The back story behind book fest

By David H. Ellis

Despite the Parks Department’s intention to approve a permit that would allow the New York Is Book Country festival to use Washington Sq. Park, opponents of the event continue to hurl criticisms at festival organizers, claiming the organizers circumvented the concerns of Village residents and members of Community Board 2.

Fueling their outrage, critics charge the organizers of the event, scheduled to take place, Oct. 2-3, assumed that the venue was guaranteed and that community leaders were not adequately notified about the event.

“Our position is we think it is a great event, but in this instance we agree with the community board,” said Marilyn Dorato, presiding officer of the Greenwich Village Block Association and president of Waverly Bank 11 Neighbors. “It is a wonderful event but it’s imposing on a neighborhood too small and too historic to accept it.”

On June 17, C.B. 2 members voted overwhelmingly against the recommendation of the board’s Parks Committee to allow the festival in the park, fearing that it would snarl traffic, subject the neighborhood to an event that would bring 40,000 or more people and open the park to more commercial activities in the future.

The relocation of the festival, which typically includes book signings, readings by authors and the sale of both new and antiquarian books along Fifth Ave. between 48th and 57th Sts., was proposed following last year’s book festival by Ann Binkley, the executive director of the event, who wanted to improve the interaction between readers and writers.

Binkley, who was appointed last August to oversee the festival, said they wanted to model N.Y.I.B.C. after the book festivals of Miami and Los Angeles, which take place on college campuses. New York University and Washington Sq. Park was her first choice given the Village’s literary legacy, she said.

“The importance of creating a literary festival is people want to hear the written word,” said Binkley in a phone interview. “They want to hear and meet the authors they love and it’s tough to do that on Fifth Ave.”

Even though Binkley said she approached N.Y.U. and the Parks Department regarding the proposal in December and January, members of C.B. 2 felt they were unjustly ignored during the process.

“This thing was done in a stealthy fashion; they got their ducks in a row and then came to the community board,” said Martin Tessler, chairperson of Board 2’s Institutions Committee chairperson, which voted against the proposal on June 17. “I’m not faulting the fact that we’ll end up with this thing, but the process in which it was done, it was not vetted properly and it was a ‘fait accompli’ by the time it reached the community board.”

With N.Y.U. scheduled to host some of the festival’s events on campus, both Binkley and Michael Haberman, N.Y.U. director of government and community relations, however, dismissed the accusation that N.Y.U. took an active role in pursuing the book fair, although it is expected the event would provide significant exposure for the university.

“They approached us,” said Haberman, pointing out that the university’s facilities are offered to numerous nonprofit and community groups throughout the year. “We thought it sounded like a nice idea. We explained that they would have to go through the Parks Department and community board. We said if you get permission to come down here we’d be happy to let you use our space.”

Even though N.Y.U. is not charging N.Y.I.B.C., a nonprofit organization, for the use of its facilities, the Parks Department will receive a percentage of the fees paid by festival exhibitors in park, which range from $875 for each publisher and $975 for each retailer for the two-day event. Binkley said the two groups are still negotiating about what fraction of the money raised the city agency will receive.

The park will also be the site of children’s activities and children’s literature vendors during the festival. However, more than a few Board 2 members are still fuming over the Parks Department’s approval of the event.

“We have been trying to restrict the use of the park for commercial use,” said Ed Gold, a veteran C.B. 2 member. “If they allow this, it will set a bad precedent — we’re dead set against commercialism.”

Amid the attacks, Binkley has insisted that N.Y.I.B.C. followed the proper channels and has tried to seek input from the community.

“We’ve faced opposition from the block associations, and I’ve said along that we’ll work with anybody to make it work,” said Binkley, pointing to N.Y.I.B.C.’s negotiations with the Washington Place Block Association, which represents residents living in 153 apartments, over which streets are to be closed for the festival. “I knew this wasn’t going to be easy and you can’t make everybody happy. I’m just trying to do something good for New York.”

In a letter in last week’s Villager, Lezly Ziering, president of the Washington Place Block Association, accused Binkley of being an N.Y.U. graduate student, as if to further N.Y.U.’s complicity in — or connection to — the event. However, Binkley denied having been a student at N.Y.U. or of having had any previous connection to the university. She said she previously worked in public relations, most recently for Borders.