Street artists have a brush with police over rules


By David Spett

Rick Lee, a First Precinct community affairs police officer, gave this description of Soho’s street artists:

“They’re rude, they urinate in doorways, they’re vulgar, they fight, they’re drunk.”

The term “street artists” can apply to vendors selling 99-cent jewelry or to experienced painters and photographers who charge $500 for their work. But to Lee, they’re one and the same.

“Probably, they all violate the law,” Lee said. “Every day for 14 years there’s been a problem.”

Now, it seems the police may be doing something about it.

Officers visited W. Broadway street artists — all of whom sell more expensive, fine art — on Sat. July 8 and Sat. July 15. They threatened a crackdown but did not issue any tickets or seize any art. The reason for the crackdown is unclear, and the artists deny wrongdoing.

“The police came and said they’re cleaning up W. Broadway and we’re not allowed to be here,” said Jill Stasium, who has sold her paintings on W. Broadway, just south of Prince St. in front of the Swatch watch store and Mastic Spa, for nine and a half years. “It was just very odd,” she said.

Police told artists they were violating the 20-foot rule, which bans vendors from setting up stands within 20 feet of any doorway. On W. Broadway, the sidewalk is between 17 and 25 feet wide and doors are between 5 and 10 feet apart, making compliance with the 20-foot rule difficult, but not impossible.

Stasium called the police’s actions “ridiculous” and said artists’ First Amendment right to free expression overrides the 20-foot rule. Several other artists, including Lawrence White, a de facto leader of the W. Broadway artists’ contingent and member of the Soho International Artists Cooperative, agreed.

But disagreements within the artist community have led to different interpretations of the police’s actions and different ideas of how to proceed.

Support, and criticism

Officer Lee said the artists’ interpretation of the law is incorrect.

“Irrespective of their First Amendment rights, they still have to abide by [Department of] Consumer Affairs guidelines,” he said.

The officer added that the First Precinct receives a significant number of complaints about street artists.

“The community basically doesn’t want the artists at all,” Lee said. “The world has changed, it’s not 1969 anymore, and they [residents] don’t want these people in front of their million-dollar condos.”

Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, said it is understandable that W. Broadway residents are frustrated by the street artists.

“Do they violate the law on a constant basis? Should they obey the law? Yes. Do they? No,” Sweeney said. “Why would anyone want lawbreakers in their neighborhood?”

Jack Konstantinidis, the First Precinct special operations lieutenant, who investigates street vendors and came to W. Broadway both Saturdays, added that some local storeowners have encouraged the First Precinct to enforce the 20-foot rule. But last Saturday, with police outside, two store managers praised the artists.

Melissa Sommer, manager of The GemStore, at 436 W. Broadway, said street artists are the store’s best friends.

“They do nothing but help us out. We’d miss them if they weren’t here. It would take away a lot of business,” Sommer said. “They make Soho Soho.”

Jessica Wolfe, manager of Jurlique Skin Spa, at 436 W. Broadway, said every store she knows supports the street artists.

“The only problem comes from the people who live in the neighborhood. They don’t want to share,” Wolfe said. “They [the artists] are friendly and creative.”

White, who is a dance photographer, said that in the late 1990s, artists asked stores on W. Broadway to sign a petition.

“Almost every single business on W. Broadway stated that they felt we should have the right to set up,” White said.

The crackdown seems focused on W. Broadway. White, who called W. Broadway “historically the center of the art world of the United States,” said artists have been setting up there since the mid-1980s.

In April 2000, the City Council passed a law banning all street vendors on weekends along Prince and Spring Sts. between W. Broadway and Broadway, largely in response to pressure from the Soho Alliance. The group pushed for the legislation because the streets are crowded and narrow.

Stasium said, in the recent confrontations, the police told her they “were going to clean W. Broadway like they cleaned up Prince and Spring Sts.”

On July 15, Lieutenant Konstantinidis and another officer arrived at 9 a.m. to tell the W. Broadway street artists they were violating the 20-foot rule. The lieutenant spent almost two hours speaking with the artists. He issued no tickets but said he would return on July 29 to do so.

Other vendors in Soho last Saturday said threats of a crackdown were limited to W. Broadway.

At the northeast corner of Prince and Mercer Sts., one vendor selling inexpensive jewelry said the police had not spoken to her that day. She declined to give her name, saying the Soho Alliance might try to punish her.

Across the street at the northwest corner, handbag vendor Pedro Salomon said police had earlier told him, “You can’t be here,” then left without issuing a ticket.

On Broadway north of Prince, John Robinson, another vendor selling inexpensive jewelry last Saturday, said the police had asked him to move his stand to the other side of Broadway for the day, but he was unsure why.

“Maybe they’re breaking in a new group of rookies. Everything will go back to normal,” Robinson said, adding that police had enforced odd rules before. “They’ve been pretty good with us. We understand. They’re just doing their job.”

Artist leaders disagree

The Soho artist community has two leaders: White, of the Soho International Artists Cooperative, and Robert Lederman, president of A.R.T.I.S.T., or Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics. The two have starkly different opinions on nearly everything. Recently, a key disagreement has been over the possibility that W. Broadway artists can comply with the 20-foot rule.

“Jill Stasium has to do nothing more drastic than change the layout of her display and she’ll be completely legal,” Lederman said in a telephone interview.

Not so, White said.

