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.
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.
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.