Have you ever wandered through Washington Square Park and watched dancer Kanami Kusajima inspire park-goers, listened to musician Aaron Gammon cover Bob Dylan, or bought art from Eric Cook, Santiago Villegas, or any of the park’s talented artists? As park-goers and tourists continue to enjoy Washington Square Park’s art and performance scene, the very people who make it the creative hub that it is have been facing increasing harassment from law enforcement.
The growing crackdown on Washington Square Park started in May 2021. By June 2021, dozens of people had been arrested for protesting the park’s short-lived, NYPD-imposed 10pm curfew, and vendors had been ticketed and arrested for simply selling art or performing. Behind the crackdown on the artists (and liveliness) of Washington Square Park are the Parks Department, the NYPD, and the Washington Square Park Conservancy. The latter, whose purported mission is “to help keep Washington Square Park clean, safe and beautiful,” appears to see independent artists — those outside of the corporate, elite gallery, government-sponsored art sphere — as a threat.
Kanami Kusajima (@lethairdown), who has been dancing in Washington Square Park since 2020, believes the park’s harassment of vendors, performers and artists is completely unfair, considering New York City has taken advantage of street performers as tourist attractions for years. For instance, Kusajima herself was featured on bus stop ads promoting the city’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. So while the City clearly sees park artists and performers as a key component of its cultural and tourism ecosystem, it does not treat them as such.
The Washington Square Park Conservancy claims it does not play any role in law enforcement in the park, yet has been fundraising explicitly for its increased policing. The Conservancy further claims that it supports buskers and artists who operate within park regulations, as well as any efforts to provide further guidance on those regulations.
On Sunday, July 30, a few dozen artists and community members gathered by the park’s fountain to demand an end to the over-policing and criminalization of street artists and performers. During the short rally, four speakers took the podium. One of the overarching messages was that artists play a large role in taking care of the park, making it a welcoming environment, and keeping it safe. Vendor Eric Cook said that artists “are the concierge. We are the guide. We know where the bathrooms are!” Mark Paich said the artists “are the solution, we are the people that keep the park safe, day in and day out. We are the best of humanity.” Speakers passionately emphasized that they will no longer tolerate the intimidation, harassment and abuse at the hands of the Parks Department and the NYPD — a point they made clear with chants of “Get off our backs!” After the rally, artists gathered to dance, sing, and share their creative space with bystanders.
On Wednesday, August 2, at a virtual Community Board 2 (CB2) meeting attended by both Washington Square Park artists and the park’s Conservancy, artist Madelene Mercedes said “I have never seen police swarm the crackheads in the park, but I have seen police swarm the artists.” A musician named Lee added “Musical expression is a constitutional right, it should not be intrigued upon by the government. There is a corner in WSP that is just a heinous area filled with drugs. […] That part of the park has nothing to do with the artists and musicians of the park.” Grace Harman, the Community Relations Director of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, later claimed the Conservancy is “not trying to push anyone out, but our main concern is the northwest corner of the park.” Mark Diller, District Manager of CB2, said “We will work to accommodate with what we can, but I want to be respectful for all park users.”
I later spoke to a few members of the park’s creative community. When asked if the artists are supportive of each other, Kusajima said: “Street artists are all in a vulnerable position, so sometimes it is hard for us to find a balance between helping others and avoiding getting penalized by the police. But we are compassionate to each other and support each other in our maximum effort.” Cook, who has been vending since 2016, said: “I knew many [of the park vendors], especially those I regularly spend time around, but had only a fleeting wave or fist bump with like 60% of the rest, because we just didn’t encounter each other regularly. We were neighbors. Now we are a community. We were independent artists. Now we are brothers and sisters.”
The artists of Washington Square Park make the park what it is — a community space where people gather to buy unique art and feel the joy of someone’s music. Support your local artists in their struggle against harassment from law enforcement. There is no Washington Square Park without them.