Big Apple Circus chairman Neil Kahanovitz addresses CB7’s Parks & Environment Committee. 

By Hannah Reale

Circuses are normally associated with smiling children, goofy clowns and death-defying acrobats. On the Upper West Side, they’re also associated with angst and mistrust.

That’s because the new Big Apple Circus plans to take over a plaza in Lincoln Center — Damrosch Park — that community members have claimed should be open to the public.

The Big Apple Circus operated for 40 years as a nonprofit, but ran out of money and couldn’t hold a 2016-2017 season. It was sold earlier this year to a new for-profit company that plans to start shows later this year.

Last week, Community Board 7’s Parks & Environment Committee invited representatives from Lincoln Center and the new Big Apple Circus chairman Neil Kahanovitz, to a meeting to address some of those concerns.

Photo via Big Apple Circus.

Russell Granet, Executive Vice President of Education and Community Engagement, and Peter Flamm, Vice President of Concert Halls and operations, discussed Lincoln Center’s role in the community and their excitement about the circus coming back to Damrosch Park.

Kahanovitz told the attendees of this involvement with the circus arts as a young man, and shared that he bought the Big Apple Circus in bankruptcy court. He went on to explain the many ways that the circus will help foster community in the area, with turkey drives around Thanksgiving and toy drives during the winter holidays.

He promised to provide 16,500 tickets that are available for $10—noting that the average ticket is approximately $40-45. “If there’s some child in New York City, that for some reason, whether it’s economic or a physical disability, if they truly want to go to the circus and they don’t fall within that 16,000, they should get in contact with us and we’ll make arrangements…. There’s only a limit to what we can do to make this work, but in general, it’s our feeling that, within that 16,500, each one of those tickets should go to someone that deserves to be there because normally they would not be able to do so.”

He emphasized that these inexpensive tickets cannot simply be bought online, and that he is working with Lincoln Center to make sure that they are “distributed through the proper channels.” Flamm assured that Lincoln Center was working with Borough President Gale Brewer’s office to choose how they would be distributed.

Many members of the audience, including City Council member Helen Rosenthal, raised concerns that a $10 ticket—the lowest price option—does not make the circus accessible. They argued that it was too much of a financial burden, especially when considering that it will often be families that are attending rather than individuals, so the price tag on a group’s trip will be more than $10. Furthermore, community members noted that there is nothing in Lincoln Center’s 10-year contract with the circus that legally ensures they will continue to provide these drives and tickets in the future.

Damrosch Park.

Cleo Dana, the president of Friends of Damrosch Park, challenged the public’s lack of access to the park while the circus was running, being loaded in, or being loaded out. She recounted the lawsuit that her group filed against Lincoln Center in 2010, when they hosted Fashion Week, an invite-only event, and cut down 50 trees in Damrosch Park to accommodate the occasion. She questioned her group’s lack of involvement with the circus-related proceedings and if it was legal to host an event that so severely limited public access to the park, given the precedent that her winning case against Lincoln Center set. The legal distinction there, Flamm contended, is that Fashion Week was an invite-only event, whereas tickets are available for purchase to the circus, and no damage will be done to the park. Some responded that a $10 ticket cannot be considered public access.

Community Board member Mark Dillard voiced a particular concern that many others echoed: the use of public land for a for-profit organization, which was rephrased as the privatization of public land by others in attendance. Community Board member and council candidate Mel Wymore went on to ask where the extra money was coming from after Dillard questioned where Kahanovitz’s return on investment would come from, given that Kahanovitz had gathered investors to improve the circus and had asserted that ticket prices at each individual price point were generally not raising more than $3-4.

Kahanovitz explained that, instead of approximately 640 people that the former iteration of the organization had employed, they will be hiring 150 employees at most. He did not know specifics about where those staffing changes were being made.

Although none of the attendees were specifically anti-circus, they expressed several concerns about both Lincoln Center’s and the Big Apple Circus’s proceedings and plans, such as: a lack of transparency and communication with the community; the shift from a non-profit to a for-profit organization; the community’s loss of access to Damrosch Park for early October through the end of January; high ticket prices for lower-income families; the noise pollution caused by the three weeks of setting up and the three weeks of taking down the circus tent, which would be especially disruptive to the residents of the Amsterdam Houses; potential legal conflicts with a 2010 settlement after Lincoln Center hosted Fashion Week in the park; and the overall disruption to the neighborhood.

Some were there to ensure that things were run in the community’s best interest, whereas others challenged the circus’s right to have that contract in the first place. No concrete resolutions or agreements were reached, although many suggestions were voiced, such as moving the circus entirely, creating a specific subcommittee within CB7 that specifically dealt with the circus, and/or shifting the beginning of the circus’s setup to slightly later in the season so that the park is still accessible in October, which now usually has pleasant weather.

