Saying he’s being railroaded, artist is arrested again

By Lincoln Anderson

Making good on his word that he would return to vend his art on the High Line, Robert Lederman did last Sunday, only to be promptly arrested again by Park Enforcement Patrol officers.

This time, Lederman — president of A.R.T.I.S.T. — brought along a friend and fellow painter, Jack Nesbitt, who was also arrested for selling his work in the chic new park.

Lederman was previously arrested Sat., Nov. 21, for vending his art without a permit on the former railway turned park.

 After he was issued summonses again last Sunday, he said he was surprised the PEP officers had done it given all the media coverage from his first arrest.

Lederman fought the city from 1994 to 2001 over artists’ right to vend on New York’s streets and in its public parks without having to obtain permits. He filed five federal lawsuits, and the courts repeatedly ruled that selling art in public — just like selling printed matter in public — is protected free speech under the First Amendment and that permits aren’t needed. After winning a landmark case in 2001 on vending art in the parks, Lederman hadn’t been arrested again until last month on the High Line.

Last Sunday, the two artists arrived at the elevated park on a chilly, blustery morning about 10 o’clock. They initially set up their displays in an open area at 14th St. and 10th Ave. that they considered wide. Because of the strong winds, they moved to a more sheltered spot just to the south, where the elevated park passes underneath an office building under construction — the High Line Building. They set up their regulation-size displays next to a gray wall that bisects the esplanade at that point, and were not blocking the pathway; that part of the High Line — not counting a parallel pathway on the other side of the gray wall — looked to be about 30 or 40 feet across.

At some point, they received a warning from PEP officers that they could not sell their art on the High Line and would be arrested if they didn’t stop. Then, at about 12:25, PEP officers arrested Lederman and took him, in handcuffs, to the Sixth Precinct. Twenty minutes later, other PEP officers repeated the process with Nesbitt.

‘Read him his rights…’

A Villager reporter rode up in an elevator to the High Line with several PEP’s as they planned out their arrest of Nesbitt: They would read him his rights, one of them said, and if he didn’t leave, they would then arrest him and take him to the precinct.

Lederman and Nesbitt were each given two criminal summonses: one for failure to comply with an officer’s order, and one for disorderly conduct — for continuing to sell their art after being told to stop.

About 35 minutes after Nesbitt’s arrest, a pair of the arresting PEP’s, a man and a woman, were leaving the Greenwich Village precinct and heading to their car. The Villager asked them if the two artists had been arrested for vending without a permit. “Yes,” the man said. But The Villager asked, isn’t it legal to vend art in all New York City public parks without a Parks Department permit?

“I — listen — we’re just doing what we’re told,” the officer said, throwing his hands up in the air and smiling slightly as if to indicate, “Don’t blame me.”

Lederman and Nesbitt were released from the precinct shortly before 1 p.m. The desk lieutenant on duty said they weren’t held in a cell. However, Lederman said they were held in a cell — with a 65-year-old Greenwich Village man accused of attacking a neighbor with a baseball bat when he wouldn’t stop feeding pigeons.

Lederman said it was clear the Parks Department had planned out their strategy beforehand.

“PEP Inspector Richard Reeves told me — I have it on tape — ‘This arrest was ordered by the Parks commissioner and the Parks Department legal counsel,’” Lederman said.

Lederman added that a video Nesbitt took of him shows Lederman remained “calm” as he continued to sell in defiance of the orders from the PEP’s.

Lederman — whose arrest total is now up to 43 — said he knows Inspector Reeves personally.

“He’s supervised 25 of my arrests,” he said, adding that Reeves was even a defendant in one of his vending-rights lawsuits.

‘Art wars’ veteran

Nesbitt, 69, of Harlem, is a military veteran, but not a disabled veteran, which would give him special vending rights.

“I got out in ’66, pre-Vietnam, just before the Tet Offensive,” he said. “But I’ve been in the wars with the A.R.T.I.S.T. group with, first Giuliani, and now Bloomberg and [Parks Commissioner] Benepe — so I guess I’m a vet. I’ve been arrested 26 times now.”

In the two hours before they were busted, Lederman said he sold one painting.

“And I sold a protest sign that said ‘Stop Harassing Artists’ — someone wanted to buy it,” he added. 

“Nope,” said Nesbitt, on whether he’d sold anything. “But I had some lookers, enthusiastic lookers.”

As Lederman drove his van past Union Square after being released, he became annoyed when he looked over to his left and saw the red-and-white-striped tents of the Union Square Holiday Market completely filling the park’s south plaza.

