Dear Mayor Bloomberg: Let New Yorkers Drink Beer in Public Parks

I roll my eyes every time someone says that New York is the greatest place on earth.

The inhabitants of the greatest places on earth have freedom. The people of New York, well, we have civil liberties that are in line with the plutocracy in which we live.

I spent 2009 through early 2012 living primarily in a collection of places that should be noted for their strong offering of individuals freedoms. One needn’t flex the imagination too hard to extol the virtues of life in San Francisco, where it seems like 99% of all legislation is progressive. From marijuana decriminalization to recycling programs to living wages, San Francisco knows what’s good for citizens in a supposedly enlightened democracy. (That said, 82 San Francisco bus drivers made more than $100,000 per year during the depths of the recession, which, is not only absurd from the standpoint of a recovering English major who will never rake in such sums, but also a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.)

And I spent a good chunk of the past three years in Denmark, Amsterdam, and the UK, where, with all of their cradle-to-grave protections, one can, at the very least, enjoy the simple pleasure of sipping a beer in a public park with friends (oftentimes paired with a BBQ).

Adults living in a free society should have the inalienable right of beverage choice in public parks. However, in New York, this is not the case. I learned this the hard way on Memorial Day weekend in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, because, while attending friends’ anniversary party, I had the misfortune of being seated beside two completely EMPTY beer bottles when a trio of cops decided to write summonses for having “alcohol in the park” to three of the six of us present. (My anger only heightened when I discovered that being cited in the park isn’t the worst of it, because under New York City’s draconian laws, you can’t even drink a beer on your own stoop.)

Not one to pay a $25 fine for an offense that I didn’t commit, I went to court and fought the ticket. It wasn’t the money that was the problem, it was that I was erroneously issued a summons by one of “New York’s Finest” (I’ll let him save face here by not revealing his name) for a crime that never happened. That said, my summons was issued at the end of the month, and as a shocking episode of “This American Life” revealed, NYPD officers have quotas to fill (even though they usually deny this), and I was more than likely just a victim of the system.

And while this alcohol policy is set by the city, it’s not the city government, nor the taxpayers, who are paying for the majority of upkeep, maintenance, and other critical day-to-day administration of city parks. Rather, it is such groups like the Central Park Conservancy and Prospect Park Alliance that provide the funds to make New York’s parks awesome. The latter pays 2/3 of the park’s $12 million annual budget. That said, these organizations don’t set policy, so their leaders should pressure the municipal government to change these Kafkaesque laws.

Going to court to fight my “alcohol in park” case opened my eyes to an even more shocking problem in the New York City parks: Thousands of ordinary people are charged with being in the park after dark, because New York City parks can close anywhere from dusk until 1 a.m.

During the 90 minutes that I waited to plead my case (which, for the record, I won in about 23 seconds, with the summons being dismissed and the case being sealed), I heard a few dozen other people defend themselves in front of the judge at the Red Hook Community Justice Center. By far, the most common accusation was for being in parks after dark.

Nobody wants junkies or other nefarious people residing in our parks during off hours, but until the NYPD solved every murder, rape, and robbery, all the way down to the misdemeanor level, enforcement of “park after dark” laws should be the NYPD’s lowest priority (even though a female college student has even been arrested and sent to jail for 36 hours for this crime).

It’s necessary to make a clear distinction between being in a park after dark and subway-jumping — petty crime crackdowns that Malcolm Gladwell famously discussed in his first pop sociology staple, The Tipping Point. In Gladwell’s book, he demonstrates that, according to “Broken Windows Theory,” it is important to reduce petty crimes because the same individuals who don’t pay for the subway are likely to be the same folks who are offenders in more serious cases.

However, the vast majority of the people I witnessed defending themselves seemed to have entered these parks after dark by accident. 

Taking a late night jog to let off some steam after a long day at work? Think again! Going for an after dinner stroll with friends to burn off some chocolate cheesecake? Not so fast. Don’t read English well? You’re SOL.

Tara Kiernan, in the Public Affairs department of New York City Parks, said her department did not keep statistics about the number of offenses committed in parks. She wrote in an e-mail, “Closing times vary by parks but generally parks are open 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. unless otherwise stated on parks signage – rule on our website http://www.nycgovparks.org/rules/section-1-03.”

However, the problem is that New York’s 1,700 parks have wildly stagnating closing times. Some close at dusk. Others close at 10 p.m. There seems to be little logic behind the variation in closing times. And from poking around parks to research this piece, I can say with certainty that many park entrances are not clearly marked, making entering a park after hours incredibly easy.

