Dancing in Washington Square Park

The survival of hip-hop culture in New York’s famous parks

Washington Square Park boasts a proud history of hosting the city’s most expressive proletariat performers, especially during the blooming spring. Fortunately for the Positive Brothers, a trio of synchronized hip-hop dancers that perform in the park’s empty fountain, the spirit of artistic liberation has stayed relatively the same — until this year. This season, stricter enforcement of public performance laws, carried out by the New York City Parks Department, is chipping away at the Brothers’ opportunities to dance, infringing on their freedom of speech and livelihood.

For the first time practically ever, noise codes, which specify volume limits of public performances, will be very strictly enforced. The Park Department will enroll its Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers in training programs, where they will learn to use high-tech decibel meters. These meter readings will help officers ascertain whether performers are exceeding the maximum noise limit, relative to their surrounding ambient noise. Though all park occupants have always been subject to volume limits, the Department is responding to a new wave of complaints from nearby residents pertaining to people with performance permits. The Department estimates that exceeding this limit will cost at least a $200 fine, which will be raised in proportion with the purported noise level.

Each year once the weather warms, the Positive Brothers (Tyrone, Deshawn, and Chris Dawson) begin their annual repertoire of shows for thousands of park visitors. In a typical performance, the trio monopolizes the center platform of the Washington Square Park fountain, using it as their stage. They also use the four arching columns at the fountain’s edges as springboards to launch backflips. “The flippy guys,” as some refer to them, flaunt a range of sharp dance moves and sensational acrobatic jumps. They also recite, in synchronized speech, morally questionable but nonetheless comedic one-liners, which both startle and astound their audience.

Naturally, they need music to do all this. The Brothers use a stereo that reverberates within the fountain’s walls, amplifying the sound so that it reaches people just approaching the fountain on the walkway. But, more often than not, with a stereo their show inevitably exceeds the instituted volume cap. This means that with new noise code enforcement, the brothers will likely face crippling summons, just by performing their usual show. “I don’t understand why they [the government] are trying to fix something that’s not broken…leave them alone” said frequent park-goer Grace Esses, 19, upon hearing of the new decibel meter policy.

In response to his favorite place to perform, Tyrone Dawson, 34, said, “there’s nothing in the world I’d rather be doing on a Saturday afternoon than dancing in that fountain.” When the fountain is filled with water, the group strategically shifts their performance to the ground adjacent to it, almost as though they are competing with the height of the climbing water every time they jump. They wear sweatpants covered with cartoonish onomatopoeias, and of course, without shirts; covering up would practically be an injustice to their bulging abs and biceps. But as much as they push cultural boundaries, the Positive Brothers certainly succeed in capturing their unsuspecting audience, uniting them in a collective clap to their beat.

“They’re nuts,” says Liza Sakhaie, 18, a New York University freshman, “but they’re funky and they’re fun. They break the stress of city life. They make you look up, have fun, and chill out.”

However, “chill,” is not the particular sentiment the Positive Brothers inspire among the City Park advisors. Every month, the Community Board №2, a public group of Greenwich Village residents, gathers together and enacts some further restrictive regulation to address nearly every neighborhood complaint. The Board works with the NYC Park Department, which enforces laws deemed necessary from the Board’s resolutions. During the later part of the Bloomberg Administration, around 2007–2011, crackdown on performers began to strengthen, as the Parks Department began classifying performers as vendors. Thus, they were subject to the Expressive Matter Vending laws. The most recent update in that law, instituted in 2013, lays a blanket prohibition on any person who “makes, or causes, or allows to be made, unreasonable noise in the park so as to cause public inconvenience, annoyance, or harm.” As subjective as this law is, its ambiguity has not prevented city officials from slapping performers with very large, unambiguous fines. Colin Huggins, 38, the pianist who performs on the pathway between the center fountain and the east entrance, has accumulated summons totaling $6,000. “It’s really a scam,” Huggins said, “because they’re trying to cut out the spirit of the park. Neither this bucket [his improvised piano bench] nor I are going anywhere.” So far, the Positive Brothers have accumulated approximately $2,300 in fines.

In fairness, the Park Department is recognizing that the ambiguities in their bylaws are unjust by issuing summons based on a decibel reading. Still, many believe the new restrictive permit legislation teeters on a fine line between protecting the community’s uninterrupted tranquility and first amendment infringement. The Washington Square Park Conservancy (WSPC), a private neighborhood non-profit that works with the Department to ensure the Greenwich Village neighborhood’s best interest, argues that the Department’s permit laws are ultimately within the boundaries of the Constitution. Sheryl Woodruff, 53, the Community Development Director at the WSPC, made a strong case for some of the permit laws. Private organizations, for example, must rightly notify and pay to use a public space for private benefit. She added, “there are certain things everyone [permit holder or not] has to follow, though. You can’t play music past 10 p.m., and you have to stay within the volume range. Also, you can’t solicit money.” But in terms of infringement of first amendment rights for performers, Woodruff had few answers. Albeit, the Conservancy’s refrain from denouncing restrictive permit laws comes to no surprise, given that the director of the WSPC, Sarah Neilson, serves as the WSP Administrator in the Park Department, too. In theory, Neilson could be a liaison between private interests and public protection of those interests. But ultimately, the private interests of gentrified Greenwich Village residents tend to be unfavorable to group of male hip-hop dancers from the Bronx, blasting their music from a boom box.

It is that ungentrified, classless blur, though, that is Washington Square Park. This anti-elitist romanticism has largely constructed the spirit of WSP since its inception as an open park space. Throughout the twentieth century, folksingers and street vendors meandered through the park’s looping paths, performing their homey jigs and sales calls to all passersby. It was where New York’s artists and musicians had a center to cultivate their own creativity under canopies of springing branches, unobstructed by industrial, bureaucratic, and moneyed interests. WSP was a natural, relieving refuge from the lines of mean, straight buildings that hover over New York, and from the mindset of organizations that work in them. Thus, many take issue to the Park Department’s new enforcement of decibel readers, because they believe that the administrative noise police threaten that historical spirit. When hearing of the new policy, Greenwich Village resident Skylar Zar, 19, sarcastically retorted, “big brother, am I right?” She continued, “The government has a history of ousting artists. They want to make the park exclusive and quiet and like a little perfect village. They want to make it not real. Those guys from the Bronx — they make it real.”

Dawson would likely agree. “We really just love performing. We’ve been doing it for twenty years. They can keep whacking us [with fines] because we’re a little too loud, but we’re fun. People love us…so we’re gonna stay positive and keep going. Because who are we?” he asks. He answers: “We’re the Positive Brothers.”