New York's Central Park gives musicians the boot

Few instruments can be gentler than the harp, but authorities in New York's Central Park have branded street musicians like harpist Meta Epstein a public disturbance and want them driven out.

A new campaign to enforce eight "quiet zones," including in some of the city's most hallowed spots for street performers, is turning virtuosos like Epstein into outlaws.

After years of being left in peace to perform her baroque repertoire on the beautiful, golden instrument, Epstein, 59, says she's suddenly being treated as a menace.

Park police, she said, accused her of destroying the grass where she sat and ordered her to move on.

"They say we're responsible for the bare patch but then you see people everywhere playing soccer with boots and cleats," she said in bewilderment. "They were actually pretty nasty and I'm not used to police intimidation. It's basically putting us out of work."

Nearby in the mosaic-lined colonnades next to Bethesda Fountain, a few brave souls performed Mozart and Gospel songs in defiance of the ban.

The columned arcade is not just a prime tourist spot, but enjoys some of the best acoustics in New York outside of a concert hall, leaving the last note of each song hanging in the air. But the musicians, including a Japanese singer, a Ukrainian double bass player and singer John Boyd, said playing timeless music hadn't saved them from the crackdown.

Boyd, a 48-year-old with a powerful, deep voice, pulled eight pink sheets from his pocket - park police summonses handed out over the last two weeks for fines ranging from $50 to $350.

"I've been ticketed and arrested because I wouldn't stop singing," he said. "My life has been devastated by this."

Central Park representatives say they have nothing against musicians. They just want don't want them in "quiet zones," which have been marked with new, shiny green and white signs.

Park spokeswoman Vickie Karp said the zones include the Bethesda Fountain area, Shakespeare Garden, Sheep Meadow and Strawberry Fields, the living memorial to the Beatles' John Lennon, who was murdered nearby.

"For every protester supporting music or loud noise without limits, there are thousands of park visitors who come to parks looking for peace and quiet," Karp said in an email.

"Parks are one of the few places you can come and hear the soothing sounds of nature: bird songs, falling water, the wind in the leaves, human conversation."

Karp pointed out that musical performances at Bethesda Fountain can attract crowds of as many as hundreds of people. Some weekends, the sound reverberates across the boating pond and into the carefully preserved, dense woodland of The Ramble.

"It is not that we are against music. It is that we are for quiet," Karp said.

Musicians say that logic doesn't justify the expulsion of classical singers and string instrument players, whose melodies, if anything, are more soothing than the noise of tourist crowds.

Arlen Oleson, 56, who plays the hammer dulcimer, noted that huge concerts for rock bands are organized in Central Park, bringing tens of thousands of people to trample the grass and mammoth speakers to pump out mega-decibel music.

"It's a galling hypocrisy," he said.

The street musicians have gotten some high-profile help in the last week.

Norman Siegel, a prominent civil rights lawyer, has taken up their cause and Boyd said the attorney was helping him try to escape punishment.

Geoffrey Croft, the founder of NYC Park Advocates, which supports city parks, has also jumped in, calling the issue "absurd."

"As long as there's been a park system people have been playing music in parks," he told AFP. "They're claiming people are complaining, but who's complaining?"

The clampdown appeared to mystify tourists, some of whom come specifically to Bethesda Fountain to hear the free, impromptu concerts.

Tourist Zita Misley, a mother of three, said she'd noticed the "quiet zone" sign nearby, but hadn't quite got the point.

"Oh, I thought they put 'quiet zone' so that we could listen to the music!" she said when told of the park's campaign.

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