For the past month, the NYPD has adamantly refused, despite 10 phone calls and four e-mails, to provide me with city-wide data and statistics about the number of “alcohol in parks” and “in parks after dark” violations from recent years. One can infer from what I witnessed at a single court in Red Hook that many thousands of New Yorkers and visitors are affected by this nonsense each year.

So what can New Yorkers do to stop this nonsense?

Step 1: Petition your New York City Council members and the Bloomberg administration to change the silly no alcohol in parks rule so that it is no longer a petty offense to drink alcohol in parks. (If this fails, I imagine that an Occupy Prospect Park Protest, with thousands of New Yorkers linking arms, each clasping beers between them, will be necessary.)

Step 2: Require that the Parks Department post clear signage, in multiple languages, at every possible park entrance. And make it such that it is only an offense to be in a park after dark if you are engaging in some other activity other than merely walking, running, or sitting.

Step 3: Require that the NYPD reveal statistics that show just how many citations are issued for petty park related offenses, as this will reveal how many resources are dedicated to this. (The $25 summons that I had dismissed cost the city way more than that in terms of the amount of time and energy that a judge, clerks, police officer, legal aid lawyer, and administrator had to spend dealing with my case.)

Step 4: Once the laws are changed, enjoy your beer in the park at a time when it is open, and save me one if you can. (I prefer Hogaarden or Guinness.) Thanks.

Now that the US Senate passed the JOBS Act, I discuss how this new piece of legislation can improve the quality of American journalism

I recently blogged about the many benefits that I hope will come to America with the passage of the JOBS Act. Now that the US Senate has passed the JOBS Act (with an amendment that I support), the bill has gone back to the House of Representatives for final approval before President Obama signs it into law. Despite my skepticism about the ability of Congress to pass any legislation in this toxic and partisan political climate, I am pleasantly surprised that it looks like the JOBS Act should go through with bipartisan support.

My general thesis is that if the “people” can now invest in new ventures, then they will be more apt to use products and services that cater to small groups/communities, and more likely to shun products, services, and information that comes from large corporations that are geared for the masses. (Of course, it may take a couple of years to see these effects, but I am hopeful that fragmentation can create diversity in spheres of life where Americans now have too few choices.)

While other commentators have focused on the overall benefits and drawbacks for investors, businesses, regulators, and consumers, I will list potential ways that the new crowdfunding legislation can influence and disrupt journalism. My theories on winners and losers from the JOBS Act:

1. Communities can rally around creating publications that they control, rather than leaving sub-par newspapers in the hands of publishers motivated by the bottom line rather than creating high quality community content. (Look out Patch and legacy publishers!) The potential to revive local journalism in places that are currently without local news sources is the most promising development that I see. But legacy media organizations should be on guard, because disruption born out of frustration may be just around the corner.

2. Niche publications will be able to get off the ground more easily. If a fragmented community of  1,000 people (I’m thinking an online community for this example), spread throughout America, wanted to hire one person to work to create content, they could hypothetically each donate $30 to a venture that could create a niche publication with a professional or semi-professional journalist/curator at the helm.

3. Television networks and cable channels should be scared because YouTube is already slicing up the market, but enthusiasts of various types of content that don’t achieve the critical masses needed for channels that cater to advertisers may now have their opportunity to band together to create more desirable programming…and make it profitable.

4. Television news should be a prime target for entrepreneurs at the local and national levels, as it has remained virtually unchanged for such a long time. I foresee new formats developing, and I believe the crowd will control how they develop.

5. Crowdfunded radio stations may destroy the traditional for-profit ones. Watch out ClearChannel. Look out for an indy radio explosion…(most likely based on the Internet).

6. Lone bloggers and journalists with strong personal brands (or with the ability to build strong personal brands) will now be able to have investors rally behind them. This could create a major revolution for sole proprietors, ending the struggles that freelancers face in terms of tax burdens. Another advantage is that talented people may now be more willing to go off on their own rather than remain with corporations that under-utilize talented journalists’ skills and abilities.

Part 1: The law that could save sustainable journalism will be destroyed unless the US Senate acts now!