There was one notable exception to what was otherwise an onslaught of concern and complaints: Robert Jordan, who identified himself as a resident of the Amsterdam Houses. “The circus is here and it’s beneficial to the kids…. In every situation in business, there’s pros and cons. To me, the pros outweigh the cons in this event. I remember, as a little kid, when I went to Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus, I had a great time. I’m 41 years old—I still remember that to this day. I took my son to the Big Apple Circus: he loved it.” He also recalled that the Big Apple Circus had provided jobs to the members of the Amsterdam Houses in its former iteration, and Kahanowitz confirmed that about 8-10 employment opportunities would be available for community members as ushers and various other jobs.

Kahanovitz stated, “Our goal is to maintain the legacy of the Big Apple Circus. [It’s] been a cultural icon of the holiday season in New York, and it’s our intention to continue that.” However, it seems that the Upper West Side’s mistrust of the organization may lead to a difficult relationship with the community going forward.

NEWS | 41 comments | permalink
    1. Chris says:

      Not sure why they just don’t put this in central park
      Sheep’s Meadow would be the perfect place for the BAC

    2. WeirdThatWay says:

      Is there a park more sterile than Damrosch Park? It’s great for performance events but otherwise it’s not a welcoming place. Let the Big Apple Circus use the space for those four months, three of which are cold months and not particularly hospitable to the life of a concrete “park” like Damrosch.

    3. Shelly says:

      Let the circus find another venue to host their shenanigans and keep the park open to the local community, especially now that the new plantings in the park are so beautiful!!

      • colcircle says:

        Do you really plan on using the concrete “park” in the middle of winter? Also the Big Apple Circus treats animals very well as i know people who worked on the previous production

    4. AJ says:

      Not to mention animal cruelty, of course.

      • Leon says:

        I can’t speak for the new ownership, but the Big Apple Circus has historically been incredibly responsible about taking good care of its animals. I believe many of them are rescues, and they are closely supervised and treated well. And most are relatively small animals – I don’t recall there being elephants and such.

    5. Confused says:

      Yeah, the circus is really terrible for the neighborhood. Who wants smiling kids and family outings when instead we can have an open space that normally has at most 4 people actually sitting in it at any one time?

    6. Christine E says:

      OMG people are complaining that $10 circus tickets are not cheap enough….. the constitution guarantees the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…. not free circus tickets. The organization has expenses you know. It can’t survive as a non-profit. It’s only in the park (and an underused one at that) for a few months. It employs people. It brings people to the area to spend money, in businesses that also employ people. Get over it!

    7. Matt says:

      And not one word on whether animals will be exploited for the amusement of humans.

    8. Adina says:

      Since when did the UWS become home to negative party-poopers. My kids grew up with Big Apple and it brings smiles and joy to many all over the city. And since when is $10 not an affordable ticket price. It’s just above free for most New York entertainment and much less than a ticket to a movie. Certainly seeing live performers who live and breathe for their performances is more meaningful than a ticket to the movies. I’m so glad that the circus is back.

    9. Toni Stanley says:

      Am I missing something here, but hasn’t the Big Apple Circus always set up in Damrosch Park?

    10. Samantha says:

      I really don’t understand why there is so much debate about bringing the circus to Lincoln Center..It has been there for years and without any issues. The kids love it and miss it! So What the park is temporarily taken up by the Big Apple Circus.
      So many places are leaving the community because of profitability..and there should be happiness and surprise that there is something that is trying to crawl back and keep entertaining us somehow.

      • Cat says:

        ITA, and I seriously don’t understand why this is an issue. Possibly the same people who were up in arms because The Sugar Factory was also infringing on ‘public space.’ How many people here spend time at the SF space or in DP? After reading through the WSR stories I would think that getting garbage cans and eradicating rats would be of more importance right now.

      • UWSHebrew says:

        awww “the kids love it and miss it”. you know what else adults took their kids to once upon a time in this country? lynchings. lots of photos were snapped of the kids smiling next to dead men. it’s time to GROW UP and put an END to the circus with their animal acts, “the kids” have PLENTY of ways to have fun these days, INCLUDING petting zoos on farms. Go away circus! Go away Seaworld! Leave the animals alone!

        • EricaC says:

          Are you really advocating petting farms over circuses?

          I am with you to a certain degree; many circuses have been parades of horrors. But some animals are now happier with people than without them, and the question is whether the people “exploiting” them are doing so with due regard to the aimals’ welfare. Horses and dogs are no longer wild; I see no problem in including them in entertainment – as long as they are cared for properly and treated properly.

          In any event, if the issue is the animals, prohibit animal acts. That is a separate issue from whether the circus should be allowed to use Damrosch Park. I think it will be a real shame if it is prohibited.

        • Cat says:

          Have you ever been to the BAC or spent any time around horses, dogs, children? I can’t believe you made this analogy!

