Parks Department Vows to Save New Yorkers From Menacing Street Life

CIMG2162.JPGLook out! Vendor "congestion" in Union Square Park. Photo: Ben Fried
The parks department will hold a hearing Friday on plans to clamp down on what it sees as an unnecessary, untamed incursion into some of the city's most vaunted public spaces.

Of course, we're talking about art vending.

The idea dates back to at least the 1990s -- in 2003, the creators of Central Park's "The Gates" appealed to Mayor Bloomberg to drop it -- and is based on the city's claim that artists are taking up too much room, causing congestion and safety issues for park-goers. The new rules [PDF] would curtail the number of vendors and vending locations by up to 80 percent in Union Square Park, Battery Park, on the High Line, and in some sections of Central Park (see maps here). Tomorrow's hearing will be held at 11:00 a.m. at Chelsea Recreation Center, 430 W. 25th Street.

It's not clear who's clamoring for a vendor crackdown. In an informal survey, the advocates at the Street Vendor Project found that most people in Union Square Park like the art vendors just fine.

Whatever the motive, this seems like a solution in search of a problem. The vendors don't impede pedestrian movement any more than the Union Square Greenmarket or the line snaking around Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. Regardless of personal opinions about the quality of their wares, art vendors bring life and vitality to areas intended for human-scale activity. Clearing them out of public spaces en masse misses the point of what city gathering places are all about. To quote urbanist William H. Whyte, "What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people."

If Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe is truly concerned about safety, and park patrons being crammed into tight, contested spaces, he could start with this:

Earth_Day_10_3.jpgPhoto of Central Park loop on Earth Day 2010: Ken Coughlin