The Persecution and Prosecution of Musicians in Central Park

NYC-Central-Park- Quiet -Zone-sign-Bethesda-Fountain

photo by Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Yahoo News reports that New York City’s Central Park has cracked down on street musicians, pushing forward with a campaign that will enforce eight “quiet zones” throughout the city, most notably Central Park’s Strawberry Fields, Bethesda Fountain and the Boathouse.  The green and white signs which designate areas as “quiet zones” began cropping up at the end of May, and enforcement by park police began immediately.

Heidi Kole, author of The Subway Diaries, wrote on May 30 that she had witnessed a busker, Morgan O’Kane, playing his banjo near the fountain in Union Square. Not long into his set, O’Kane was approached by park police and told that he would have to leave. Initially, the park police thought he was playing amplified (I’ll explain why this matters in a moment). When they realized that he wasn’t, they said that he would have to leave because more than 20 people had gathered to watch him play.

As explained on the Galluzo and Johnson LLP New York Criminal Defense Blawg, Parks and Recreations Regulations § 1-05, section (a) states:

Noise; Musical Instruments; Sound Reproduction Devices

  1. No person shall make, or cause or allow to be made, unreasonable noise in any park so as to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or harm. Unreasonable noise means any excessive or unusually loud sound that disturbs the peace, comfort or repose of a reasonable person of normal sensitivity or injures or endangers the health or safety of a reasonable person of normal sensitivity, or which causes injury to plant or animal life, or damage to property or business
  2. No person shall play or operate any sound reproduction device, as defined in §1-02 of these Rules, in any park without a permit from the Department of Parks & Recreation and any other City agency or agencies with pertinent jurisdiction. This paragraph (2) shall not apply to the regular and customary use of portable radios, record players, compact disc players, or television receivers, or tape recorders played or operated in full accordance with these Rules so as not unreasonably to disturb other persons in their permitted uses of the park, except that in areas designated by the Commissioner as “quiet zones,” such regular and customary use of sound reproduction devices shall be prohibited. Signs shall be posted in all quiet zones advising the public of such prohibition. Use of radios and other sound reproduction devices listened to solely by headphones or earphones, and inaudible to others, is permitted in all areas of the parks.

The Parks Department maintains that the Quiet Zones were established in order to ensure that people have the right to, well, quiet. In the bustling city, it can be difficult to find a place where the sounds of nature are uninterrupted.  Busking hasn’t been altogether banned in the parks…only in particular zones.  Still, something seems incredibly wrong about issuing a summons to or arresting a musician for playing music in a public space. In the case of Morgan O’Kane, people had gathered to listen to him play. Who, exactly, was he causing “public inconvenience, annoyance or harm”?

I’m not even going to get into the issue of the First Amendment here. I’ll leave that for the NYCLU. I will say that I find this entire campaign particularly upsetting. Hearing that musicians, such as steel drummer Caesar Passee, are being arrested with full police escorts for simply playing music in a public space that has been designated as a “quiet zone” actually makes my heart sink and brings tears to my eyes. One of my favorite things to do while in the city is to wander around and listen to the street musicians. Music has always been an important cultural element. It seems wrong to drive it indoors, or to other designated areas. It feels wrong to persecute people for making music, and presumably, making others happy.

There are a few very specific issues that I take with the Quiet Zone enforcement:

  • If the real issue is ensuring that people have the right to quiet; to have the undisturbed sounds of nature, why focus on the musicians? New York City is ripe with noise pollution. Many of the musicians in the park are playing acoustically…typically classical or jazz music, which is actually used in other areas for its therapeutic and calming benefits. It just doesn’t make sense.
  • Some have suggested that a compromise might be to have musicians audition in order to be allowed to play in the parks, the way that they do in the subway. The problem that I have with this is that it is so incredibly limiting. Once people get spots, they’re not very likely to give them up. We’re talking about people who have made music and buskin their life’s work. They make all of their money via the donations they receive. If people have to audition in order to play, there isn’t really anything preventing politics or personal preference from dictating who gets to be heard. Many people don’t know that the musicians in the subway are often paid by the city to be there. It’s essentially the same as playing a gig in a club. The musicians who play in the parks are often just trying to be heard. Turning this into a competition just makes it that much harder.
  • It drives me crazy that as a culture, we largely lack respect for our artists. There are a few exceptions. If you go to New Orleans, the street musicians are revered…they’re living legends. As one observer commented after a performance near Bethesda Fountain, they “…do a lot for the environment and the culture”. Can you imagine New York without the sound of music? I certainly don’t want to.

photo by OzSharon, 2009

I have to wonder who really is bothered by the street musicians. It isn’t like they’re peddaling their wares, harrassing the passers-by. We’re not talking about people playing power chords through giant amplifiers which are cranked to 11. Is New York really so desperate for revenue that this is what they’re resorting to? I can’t imagine any other reason for it. Thinking about the musicians, the buskers, being prosecuted (and persecuted) for doing what they love; making the music that so many others love…sharing their heart and soul…well, that just breaks my heart.

So what can we do about this? Already, we’ve seen musicians protest the quiet zones in Central Park.  A Facebook group has been created for the cause, with the mission “Save the musicians, Save the music”. I’d suggest contacting theCentral Park Conservancy and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation to let them know how you feel about this campaign. When you see a musician playing, think about the numerous sacrifices they are making in order to entertain others. Support them as much as you can, whether it be financially or otherwise. If you know of any other way to protect our rights to hear and play music in the park, please let me know. New York without it’s musicians just isn’t New York to me.

