New York’s “back yard” has long been known for free outdoor performances. OZY Fest is a break with that tradition.
July 13, 2019
By Corey Kilgannon
The Great Lawn in Central Park has been the setting for some of the most iconic outdoor performances in New York City, from Simon and Garfunkel to Diana Ross, from Elton John to James Taylor.
New Yorkers flocked there to hear Luciano Pavarotti belt out arias in 1993, to celebrate mass with Pope John Paul II in 1995, and to rock out with the Dave Matthews Band in 2003. The Great Lawn has also been the go-to spot for more traditional rites of summer, like outdoor philharmonic and opera performances.
All these concerts have been free, in keeping with an informal policy to avoid charging money for large outdoor performances in Central Park, New York’s great public space and the jewel of the public parks system.
But now a different type of event headed for the Great Lawn is provoking an outcry: OZY Fest, a splashy weekend-long event on July 20 and 21 with multiple stages and top tickets selling for $400.
To prepare for and clean up after the combination music festival, TED Talk and food fair, the Parks Department is closing portions of the Great Lawn for nine days at the height of summer.
The festival will be an obstacle for regular games held on the lawn’s eight ball fields, not to mention the countless casual park users who use the grassy expanse.
“For a dense city like New York, the park is our common backyard,’’ said Adrian Benepe, who was the city’s parks commissioner under former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and currently serves as the senior vice president for The Trust for Public Land. “To deny people who pay tax dollars the reasonable use of the Great Lawn for a large commercial event, it’s really a break with precedent.”
Even the Central Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that maintains the park through a partnership with the Parks Department and rarely disagrees publicly with the agency, questioned allowing the festival on the Great Lawn.
In a terse statement, conservancy officials, who declined an interview request, said they had “dialogue’’ with the city about the event and had “expressed our serious concerns,” but that “ultimately the Parks Department granted the permit which is in its sole authority to do.”
But organizers defended the festival, which will feature music by John Legend, food by celebrity chefs like Marcus Samuelsson and Rachael Ray and comedy by Trevor Noah, pointing out that they are only charging for half the tickets and the rest will be free. About 40,000 people are expected each day of the festival.
Though they have a permit from July 15 through July 24 that bars other officially permitted activity on the Great Lawn, OZY Fest organizers say they will keep much of the space open for much of that time.
The festival is “a truly unique blend of thought leadership alongside incredible music, comedy and food,’’ said Samir Rao, vice president of operations for OZY Media, which is producing the festival.
The ticket prices range from $69 for single-day admission to $399 for V.I.P. weekend passes. Free tickets will be distributed to students, teachers, military veterans and other groups, Mr. Rao said, adding that Parks Department officials had been “innovative partners’’ in helping expand the festival from a smaller venue in Central Park to the Great Lawn.
The Parks Department said OZY Fest met the department’s rules and is hardly unusual for the Great Lawn. Organizers paid $1.5 million to use the venue, officials said.
The festival “joins in a tradition of enriching activations of this public space,” said Crystal Howard, an agency spokesman, and cited other Great Lawn events that, while mostly free, did have a percentage of paid tickets, including shows by the Black Eyed Peas, Andrea Bocelli and Mariah Carey.
Still, there are few places New Yorkers are more sensitive and territorial about than the Great Lawn. Its grassy expanse sits in the center of Central Park, roughly between the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the east and the American Museum of Natural History to the west.
Mr. Benepe said the Parks Department had issued tickets for large events on the Great Lawn for years, but mostly to regulate crowd size. On rare occasions city officials have allowed organizers to sell a small number of tickets.
The OZY Fest, even with half the tickets being free, is selling more tickets than any event ever held on the Great Lawn, Parks Department officials said.
Although Mr. Benepe shared his concerns about a “substantially paid event” coming to the Great Lawn, Lynn B. Kelly, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, said she saw nothing wrong with the event itself. Closing the lawn “is not an everyday thing and the Parks Department is not abusing its power,” she said.
Ms. Kelly did take issue with the fact that half the fee the festival is paying will, according to city policy, flow into the city’s general coffers, rather than those of the Parks Department.
Controversy over who is allowed on the Great Lawn is not new. In 2004, officials denied demonstrators a permit to hold a protest there during the Republican National Convention, raising questions about how the city selects events for the space.
Events in Central Park with more than 5,000 attendees are allowed seven days per year, according to Parks Department policy.
The agency compared the lawn closing for the OZY Fest to similar shut downs for other large gatherings, such as the Global Citizen Festival, an annual one-day event held since 2012 that has featured Beyoncé, Coldplay and Rihanna. That concert makes 80 percent of its 60,000 tickets available free, leaving 12,000 that have to be purchased.
Global Citizen organizers last year paid a usage fee that was “slightly less” than the $1.5 million OZY Fest producers are paying for their two-day event, said Andrew Kirk, a spokesman for Global Citizen, a nonprofit that books artists and speakers who appear for free.
The Parks Department approved OZY Fest for the Great Lawn after it was held for the past three summers at Rumsey Playfield, a much smaller space in Central Park.
The city has been generally reluctant to allow paid concerts on its busy outdoor spaces, with some exceptions. A space on Randalls Island, for example, has been used regularly for large music events like the Governors Ball and Electric Zoo festivals.
When Paul Simon played a farewell concert at Flushing Meadows Corona Park last year, critics assailed it for being a fully paid event. When organizers of the Coachella festivals tried to bring a three-day music festival to the same park, it provoked a backlash and their application was denied.
Ever since a costly restoration of the Great Lawn in the mid-1990s, park officials have been vigilant about protecting the grass, favoring single-day concerts that use a single stage and spacing out large events to give the grass a chance to rebound.
The OZY Fest will be co-hosted by former New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez and will feature discussions with Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat running for president, Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost a race for governor of Georgia last year, and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. Also scheduled to speak are the film director Spike Lee, the New Age guru Deepak Chopra, the writer Malcolm Gladwell and business leaders like Mark Cuban.
The event, billed as “50 performers. 4 stages. Food from 30 countries. 2 days. 100,000 people,” has been called New York City’s version of SXSW or Coachella. Producers are describing its new venue as “New York’s Most Iconic Location.”
Al Morales, the commissioner of the Yorkville Sports Association, which runs softball leagues on the lawn, said he was notified several weeks ago about the lawns closing for the festival, which has forced him to cancel games and “might keep us from finishing our season.”
Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, said the city was disrupting one of New York’s premier public spaces to benefit a moneymaking venture.
“It’s in the middle of the summer and the lawn needs to be available to the public,” she said. “We should keep it for free events and not for this group to sell more tickets.”