ve never paid anyone besides the Christmas season to watch our table, but when the privatization issue came up a few years ago I realized we were doing the same thing. I just decided we can’t do it anymore, it’s wrong. We have to play by the rules.”

Lack of enforcement
The homeless space sellers operate under the same principal as illegal drug dealers: artist demand has created a market for their business, and they will continue to exist until demand subsides or the city cracks down on the practice.

This writer arrived at Union Square Park at 4 a.m. on Saturday and did not see any PEP officers patrolling the park during her seven hour visit.

Lederman believes lax enforcement is part of the Parks Department’s strategy.

“The Parks Department is deliberately allowing the system to become overloaded so they can use this to justify these totally unnecessary and unconstitutional rules,” he said at the Community Board 6 meeting.

As of press time, the Parks Department has not responded to questions about PEP enforcement of current vending regulations in Union Square.

Brooklyn-based artist Michael Murray, 37, was one of the first artists to arrive at Union Square Park on Saturday. At 4 a.m., he placed his backpack near a sea of empty tables and traffic cones.

“Can you imagine if [PEP officers] came out at midnight and took all the tables that were out, just took them away and threw them in a landfill in Staten Island? How many times do you think we would do this? It would end. Two or three weekends of that and it would be over.”

New rules may cause chaos
Artists predict the new Parks Department plan will lead to violence in Union Square Park.

“I gotta tell you the truth-- that is not going to work. There’s going to be gunshots,” predicted Sarah Feldman, 21, a Parsons student who sells her artwork in Union Square.

“I asked someone at the Farmer’s Market if I could go sit over there on one of my first days here and they screamed at me, ‘No, no you’re not taking this spot, this is ours!'”

Marty Allen, 32, of Brooklyn, questions how the Parks Department will enforce the new restrictions.

“I feel like the 18 spots are simply going to be impractical. I mean 18 people are going to show up, then the 19th person will show up and there’s going to be a fight.”

Several Union Square artists interviewed on Saturday believed it would be impossible for an individual artist to obtain one of the allocated spots.

Artist Samyra Derouiche, of Queens, believes that a small group of vendors will seize the designated spots and will refuse to relinquish them.

“18 artists will show up first and they will never leave. They will be open for 24 hours.”

Tight knit community
While selling art in Union Square can be difficult, artists say it is also rewarding.

“It’s a living dream come true. I adore the fact that I can come here and sell my art to individual people. It’s remarkable. It’s the very simple ability to make my art and sell it,” said Marty Allen, who has sold his work in Union Square Park for four years.

“This is where I found myself. I came out here with a card table with a few sock puppet portraits, just shaking hands, and it has grown into this enormous idea because people like it.”

Union Square artists have developed their own support network. They have formed friendships with other vendors and look out for one another.

“We’ll lose business but also people. A lot of people we meet here are sources of inspiration. We advise other people who don’t have the courage to sell their work and pursue their art education,” reports Eric Ajama, 29, a native of Tongo who has sold his paintings in Union Square for three years.

“I don’t care if I am one of the 18 artists, but what about the rest? What are they going to do?”

An uncertain future
Street vendors who depend on the Union Square artist market for their livelihood face an uncertain future.

Some are thinking of moving to another artist hub, like SoHo, which would do little to assuage the city's congestion concerns.

Several artists said they would protest the new rules, should they take effect as planned, by continuing to set up their tables in Union Square Park but leaving their artwork at home.

Samyra Derouiche relies on sales of her paintings to pay her rent. She started applying for staffing jobs at Starbucks and local restaurants when the proposal was announced in late March, but has not found a position.

“Thanks to this place I didn’t lose my apartment and was able to make ends meet. And now this is being taken away from us,” said Derouiche.

“Right now you don’t want 150 people out there looking for jobs. That’s why there are so many vendors.”

Article reprinted with permission from the author and

New York | Parks Department | Robert Lederman |

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