UPDATE: I just received a comment from Heidi linking to an eye-opening post describing what may just be the most ridiculous interaction with a police officer I have ever heard of.  If this doesn’t convince you that there’s something seriously wrong with the way musicians are being treated in NYC, I’m not sure what will.  She is due in court July 11th to face the judge for singing in public – happy to have anyone accompany /cover court hearing if they’d like. Should be interesting, to say the least.

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The Pianoman in Kingston

Billy JoelBilly Joel is in my town tonight. My initial reaction to this news was to shrug and roll over. It’s not really anything new to have celebrities roll through as they check out the many attractions that the Hudson Valley has to offer. In fact, many well-known celebrities have homes around here. I’ve heard stories from friends who ran into so-and-so while they were working at the mall.  I actually rode on a Trailways bus with Steve Buscemi when I was in grad school. Just a few weeks ago, the area was inundated with stars, such as Keanu Reeves, who were in town for the Woodstock Film Festival.

Welcome to the Neighborhood, Mr. Joel

I found out that Billy Joel was in town via the facebook wall of a local business owner. He posted a photo to prove it–he and Mr. Joel, posing in the municipal parking lot just outside of my apartment complex. I suppose that’s what piqued my curiosity. It isn’t so much that Billy Joel is in town, as it is that he’s in MY neighborhood. Is he just walking around, checking things out? That’s what it sounds like. The buzz at Dermot Mahoney’s Irish Pub was that Billy was riding around with his daughter on his motorcycle.  That’s really all I’ve heard.

Walking Along the Rondout

When A. came home and told me he had seen the yacht, I got really curious. Feeling restless a little while ago, I decided to get up and go for a walk. It’s drizzling outside, so things are pretty quiet. I could hear the Kings of Leon playing over the system at Mariner’s Harbor. Besides that, the only sound was the occasional car driving over the bridge to Port Ewen. I walked down the street, past the Hudson River Maritime Museum. I saw the Rip Van Winkle docked in its usual spot…and then there it was. Right next to the Rip…this shiny boat,the Audacious, nicer than any I’ve seen. The first thing I noticed was the flickering of light through one of the windows on the lower level. Although the blinds were pulled shut, I could easily make out the glow of a flat screen TV mounted to the wall.  I imagined Billy Joel, laying in bed watching TV, the same way I had been before my curiosity got the best of me.

Why is Billy Joel HERE?

I didn’t hang around for too long, because I didn’t want to seem like some weirdo stalker. I honestly just wanted to see the boat. Still, as I walked back to my apartment, the same question kept repeating in my mind. “Why is he here?”

People come to Kingston.  I know that. I can’t shake the feeling though, that very few of them actually know Kingston. I mean, Billy Joel has this 95-foot yacht docked down the street, and just a few blocks away, I know Gary is curled up in his usual spot in the doorway of the empty storefront on Broadway. We’re in the midst of a gang epidemic…there seems to be a growing heroin addiction around here. The majority of Kingston’s residents make minimum wage at best. So WHY is Billy Joel here?

On Charity and Wealth

I don’t believe that people are required to be charitable. I don’t really think that anyone is entitled to what someone else has earned. At the same time, I believe that if you have an abundance, sharing the excess is simply the right thing to do.

I know that Billy Joel supports a number of charities and organizations. I don’t think he’s required to give us anything in order to come here…It just strikes me as odd, thinking how unlikely it is that he really knows what lies beneath the surface in this Hudson Valley town.

I’m thinking about all of the celebrities who spend time here. Who remark on the “charm” that the area holds. I’m thinking that if people really love it here so much, they should want to preserve and improve things however they can. Kingston is my home, where I’ve spent most of the last 28 years. My family has lived here for generations, and their tombstones line the hillsides. I know the names and layout of the streets. I can tell you what’s where, and what used to be there. This place is important to me…I don’t want it to be just another tourist attraction, where the wealthy reap the benefits while the residents suffer.  For whatever reason, Billy Joel is docked down the street. I hope he likes things here enough to look beyond the surface. Get to know us. I hope this place holds a fraction of the importance for you as it does for me.

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Out of Frustration Comes Introspection

I’ve recently found myself increasingly involved in the local neighborhood watch program.  While in some ways, it feels good to be invested in the town that I grew up in, this also means that I have a heightened awareness of the unpleasantness that exists here. I know that every place has its ups and downs, but it’s a little different when things are (literally) hitting closer to home.

Case in point: A poster on one of the forums commented earlier, making generalizations about a particular neighborhood (the “bad” part of town) and the people who live there. As someone who grew up in this particular neighborhood, and who has dealt with many amazing people from this section of town, I took offense to the poster’s statements. I also take issue with the fact that people are more willing to sit back and place the blame than to take any initiative to come up with any productive contribution. I posted a response, explaining my perspective. I thought I was being rational. I thought that I did a fairly good job in keeping my composure.

What I failed to recognize was the fact that I was engaging in an argument on the internet.

“grow up allison” was the reply that I received from another poster, maintaining their anonymity via screenname.

Of course.

My initial response was amusement. That quickly turned to irritation, and then frustration. I’ve been putting a lot of energy into my involvement in the community. Is this how people show their appreciation?

If the others in this town don’t care…if this is the attitude which permeates, then what is the point? What, exactly, am I doing this for?

It is that question which I hope to explore in this blog.

What is it about Kingston that holds me here?

What sets it apart?

Is it really worth saving?

I guess we’ll find out…

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