Gerson hawks his vendors bill but artists paint a grim picture

By Caroline N. Jackson

New vending rules proposed by Councilmember Alan Gerson are stirring up activists who have fought to protect First Amendment rights for artists selling their works on the sidewalks.

Robert Lederman and his organization A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics) have won several lawsuits that have protected street artists’ right to sell their wares on city streets. Gerson’s proposal would allocate marked spaces to artists by lottery and allow them only to sell in these areas. Lederman views this as a step toward a concession system in which vending spots would go to the highest bidder.

“What Councilmember Gerson is doing is destroying the freedom of speech on public property,” said Lederman. “It’s grossly unfair because clearly some people will be better at applying for a permit or know someone that will give them a leg up.”

Lederman says Gerson has presented the new proposal as something vendors want, when, in fact, 100 artists have personally written Gerson letters in the last week speaking out against the bill.

“We will do everything in our power to not get it passed, and we will never follow rules in this approved law if it’s passed,” said Lederman.

Lederman believes Gerson is trying to please some of his constituents — both residents and business owners — who are anti-vendor because they believe it hurts local businesses and clogs up the streets. But the vending activist thinks once business owners realize these new rules will put vendors in front of some stores and not others permanently, they won’t like the plans either.

“These people will go crazy against what Gerson is proposing,” he said. “In politics, you can never please everyone, but this law won’t please anybody.”

Other artists are not against the proposal entirely but agree that some of the new restrictions negate the good that could be done by the bill. Street artist Lawrence White supports parts of Gerson’s proposal that would train police in detecting copyright infringement, allow new vending licenses for the outer boroughs, designate artists markets and allow artists to gain health insurance.

But White says he opposes other parts of the councilmember’s bill that would restrict the number of artists on a block and curb free expression, all of which he said could cause protests and more art “bootleggers” to set up where legitimate artists currently operate.

“He is missing the mark in a harmful way by restricting artists, instead of focusing on the bootleggers and other illegal vendors who are causing the problem,” said White. “Hopefully, he wakes up before he introduces his bill. If not, it will be a real mess.”

Gerson said the bill is still being modified but that he hopes to release it by next week.

“We’re still dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s,” he said. “There have been a few letters and we have bounced a couple of ideas off people in the community, people who are concerned.”