(Brad Taylor, an Upper West Side resident, wrote this op-ed in response to our story Artists Paint Bad Picture of Proposed Park Rules.)
The Department of Parks and Recreation is to be commended for proposing to restrict the number of “expressive matter” vendors in parts of Central Park and all of Union Square Park, Battery Park and the High Line Park. The numbers of vendors in these locations has skyrocketed to the point where the physical and visual clutter of their kitschy souvenirs and often derivative and copycat wares are a serious detriment to the use of these parks for passive enjoyment and as a restive retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city around us.
Much has been made of the vendors rights under the First Amendment. I heard those same arguments made by those that defended graffiti on our subways in the 70’s and 80’s. Clearly the city has the authority to regulate expression when that expression defaces and degrades our public property. I think few would argue for a return to the days of free expression on the walls of our subway cars. The city has the same authority and obligation to maintain our parks free from the clutter of an unregulated number of vendor tables. Besides, “expressive matter” vendors are not being forced out of these parks completely; rather the regulations achieve a better balance between the rights of the few and the rights of the many by limiting their number.
Opponents of these regulations also raise the specter of a Parks Department that wants to force vendors away from these locations so that they can be auctioned off to concessionaires. Yet I have not heard a shred of evidence to suggest that the city has any plans to do this. Could it be that the city is simply trying to fulfill its duty to its citizens by reclaiming our public park land for public use?
When I visit Union Square Park I expect to be able to enjoy a relaxing experience, sitting on a park bench enjoying the plantings and monuments. Instead I have to run a gauntlet of commercial detritus that rings a good portion of the southern half of the park on a daily basis, forcing me to stay within a narrow path instead of allowing me to cross the plaza at a point of my choosing or enter the subway at my leisure. Anyone who wishes to visit a flea market or crafts fair has plenty of opportunities to do so in a wide variety of venues that don’t impinge on my rights to enjoy some peace and quiet in our parks. Should I be forced to squeeze my way between vendor tables to get to the seating near the Gandhi statue in the southwest corner of the park? Bombarded by all this visual clutter how can I even begin to contemplate the simple life that Gandhi espoused? As I sit on the grand stairs outside the Metropolitan Museum about to see or having just seen the great works of art within, should I be forced to confront a sea of souvenir tables all around me?
It’s not just me. The interests of millions of tax paying citizens and their constitutional rights to enjoy our city’s parks for what they were intended to be, tranquil oases in the midst of the busy city, cannot be allowed to take a back seat to the commercial interests of a relatively minuscule number of “expressive matter” vendors.
Brad Taylor is a Morningside Heights resident.
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