BY COLIN MIXSON | Feathers are flying over Washington Square Park, and the pillow fight hasn’t even started.
State Senator Brad Hoylman and a slew of other elected officials fired off letters to the promoters of an annual pillow fight, calling for the cancelation of the impending downy donnybrook at Washington Square Park on Sat., April 2, due to a lack of permits — permits that the pillow fight planners readily admit to having never applied for.
However, the pillow fight promoters say they’ve been putting on the event for a decade and, during that time, the city has never once granted them the permits they’ve requested — so now they don’t even bother applying for one.
“Every time we’ve applied for a permit, we’ve been denied,” said Kevin Bracken, co-founder of the Toronto-based Newmindspace, which formerly organized the event — it’s since been taken over by the Urban Playground Movement — and currently promotes the annual pillow fight.
“They believe it will interfere with the average person’s ability to enjoy the park, but that’s ridiculous,” Bracken said. “It’s like saying the Macy’s Day Parade interferes with a person’s ability to drive a car down Central Park West.”
Newmindspace began hosting the annual pillow fight in 2006, and has sited the event at various public spaces in addition to Washington Square Park, including Wall St. and Union Square Park, on International Pillow Fight Day, according to Bracken.
In that whole time, the city never once authorized Newmindspace’s applications, and Bracken says he has the rejection letters to prove it.
“We applied for permits year after year,” he said. “I’ve framed a lot of the rejection letters.”
The onetime pillow fight organizer claims he stopped filing for the applications altogether after a New York Police Department detective hounded both him and his family as a result of his illicit pillow parties, specifically because the investigator warned Bracken that the city would never sanction his plush brawls with a permit.
“He tracked me down and harassed my family, and the detective told me in no uncertain terms that a permit will never be issued for this event,” Bracken said.
However, state Senator Hoylman said he’s doubtful of the pillow fight planners’ claims of having done their due diligence. Hoylman admits to never having investigated Bracken’s claims about the Parks Department perennially denying the group’s permit applications. However, the state senator said he does not recall the matter of pillow fight permits ever coming before Community Board 2 during his three terms as the board’s chairperson, which is standard procedure as part of the city’s permitting process.
The Parks Department was only able to turn up one pillow fight permit application — in 2009, for Union Square Park — which was denied due to concerns over excessive damage to parks left in the wake of prior unpermitted pillow fights, in addition to the event being too large for Union Square Park to accommodate, according to an agency spokesperson.
“Permits are required for any event in a park when more than 20 people are expected,” the spokesperson said. “This helps us protect park grounds and facilities, and ensures that other parkgoers’ safety and needs are also addressed.”
The spokesperson added that, in years past, the agency “has issued multiple cease-and-desist letters” to the organizers due to the level of irreparable damage to the park left by the event.
In addition, Parks and Hoylman noted, there is another event — for which a permit has been issued — already scheduled in Washington Square Park for April 2: a high school student event from noon to 3 p.m. According to the organizers, the pillow fight is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m.
Regardless of the veracity of Bracken’s claims, Hoylman contends they remain entirely without merit.
“I think their attitude that they’re not going to get the permit anyway, so why go through the process, is mistaken,” the senator said. “Just because there are some limitations and people want to consult with you, that doesn’t give you the right to just proceed without consideration of your neighbors.”
Beyond that, however, Hoylman asserts that people deserve a say when it comes to how public events in their neighborhood are organized, and that allowing community board members to weigh in would assuage his constituents’ fears over a variety of pillow-related concerns.
“They should hear from people who care about our open spaces — who might have an understanding of the varied plantings in the park — the playground users, including parents of small children, and all of the stakeholders,” Hoylman said.
“That’s the point of the community process, and for some individuals to think they’re above it, I find galling.”
But Bracken said that the peoples’ right to a public pillow fight contest is protected under the First Amendment, which the city has routinely violated in denying the group its permits.
“In our opinion, if they control the time and place of expression year after year, our First Amendment rights are being abridged,” he charged.
Hoylman fired off the letter to Bracken and his partner Lori Kufner after his office received complaints from locals regarding past public pillow fights. According to Hoylman, the pillow fights can lead to the destruction of park property, not to mention a mess of leftover feathers.
But a representative for Urban Playground Movement, Nikki Sparks, replied with her own letter rebuffing the senator’s call for the event’s cancelation. Sparks, who gave her title as “chief unicorn,” said that neither Urban Playground Movement nor Newmindspace own International Pillow Fight Day — that there are numerous pillow fights being promoted on Facebook in New York City alone on April 2, and that they are one of the few responsible stewards of the event.
“Each year, there are at least a dozen Facebook events created for the NYC pillow fight before we ever create ours, totaling over 12,000 attending between them,” Sparks wrote. “It is guaranteed that the event would take place with or without us, on the first Saturday of April, every year. The only way there is a reasonable chance of the event being cleaned up is if somebody takes ownership of it — which is why we continue to be involved year after year.”
Toward that end, Sparks has reached into her own pocket to rent a truck and plans on coordinating upward of 100 volunteers to assist in the cleanup after the Washington Square Park pillow-palooza.
The pillow fight is a charitable event, and leftover pillows in good condition will be donated to homeless shelters throughout the city. In addition, the organizers have set up a deal with Sleepy’s — the mattress professionals — where, for each $10 pillow purchased at the store, the retailer will donate $3 to Dare2B, a charity focused on educating homeless children, according to Sparks.
But the senator even managed to find issue with what to many would seem the event’s one, universally redeeming quality.
“I find that condescending that someone would take a used pillow that’s dirty and has been swung around outdoors for a few hours,” he said. “It rings hollow to me.”
Tobi Bergman, the C.B. 2 chairperson, agreed that there are good reasons why permits are given out for these sort of large events.
“When people get permits for special events in parks, they are agreeing to the conditions under which they can privatize the use of public space,” he said. “They are committing themselves to protecting the park and leaving it as they found it. They are protecting the safety of the event participants and the general public by coordinating with park officials and police. They are protecting the city from risk by purchasing insurance.”