        • lynn says:

          Here’s a video of some very happy horses and ponies. They’re not abused and they haven’t been trained to do anything unusual or unnatural. As others here have pointed out, this is a circus for children. It really makes me wonder if some of the negative comments are coming from people who have never attended a show. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzI0Sz9vguI

    11. samantha says:

      Also..what is the average age of the CB7 members? And Helen Rosenthal who has made it impossible for kids to have a class size less than 32 in the UWS public school system wants to question something that is fun for kids?
      Please let me know when I can tell all my family friends to vote for Mel Weymore because Helen Rosenthal doesnt want the circus to come back to town

    12. Lauren Lese says:

      I am befuddled by the resistance to this circus. It is entertainment for children and their relieved caregivers who are thrilled that Big Apple Circus has returned. I am a parent who has lived in the Lincoln Square area for 22 years and had been so sad to hear of the demise of BAC even though my kids have outgrown it. Why in today’s truly horrifying political climate are politicians and other leaders spending time and energy griping about a circus?? Isn’t there something more valuable they could be doing with their time such as thinking about 2018 mid term elections?

      • Mark says:

        Because now everything is looked at through the prism of: Who is benefiting?, Who is not benefiting?, Who has the expense? Who doesn’t have their share of expense?

        Not through the prism of the community’s good;
        they are talking about a Children’s Circus!!!!

    13. Elana berman says:

      Abhorrent!!!! Send those poor, abused animals to a sanctuary to live out their tortured lives, for G-D’S sake!

    14. UWSHebrew says:

      Gee I wonder how many lashes with the whip it took to train the horses to stand on their hind legs? I WANT ALL CIRCUSES OUT OF BUSINESS.

      • UWS-er says:

        Honestly. Big Apple Circus doesn’t use horses. Or elephants. Yeesh.

        • Sean says:

          Actually it did back when they had money. I know because I worked there.

        • Independent says:

          “Big Apple Circus doesn’t use horses.”

          Then how do you explain the photo, second one on this page but the one this entry leads with on the WSR home page?

          • UWS-er says:

            D’oh. You’re right. They stopped using elephants in 2000, but still use horses. Still, as many commenters have noted, no evidence they’re being mistreated in any way at all.

      • Brinta pap says:

        You don’t have to train horses to stand on their hindlegs. Most horses are trained to NOT do it. It comes naturally. Same as bucking Broncos at the rodeo. Horse gets to be himself! You animal activists are all nuts and don’t know what you’re talking about.

        • EricaC says:

          There are truly cruel things that are done to animals for entertainment and they should be stopped. The horses whose legs are “sored” to make them high-step, for example – out-and-out cruelty that should be stopped. But training animals to do what they want to do to begin with, but at times that are entertaining for humans, is a very different thing. Did you ever see the Moscow Cat Circus?

      • Boopsie says:

        I’m with you. I always found circuses and “trained animals” creepy.

    15. worldwalker says:

      1/ Not a word in the article about animal welfare…how come??

      2/ Big Apple and the Neighbors of Lincoln Center Squabble—

      Why cant the Circus be allocated a permanent location in Central Park or another great NYC park (assuming a rotating location the parks in different Boroughs is too complicated)?

      Common sense people!

    16. ScooterStan says:

      Re: “a particular concern … the use of public land for a for-profit organization, which was rephrased as the privatization of public land”

      NOT sure if Damrosch IS public land, as Lincoln Center is NOT a government organization (Denk Gott!).

      But if it IS, here’s a simple solution:
      1. Let the NY City Council run the circus! There’d be an overwhelming supply of CLOWNS, FOOLS,and FARCE!
      2. Of course, the City Council might NOT start nor end on time, but that’s part of the “charm” of the City Council !

    17. Frank says:

      If the board thinks $10 is too expensive, why not buy a couple of thousand and give then out for free.
      It’s a lot cheaper than having these whiny meeting about nothing.

    18. Little Timmy says:

      This is why living in the day and age we do is so difficult. So many overly PC people always complaining. Wussies. It’s a kid circus. It brings smiles to thousands of kids. We take our children there every year and they love it. Go complain about something meaningful. Stop taking every joy away from kids. Would you rather they stay home and play ipad all day? Geez. Can’t wait to go this year. Our kids especially love to see the small animals they have and last time we were there the kids got pony rides. Oh the humanity.

    19. Sean says:

      Send in the clowns.

    20. Barry says:

      I don’t believe that limited access to Damrosch Park from October to January is very critical to continued area enjoyment. The joy of the circus for the young people we have been taking with us for several years far outweighs what I perceive to be a minor inconvenience.
      As for the ticket prices, they are less than the surrounding parking lots or Uber fares for those that do not reside nearby

    21. Ben says:

      Count my vote as in favor of the circus.