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Summonses At Washington Square Park Have Increased 500 Percent

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For every person that hangs out at Washington Square Park, there is an opinion on how it has changed, what is wrong with it and why they come anyway. Its list of users is and has always been stupefyingly long: artists, writers, musicians, performance artists, families, tourists, protesters, NYU students, skateboarders, hustlers, drug dealers, and in 2014, a four-foot-long snake.

“It’s a little bit of the Wild West. That’s always been the spirit of this park. It’s a little unruly and a little on the edge,” said J. Eric Cook, a printmaker who comes to the park a couple times a week to sell his work.

He added: “People come to make something happen or see something happen.”

On October 6th, that something included a disturbing scene of parks enforcement officers wrestling an artist vendor to the ground in an attempt to handcuff him. The artist, Oriel Ceballos, called the arrest, which was captured on video, a targeted act of brutality. The parks department blamed the individual, saying he had received multiple summonses and had refused on that day to provide identification to Parks officials for a summons write-up.

The incident, which was not the first questionable parks enforcement action, renewed questions about the policing of one of New York City’s most popular green spaces. In the past year alone, non-parking related summonses in the park have shot up nearly 500 percent compared to the same time period last year, to 662 from 111, according to data provided by the Parks Department.

At the same time, the total number of non-parking related summonses dropped five percent at parks citywide.

A Parks Department spokesperson did not explain why summonses at Washington Square Park, which barely covers 10 acres, have increased so dramatically, nor did the department provide Gothamist with a more detailed breakdown of the type of summonses. [UPDATE: See explanation from Parks Department below.]

Adrian Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner from 2002 to 2012 who now works at the Trust For Public Land, said that parks officials are charged with a difficult task of managing the equilibrium of public spaces. From his perspective, the problems with Washington Square Park stem from commerce intruding into public spaces, in the form of vendors and buskers that have mushroomed in the wake of the city’s tourism boom.

“The park has never been busier. It’s never looked better,” he said. “But you know, you have to be careful. You want everyone to do whatever they want to do within reason. If everybody gets to do what they want to do, you get the tragedy of the commons.”

He added: “The beauty and sanctity of these parks are being taken over by people making a buck.”

Washington Square Park Conservancy declined to comment for this story.

In 2014, the park opened after a heavily contested $31 million renovation. Although some complained that the new version—which included a controversial realignment of the fountain so that it could line up with the arch and a jungle gym for kids—made the historically raffish park too sterile, most have since come around.

On an unseasonably warm Monday afternoon, Washington Square Park was in a full bloom of humanity. A meandering walk around the fountain revealed its cinematic qualities, a seeming multitude of self-contained vignettes unfolding all at once.

The city has long grappled with quality-of-life issues around Washington Square Park. The rules for city parks are notoriously lengthy, but according to many park users, enforcement is often selective. In 2011, an attempt to rein in performers sparked a First Amendment battle. Under city park rules passed in 2010, art and souvenirs, and the solicitation of donations, cannot occur within 50 feet of a park monument or 5 feet of a bench. But in a space crowded with benches and monuments, that means that virtually no place is legal for performers. After public pressure, the Parks Department relented and said the rule would not apply to buskers and entertainers.

At a recent Community Board 2 meeting reported by The Villager, the discussion on Washington Square Park ranged from skateboarders to noise to how to enforce the park’s midnight curfew. The park’s northwest corner was cited for drinking, urination and drug use.

According to The Villager story, police attributed 30 to 40 percent of summonses issued in the park to skateboarders and cyclists. Both activities are prohibited in the park.

News of an apparent crackdown at the park came as a surprise to regulars, who say they have noticed little to no change in the past year.

“They have all these rules, but the problem is nobody abides by the rules,” said a longtime park goer who would only identify himself as TJ. “The place is a zoo,” he added.

Having come to Washington Square Park since 1952, he rattled off a long list of musicians that he has heard play in the park, from Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix to Carole King. “This park is basically a musician’s park,” he said.

In recent years, however, the proliferation of drummers, brass bands and amplified music has soured the experience for him. “It ruins the whole mood,” he said.


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Old photo of musicians in Washington Square Park, date unknown.



Courtesy of the NYPL

Brian Dubé, a longtime resident and former store owner, singled out skateboarding, saying it had gotten out of control. He said he recently saw roughly 30 skateboarders weave back and forth in front of police officers. “They weren’t doing anything [about it],” he said.

Others, however, say that the chaos, which they say is mostly controlled, is part of the appeal.

“This is the experience,” Cook said, his arms outstretched. Sizing up the crowd, he added, “How busy is it on a Monday?”

Ceballos, who is due in court next month on charges that include choking an officer, and attempted assault, has returned to selling his art in the park. He said he has not been hassled since. However, he intends to fight the charges as well as file a civil rights lawsuit against the city. “I’m not the most criminal person in the park,” he argued. Referring to drug dealers, he asked, “How come they aren’t watching them?”

In the end, his physical encounter with the officers, the photos and videos of which were shared widely on social media, has had one very big upshot: it has lifted sales of his artwork.

“It was great before,” he said. “Now it’s booming.”

UPDATE: Following the publication of this story, the Parks Department attributed the increase in summonses to an increased enforcement of smoking rules. A total of 442 smoking summonses have been issued from January 1, 2019 to August 31, 2019, compared to 45 for the same period last year.

“Between 2018 and 2019, Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) conducted a strategic effort to educate and enforce on the issue of smoking in Washington Square Park,” the statement read. “PEP increased efforts to educate parkgoers about smoking rules in 2018, then issued more summonses regarding smoking at the park in 2019. This effort to educate the public and enforce rules regarding smoking accounts for most of the difference between 2018 and 2019 summons numbers.”





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