City halts ban on park calligraphers


By Brooke Edwards and Josh Rogers

The city has stopped enforcing its ban on calligraphers in parks, although it still does not classify calligraphy as art.

Last month, Downtown Express first reported that calligrapher Xu Zi was kicked out of Battery Park in mid-December for selling her work alongside other artists, in spite of the fact that a 2001 federal court case had determined that artists do not need permits to sell their work.

Xu Zi’s removal from the park was based on N.Y.P.D. operations order #39, which states that a permit is required for anyone “printing plain letters or characters of any language, e.g. Chinese, Greek, Cyrillic…in a manner that does not convey a message (e.g. simply writing a name at the request of a purchaser).”

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told Downtown Express last Thursday, “We’re not going to be doing enforcement on calligraphers.” But when asked for specifics on the new policy, Benepe backed off and said they are studying the issue with regard to calligraphers.

He referred to Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, who famously wrote he’d know pornography when he saw it, but then Benepe quickly added, “I don’t pretend to know what is art.”

According to another Parks Dept. official, Benepe’s initial response is in fact the new policy for now. “It’s not actively being enforced while it’s being reviewed by the Law Department,” said the source, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

When asked specifically if Xu Zi could return to Battery Park, Benepe said yes.

In response, Xu Zi wrote in an email to Downtown Express: “Thanks to Commissioner Benepe but really, his permission isn’t necessary.”

Xu Zi, who had already returned to the park before Benepe made his comments, added: “I go back to the park to sell my artwork because it is what I do as an artist.” She said her First Amendment rights and the previous court rulings give her the right to do so.

And she simply got tired of waiting.

Xu Zi said she has not heard directly from the city about the situation. She said, “So far as we know, the policy that allowed the police to kick me out of Battery Park is still in effect.”

“On the surface, the Parks Department would like it to be depicted like this was a little misunderstanding and that it’s all resolved,” said Robert Lederman, who is fighting for Xu Zi’s cause as president of the street artists’ rights organization, ARTIST. “That’s not true at all.

“There’s no resolution to this until we get in writing, from the various city officials, involved a new police order either saying this retracts or rewrites the previous one.”

For now, Lederman says vendors are taking advantage of the fact that Parks is not enforcing the police order. He said, “It’s a calligraphy-fest in Battery Park right now.”

Lederman warns that the policy of non-enforcement is all part of what he calls a “strategic game.” He said that as soon as the publicity from this case dies down, “people will stop caring about these artists and then the Parks Department will start enforcing this illegal policy again.”

Further comments from Commissioner Benepe indicate that the Parks Department does not plan to loosen its vendor policies anytime soon.

Benepe said that many of the vendors who are selling reprinted art and other items are “exploiting a loophole” in the city’s policy to exempt artists from licensing requirements.

He also said that Battery Park, Union Square Park and Central Park all have problems with vendors, and it “ruins the park environment.”

This was the same concern raised by Warrie Price, president of the Battery Conservancy, when interviewed about Xu Zi’s situation last month. Price said calligraphers and other artists are welcome, but she wants to make sure visitors can navigate the park’s paths safely and that some areas of the park remain free from vendors so that visitors have space to reflect in peace.

Xu Zi said: “I don’t see vendors blocking the pathways or sidewalks. People always have space to pass by the street artists.”

Lederman said he would fully support ticketing or removing any vendor who blocked a park pathway. “I would never make a problem about that,” he said. But Lederman does not believe that safety or a peaceful park environment are the real issues.

“The underlying goal never changes,” Lederman said. He says that the city wants to push vendors out of the parks entirely to make it more attractive for vendors who pay rent.

Xu Zi said she has had “no trouble since going back” to Battery Park, but said it is “very cold outside right now and the park police don’t seem to be there.”

She says she has felt a tremendous amount of support for her art and her cause since attention has been brought to the issue. One e-mail from a friend in Taiwan wrote: “I don’t think the city of New York is qualified to judge art.”

Though the cold weather has recently kept Xu Zi from the park, she says the Parks Dept. will not. “I have the right to sell my artwork on the street or in the parks like any other artist,” she said.