“It’s impossible to follow the 20-foot rule on W. Broadway,” he said. “There would be only five or six artists between Houston and Broome Sts.”

Lieutenant Konstantinidis advised the artists to try to change the laws, through either the City Council or the courts, if they want to continue setting up on W. Broadway. On July 15, White and some artists considered pooling funds to hire a lawyer to challenge the 20-foot rule on constitutional grounds.

“It’s a sure loss,” Lederman said. “The 20-foot rule, which I agree is unfair, is not unconstitutional.” The Supreme Court generally has allowed time, place and manner restrictions on free speech.

Lederman sent a mass e-mail this week to all his contacts in the Manhattan artist community expounding on his views. The e-mail, entitled “CRISIS FOR STREET ARTISTS,” stated that if the W. Broadway artists file a lawsuit and lose, it could seriously harm the entire artist community by validating existing restrictions or allowing lawmakers to strengthen them.

White, on the other hand, encouraged the artists to hire a lawyer.

“Logic would dictate that if you’re facing an issue of legality that you get an attorney,” he said.

The disagreements between Lederman and White go back several years and have been debated in previous articles and a series of back-and-forth letters to the editor in The Villager. Lederman, who has a broader view of artists’ rights, said he believes courts, not legislators or vendors, should determine who can set up stands on the street without a permit.

White believes the city should loosen restrictions on more sophisticated, fine artists while cracking down on what he calls “illegal vendors,” those who do not sell their own work. White supports a system of licensing fine artists.

“People who actually show and display their own work are a minority in the city,” White said.

But Lederman said White’s policy is too restrictive of speech.

“When these artists beg city officials to limit the right to sell art to just themselves and a few friends, they demonstrate a total lack of understanding about free speech,” he said.

Calls for third party

Last Saturday, the W. Broadway street artists expressed frustration with both Lederman and White, saying their disagreements have harmed the artist community.

“This is not a game. This is people’s livelihood,” said David Chatoff, who has been selling poster prints on W. Broadway for four years. “Lederman and Larry White don’t represent the street. We need to find a neutral third party.”

The artists said that Lederman, who has led dozens of protests for artists’ rights and said he has been arrested 41 times, is too much of a fighter. Many of them sympathize with the gentler, smoother White but say he has been too willing to spar with Lederman.

“We need a course of action,” Stasium said on July 15 as eight W. Broadway artists stood in a circle, debriefing their discussion with police.

White, who had been standing about 10 feet away, came over.

“Go to meetings. Democracy means being active,” he advised them. “Sacrifice that time and you will not be sacrificing time on the street.”

As they bounced ideas off each other — attending Community Board 2 meetings, lobbying Councilmembers Alan Gerson and Rosie Mendez — Stasium wondered whether a powerful, unified Soho artists’ cooperative was in the making.

Lederman was skeptical. Discouraging the artists from filing a lawsuit, he blamed the ordeal on the Soho Alliance and Gerson.

“The whole thing is a Gerson scam intended to drive artists into filing a losing lawsuit that will help the Soho Alliance have even more restrictions to use against artists,” Lederman said. “Gerson is a puppet and the puppet man is Sean Sweeney, who is the biggest opponent of street artists in the city.”

White, while not putting it as stridently as Lederman, agreed that the Soho Alliance had been able to lobby politicians and C.B. 2 to crack down on street artists.

Give up, grow up’

Sweeney, the Soho Alliance director, said Lederman should “give up on this, grow up,” and denied that the Soho Alliance has complained to the police in the past 10 years about street artists.

“We have better things to do. We are fighting Donald Trump now,” he said, referring to a plan by Trump for a hotel-condo project at Spring and Varick Sts.

But Sweeney disagreed with Lederman’s broad definition of art.

“What is art? Is a T-shirt art?” he said. “Handmade T-shirts, knockoff T-shirts, ‘I Love N.Y.’ T-shirts, knockoff bags. They say it’s all art.”

Gerson has called for more police enforcement on W. Broadway, where he said street artists pose a significant problem.

“The situation on W. Broadway is not acceptable. You can’t have a wall of vendors of any kind,” he said. “Current regulations are not enforced. It’s unsafe and it’s unlivable.”

Gerson is getting ready to introduce a bill that would “alleviate congestion” on streets like W. Broadway, he said, while accommodating artists and vendors “in appropriate ways.” The 20-foot rule is too hard to enforce and too restrictive of artists’ rights, he said, and a “more manageable and legally enforceable set of regulations” is in order.

Gerson did not give specific details of the proposal but said it would be introduced later this summer.

“This is a problem that goes back to before I took office,” he said, but “until we have changed the law, the law needs to be enforced.”

Rulings favored artists

In the mid-1990s, when Lederman said he staged protests nearly every weekend, street artists’ rights were far more limited than they are today.

A 1996 ruling, Bery/Lederman et al. v. City of N.Y., which was appealed as high as the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, overturned the city’s vending license requirements for street artists, Lederman said. Two other cases decided in 2001, Lederman et al. v. Giuliani and Bach et al. v. City of N.Y., overturned permit requirements for artists in New York City parks.

Since 2001, the City Council has considered re-instituting permit requirements for street artists in city parks. It also has proposed a cap of two artists per block. But neither proposal passed the City Council.

Now, after several years of relative peace, street artists fear the clashes between artists and the police may again return to the level they reached in the mid-1990s.