“Now, look at this,” he fumed. “Look at what the Parks Department put there.” 

Lederman said the High Line will soon be commercialized, too.

“They’ll be selling High Line T-shirts, coffee cups and iPod covers that say ‘High Line,’” he predicted.

Meanwhile, the PEP officers won’t let him sell on the High Line, he said, blasting it as a double standard.

Lederman said his lawsuit based on his first High Line arrest is already written and ready to be filed — there is no dollar amount for the damages he’s seeking. In the meantime, he’s going to keep selling his art in the new park, arrests or no arrests, he said. He was asked if more arrests wouldn’t just lead to a larger payout for him from the city if he wins the case. However, he said, it’s a widespread misperception that he files the lawsuits just to get money.

“I’m a person that principle is more important to me than money,” he explained. “I’ll put it to you this way: I don’t like being arrested. I don’t like having my rights trashed even more. When I’m in the right, I’m not going to back down. So I intend to be up there on the High Line again — maybe next weekend.”

“I’ll be there again, too, if you need me,” Nesbitt told him. 

Nesbitt said, compared with being a veteran of the Air Force — where he did medical air evacuations — he’s prouder of being a veteran of the “art vending wars.”

“It’s more important that I’m a veteran of the wars that Robert and I and the other artists are in to protect this essential liberty,” he said. “It doesn’t stop because it’s an elitist park — it’s still a public park.”

‘City wants a lawsuit’

“We are defending the law,” Lederman stressed. “They are violating the law. We are upholding the federal rulings. They are the ones violating it. They want this to be another lawsuit.”

Indeed, Lederman said the city is no doubt hoping to get a judge sympathetic to its position who will reverse the rulings on Lederman’s federal lawsuits that won the right for artists to vend without a permit in all New York City public parks. 

“When you think of most of the civil rights activists — Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King — they’re breaking the law when they do their actions,” Lederman noted. “I’m upholding the law. … It’s simply that the Friends of the High Line don’t want me there — nothing more, nothing less.”

Geoffrey Croft, director of NYC Park Advocates, which has been a watchdog on the High Line, charged that the underlying issue is that Friends of the High Line, which operates the park as a conservancy, plans to have concessions in the park, and — in an unusual  arrangement — will be able to collect all the revenue for itself. The Friends don’t want artists vending up on the High Line, since they wouldn’t get that revenue, Croft contended. 

Parks ‘exploring options’

But Vickie Karp, a Parks Department spokesperson, said concession proceeds is not the issue. 

“Parks is actively exploring all options on how to make fair use of this unique public space, which just opened in June,” she said. “We love all New Yorkers, artists and nonartists alike. The issues are complex. We know it’s an important matter and we’re addressing it — how to use the High Line fairly and legally for all.”

According to a Parks source, the real concern is that, while there are now only two artists trying to vend on the High Line, what if 100 or 200 artists get the idea of going up there and selling their work? That could cause safety issues involving crowding on the narrow park, built on a former freight-railroad viaduct — in other words, the source said, “that people would be falling off the High Line — because they’ll fall off the sides at a certain point.”

According to the source, Parks hopes to have “some sort of solution” by next month regarding art vendors and the High Line. Parks also might want to draw “the community” into the discussion, the source said.

Something to think about

Meanwhile, the debate about art and the High Line continues to provoke a range of opinions.

A senior couple, Joan and George Mettler from New Jersey, walking along the park promenade last Sunday morning, at first, expressed opposing views.

“I think he should be able to do it,” she said of Lederman’s vending in the park.

“I don’t think he should — it’s not set up to do that,” offered her husband. “I think there’s places to sell art. … The High Line’s a work of art.” 

On second thought, his wife said, she agreed with him.

Aaron Beall, the former Lower East Side theater impresario who now lives in Chelsea, was out strolling in the new park with his family. He said he was well versed with the issue.

“Yeah, I just read about it — in Chelsea Now,” he said of The Villager’s sister paper, which ran the same article on Lederman that appeared last week in The Villager.

“New York is just getting totally punitive,” Beall said of Lederman’s being arrested in the park.

Calling the High Line “overdesigned,” he said, “They can designate areas where people can sell their art. I think the courts have ruled — and I don’t think they can hide behind the idea of a conservancy.”

Similarly, Tobi Bergman, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Parks Committee, said there’s no question Lederman has the law on his side.

But Sharon Woolums, a public member of Bergman’s committee, said she feels there is already so much “visual pollution” in New York City that the parks should be free of art vending.