Reprinted from The New York Times
A court battle over the right to demonstrate on Central Park’s Great Lawn has underscored an astounding fact. In the heart of the nation’s largest and arguably most opinionated city, there is no place to hold a large rally. Central Park has long been the site of such gatherings, but the Bloomberg administration insists that its grass is too fragile to permit them now. It’s an inadequate and distressing rationale, and we hope that the lawsuit will remind the city of the importance of making space for large gatherings where New Yorkers can exercise their right of free speech.
Public parks are especially precious in New York City, where concrete and mortar predominate. Central Park, at 843 acres of green, is often called the city’s lungs. But it is also its vocal cords. The Great Lawn, with 13 acres of open space, is the most suitable site for large rallies in Manhattan. It has been the site of some spectacular events, like the 1982 ”No Nukes” rally and the 1995 Mass with the pope, both of which drew more than a hundred thousand people.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to put an end to such gatherings. Since around the time of the 2004 Republican convention, when the city repeatedly denied protesters the right to gather in Central Park, his administration seems to have had a wild fixation on saving every blade of the Great Lawn.
There is no denying that the city’s investment of $18 million, much of it from wealthy park neighbors along Fifth Avenue, has made for some impressive improvements. But the right way to protect the park is to require groups that want to use the Great Lawn to post bonds to pay for any damage, something the groups suing the city were willing to do.
The lawsuit also calls attention to the uneven way the city applies its rules. It’s telling that while the New York Philharmonic and its well-heeled subscribers have had no problem securing the Great Lawn for concerts, there hasn’t been a rally there in years. Classical music fans are just as capable of flattening grass as critics of the White House.
With Central Park off limits, the city has proposed that rallies of more than 50,000 people be held on the Parade Ground in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx or the Long Meadow at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It’s an interesting suggestion from a mayor who wanted to build a professional football stadium right in Manhattan because he thought the other boroughs were too remote.
The mayor’s solution might make tending the grass in Central Park easier. But turning Manhattan into a rally-free zone is too high a price to pay.