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.


About Allison Gray Teetsel

Writer. Linguist. Research junkie.
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