I recently argued that upstarts like Matter that have made successful pitches on Kickstarter are not the solution to solving journalism’s long-term problems. Why? Because crowdfunding, in its current form, does not permit people to make investments. Rather, crowdfunders make donations, or in some cases loans. The outcomes are variable and generally unsustainable

When David Cohn started the crowdsourced journalism non-profit Spot.us four years ago, it worked on a similar premise to Kiva, whereby donors received part or all of their money back if and when a crowd-funded story sold to a legacy media outlet. Cohn prevented  any one person from influencing which stories were funded by limiting each donor to funding 20% of the total amount raised for each pitch. (Of course this system is potentially flawed in that one donor can spread his/her money out to friends etc, but at least Cohn tried to implement a system of checks and balances.) But Spot.us was designed to assist existing organizations, not create entirely new media outlets.

We’re on the brink of a revolution that could lead to saving sustainable journalism and create many jobs

But we may be on the brink of a journalism revolution. Currently, only accredited investors are able to invest in newly formed companies, which prevents Kickstarter, Spot.us, and any other crowdfunding site from raising capital for startup companies and entrepreneurial journalism ventures.

Forbes reports:

Under current federal and state securities laws, startups are prohibited from selling stock or other securities via crowdfunding sites or social networking sites.  Such laws include:

  • A prohibition against “general solicitation” – which means that a company may not offer or sell securities unless there is a substantive, pre-existing relationship between the company (or a person acting on its behalf) and the prospective investor (see “Can I Raise Money For My Startup Via Twitter?” );
  • Disclosure and state law compliance requirements if the investors are not “accredited investors” — which usually makes the offering of securities too costly and onerous for a startup (see “Ask the Attorney – Securities Laws”);
  • A requirement that any intermediaries (including websites) must be registered with the SEC and applicable state securities commissions as a “broker-dealer” in order to legally accept any transaction-based compensation in connection with the sale of securities (see “Ask the Attorney – Beware of Finders”); and
  • A requirement that any company that has 500 or more shareholders and total assets exceeding $10 million must register with the SEC and file periodic reports.

These laws were designed with good intentions: Nobody wants to see Mom and Pop lose their hard-earned money to a snake oil salesman! But in today’s crowdfunded world, they no longer make sense. And when tech-savvy Americans realized this, they sought action.

In the United States Congress, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) (who made some excellent contributions to 2010 Census oversight, which I know from my time spent running MyTwoCensus.com), introduced crowdfunding legislation that was one of the most popular bipartisan initiatives in recent history, garnering support from Democrats all the way up to President Obama himself. McHenry’s bill, the Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act,  H.R. 2930 (full version here), passed 407 to 17.

This makes total sense. Republicans generally don’t believe that the government should be able to tell people how to spend their money (anyone can gamble or booze away all of their savings, can’t they?), and Democrats don’t see why accredited investors who are members of the “top 1%” should be the only folks permitted to invest in startups, thus preventing the upward mobility of the masses.

Specifically, the highlights of H.R. 2930 are as follows:

- Create a crowdfunding exemption from SEC regulations for firms raising up to $2 million, with individual investments limited to $10,000 or 10 percent of an investor’s annual income.

- Excludes crowdfunding investors from counting as shareholders for purposes of calculating the 499-shareholder cap under 12(g) of the Securities Exchange Act

- Preempt state law and exempts the ban on general solicitation for the new crowdfunding exemption.

But now, as always seems to be the case as of late with the American government,  just when we’re on the brink of something great, the millionaire’s club also known as the United States Senate has failed to move forward with this legislation, thus preventing it from making its way to President Obama’s desk to become a law.

Despite Senate Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts championing similar legislation to the resolution that the House of Representatives passed, lobbying groups like the NASAA (North American Securities Administrators Association, “the oldest international organization devoted to investor protection”) have wielded their influence over the 100 people who control the fates of the other 300+ million.

What needs to happen now is simple: An online campaign of the magnitude of the SOPA/PIPA variety must be enacted to create swift and effective action to boost America’s economy by causing the US Senate to pass comprehensive crowdfunding legislation.  Sites like crowdfundinglaw.com and startupexemption.com have already been set up to explain this law and advocate its passage. And using a Wefunder.com petition, more than $6 million has already been pledged to support investment in new ventures if this legislation is passed.

But will Google, Craigslist, Wikipedia, and all of the other organizations that led the charge against SOPA and PIPA step in to assist with this one?

As someone who is not interested in the “rewards” that Kickstarter campaigns promise their donors, but rather direct return on investment in monetary form, I and other like-minded people would be happy to invest in startups despite our lack of accredited investor status. I don’t gamble in casinos, but I’d be happy to gamble on good ideas and innovation.

Coming soon: Direct effects of crowdfunding legislation on new journalism business models…