Shortly after the worst of the pandemic in New York, Naveh Halperin began wheeling his battery-powered speaker to parks and plazas across the city. In the meadow of Prospect Park or outside Trump Tower, the 31-year-old former subway busker would blast out the siren song of pop music, attracting swarms of young people at a time when they were locked out of other nightlife.
“The park took on a completely new meaning for how we gathered,” Naveh, who goes by “Subway DJ,” recalled this week. “There was a huge void in music and dancing, and it was the only place people could have some semblance of normal.”
While the city’s coronavirus restrictions have mostly lifted, the newfound reliance on city parks has shown little sign of receding. The advent of permanent open streets and to-go drinks has only cemented the connection between nightlife and public space.
But after a year in which some quality of life concerns took a back seat, the NYPD now appears to be cracking down on park activity, including the impromptu gatherings that served as a lifeline for many in the last year.
On Friday night, as Halperin was leading one of his dance parties through the streets of Lower Manhattan, police seized his speakers and issued him a ticket for excessive noise — both pandemic-era firsts. The audio equipment is being held at the 9th precinct until his court date in August, Halperin said.
The following night, the NYPD arrested 23 people in Washington Square Park, under a new curfew aimed at stemming late-night parties and drug use. Video showed officers with the Strategic Response Group using physical force on park-goers, some of whom fought back by throwing bottles and trash. The police response drew criticism from multiple mayoral candidates, as well as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
At Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, the NYPD implemented another 10 p.m. curfew this week, with at least two officers stationed at all nine entrances to the park. The decision was made without any notice to the Mayor’s Office, the local Council Member, or the public. One officer told Gothamist the action was meant as a preemptive measure to quash protests or riots that might follow last summer’s disorder. Another explained that parties were illegal in the park.
Asked about the curfews on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio praised the department for striking a balance between protecting freedom and ensuring safety, and said he did not have a problem with the NYPD shuttering city parks at their own discretion.
“When you’re talking about parks in residential communities, places where we’ve seen consistent problems, getting ahead of those problems [by] having an earlier closing time is the smart thing to do,” the mayor added.
There’s no evidence that public parks are becoming more dangerous on the whole. In the first quarter of 2021, major felonies in city parks reached their lowest level in at least six years. According to figures provided by the Parks Department, there were just 10 criminal court summonses issued citywide by Parks Patrol through May — a fraction of the number issued in recent years.
At the same time, much of the city has seen an increase in violent crime since the start of the pandemic. In the West Village, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, some residents have blamed the rowdy parties and long-running drug market in Washington Square Park for the uptick in assaults and robberies in the surrounding precinct.
Hugo Barreca, a 70-year-old resident of Gramercy Park, likened the curfew to the city’s efforts to clean up Union Square in the 1980s. “There’s a tenor in this park that’s beginning to change,” he said. “The drug dealers got a beachhead in the pandemic.”
Other park-goers saw racial motives in the recent crackdown. The West Village is 80% white, and roughly 40% of the neighborhood's residential population fled during the pandemic, among the highest rates in the city. In that time, the park became an increasingly popular hangout spot for young people of color.
“It’s people who live in houses worth millions of dollars who don’t like rap music,” said Kellen Gold, 23, who helps pick up trash in the park on some nights. “They can afford to go to fancy restaurants with their friends, but now they want to take the park back from the people who are enjoying it.”
On Sunday night, as the sun went down but temperatures remained in the 80s, hundreds of people basked in the park. On the outskirts, a small contingent of activists gathered to confront the NYPD at curfew. Others danced to music playing from a back-up speaker brought by Naveh. To the delight of many, the cops never showed up.
"This is more than a party," Naveh told Gothamist, as he fielded requests from the crowd shortly after midnight. "It’s us taking up public space."
Asked on Monday if the curfew had been lifted, a spokesperson for the Parks Department referred Gothamist to the NYPD. The police department did not respond to Gothamist's inquiries.