In Prince Street’s early morning sunlight, Robert Lederman carefully removes the bungee cords holding a wooden “jail cell” to the top of his car. He sets up the metallic grey cell along the curb and surrounds it with protest signs, blow-ups of newspaper articles, and photographs of some of the nine times he’s been arrested for selling his art. Next to the cell, he opens a folding screen on which brightly colored jazz prints and stark black-and-white street scenes arc displayed. Drinking a cup of hot coffee, he greets other artists as they arrive and set up their own art displays. The scene, although reminiscent of an artist colony in Woodstock or Paris, is actually a battlefield, and Lederman is a resistance fighter preparing for battle.
“On Saturday, they usually come between noon and two o’clock,” he says, referring to undercover police assigned to arrest artists for illegal vending. “They drive by once or twice in unmarked vans or taxicabs and look over the street. Then they drive back around and make the arrests.”
The “jail cell” is part of an ongoing protest that Lederman and the artists have waged since last fall, when police began handcuffing and arresting artists and confiscating their work. Most of the art that gets confiscated and stuffed into black plastic garbage bags by the police is never seen again. While the total number of artist arrests citywide is unknown, there have been at least 100 arrests in Soho alone. In response to questions from a group of German art students, Lederman explains why he and his fellow artists are being arrested. “It’s because of political pressure from community and real estate groups. In this specific area it’s the Soho Alliance that forces the police to make the arrests. They’re landlords and loft owners, many of whom are themselves artists, and they don’t want artists or anyone else using what they see as ‘their’ sidewalks.”
As president of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response To Illegal State Tactics), Lederman is a familiar figure to the Soho Alliance. Besides insisting on displaying his art on the streets of Soho, he has organized loud demonstrations on the spots where artists are arrested, and continually urges the artists to fight for their rights. His jail cell, protest signs, and handbills parodying their demands that artists be arrested have put the alliance on the defensive.
Kathryn Freed, the city councilwoman whose district includes Soho and who is herself a longtime resident of the area, is closely aligned with the alliance and its goals. In an interview published in the Christian Science Monitor, she called the artists “parasites” and said, “they don’t pay rent, they don’t pay taxes . . . I’m fed up with these guys . . . Soho has hundreds of thousands of tourists . . . it’s got too many people taking up too much space.” Freed has been actively working to rid the area of street artists, vendors, and sidewalk cafes, the very things that visitors to Soho find most attractive. Members of the Soho Alliance claim that artist displays make their sidewalks impassable and that artists should show their work in galleries, not on the street. Some go so far as to say that what is shown on the street is not even art. “Their complaints are highly exaggerated,” says Lederman. “The streets that have no artists are as crowded as the ones that do. If someone wants to live in the world’s most famous city, he should expect an active, well-populated environment. New York has always been like this.”
Initially, the city’s plan for Soho was aimed at helping struggling artists. They were allowed to move into abandoned onetime manufacturing lofts which, when transformed into airy, well-lit art studios, became valuable real estate properties. The city council then formalized the arrangement by passing a law that only professional, working artists could occupy the lofts. Lederman’s attorney, onetime prosecutor Marc Agnifilo, whose law office/art gallery is located in Soho, finds the situation ironic. “These successful artists,” he comments, “are offended that other less fortunate artists want to display their work on the streets. They deliberately ignore the fact that the artists have a First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression and that the public sidewalk is the exact place where that freedom is most protected.”
The artists have gone to court to back up their claim to constitutional protection. Dewey Ballantine, a major law firm, in cooperation with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts has filed a suit in federal court charging the city with violating the artists’ First and 14th Amendment rights. They want the New York City vending ordinance changed to permit artists to display and sell their own original paintings, sculptures, limited edition prints, and photographs. At the present time, only books, newspapers, baseball cards, and religious materials are allowed to be sold without a license, based on previous First Amendment challenges to the ordinance. Vending licenses are almost impossible to obtain.
The city council voted in 1979 to freeze the number of vending licenses at the 853 then in circulation. Other than veterans, who can get one on demand, anyone desiring a license must be on the waiting list, a wait which can take as long as five years. Richard Schrader, ex-commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, the agency which issues all vending licenses, stated in an affidavit now included in the federal lawsuit that he “knew of no artist who had managed to obtain a vending license”; “that in some years as many as 5,000 people were on the waiting list”; and that “in some years not one license became available to any applicant.”
When arrested, artists are charged with section 20-453 of the Administrative Code, unlicensed general vending. Their art is confiscated, damaged by mishandling, and often forfeited regardless of the outcome of the case in criminal court. According to artists who applied for a license, they were told by employees of the Department of Consumer Affairs that they, like booksellers, were protected by the First Amendment and did not need a license to sell their own art.
“It’s a classic example of bureaucracy at work,” says Lederman. “We’re not allowed to get a license and then we’re arrested for not having one! The city spends a few million dollars arresting artists, confiscating their work, forcing them through a lengthy court process and then dismisses every case. This makes it impossible for the artists or their attorneys to appeal a guilty decision or to challenge the constitutionality of the vending ordinance.”
Knut Masco, one of the artists who displays his art on Prince Street, recently received a call from “Carlos,” who said he’d just bought a large assortment of confiscated art at a city auction for $50, including five large window-paintings of Masco’s. “He offered to sell them back to me,” said Masco. “He said the auctioneer told the crowd at the auction that if nobody bought the lot it would all be destroyed. I told him to hang them in his apartment, that I wasn’t interested.” Masco is one of the plaintiffs in the federal suit and intends to sue the city for illegally confiscating and then selling his art.
While the artists claim that the city’s tactic is to keep harassing them until fear of arrest and loss of their art drives them from the street, police department officials insist they are “just doing their job of enforcing the law.” Ellie Ali has displayed her watercolors in front of the Prince Street Post Office for five years without incident. Then, in October, she was arrested twice by undercover cops who, when asked by onlookers how they could find so much time to bother artists, bragged that they were “working on overtime.” “Pm afraid to bring out mv best work,” says Ellie. “You never know from day to day what the police will do.”
As Prince Street comes to life, Lederman climbs inside his “jail cell” and asks passersby to sign a petition requesting Mayor Giuliani and the City Council to stop the arrests. “Do they really arrest artists?” a middle-aged woman asks Lederman after reading one of his signs. “That’s terrible! Artists are the best thing on the streets. Why don’t they bother somebody else!”
Although Mayor Giuliani has done nothing to stop the arrests or confiscations, he publicly’ admitted at a town hall meeting that “artists do have a First Amendment right to display and sell their own art on the street.” Until they win their case in court, the artists will continue keeping a watchful eye out for the police, hi a city administration already overburdened with efforts to handle crime, social problems, and decaying infrastructure, artist displays may continue to be a top priority.
Despite the constant threat of arrest and confiscation, the artists are determined to defend their right to sell their art. “Ultimately,” says Lederman, “the city will come to realize that we arc an asset, not a liability. Art enriches the social environment because it sensitizes people to beauty, to ideas, and to their own and each other’s emotions. Right now we have a society filled with frustrated, desensitized individuals. If young people could sec an opportunity to create and sell their own art instead of selling drugs or committing acts of meaningless violence, it might change this city in ways that all the multimillion-dollar social programs have failed to do.”