In June, when it was still possible to imagine that life in New York would soon return to normal, a poster commissioned by City Hall appeared on bus shelters and sidewalk kiosks all over town. It showed a young woman dancing, her gaze lifted toward the sky, her long dark hair flying straight up into the air like the jets of water spouting from the Washington Square Park fountain behind her. A caption read “NO STOPPING NEW YORK.”
The dancer, Kanami Kusajima, had been happy to let the mayor’s office use her image to promote its recovery efforts, and was proud to serve as a symbol of resilience. Yet at the same time she’s literally the face of the city’s recovery, that same city is, despite the slogan, trying to stop her performances. Ever since wild parties took over Washington Square Park earlier this summer, drawing complaints from wealthy neighbors and attention from the tabloids, cops have been trying to enforce a rule that prohibits amplified music. Kusajima uses a small speaker, plays an accompaniment of gentle sounds (lots of classical piano and some jazz), and performs in the afternoons, well before the parties start. Still, the police have repeatedly ordered her to shut the music off. “By using my photo, they admitted that street performers are an important part of New York,” she said in the park the other night, “and at the same time they are cracking down on us instead of supporting us.”
On August 19, a video of one of these encounters went viral. In the Instagram clip, she goes off on a group of park police and NYPD officers who are trying to shut down her performance. Pulling up the promotional poster on her phone, she points out that she gave the city permission to use her image for free. A crowd gathers, the cops let her be, and Kusajima, flustered, thanks the onlookers. “If I was only by myself, they would possibly give me a ticket or possibly get me arrested,” she says. (In an email, a spokesperson for the NYPD said that the penalty for playing amplified music is a summons, and that it is up to “each individual officer” to decide whether to impose it.)
A few days later, Kusajima sat down with me on the rim of the fountain. It was shortly after dark, around 9 p.m. on one of the nicest evenings of the summer, and the park was filled with all kinds of people: teenagers flying by on scooters and skateboards, grizzled chess players bent over their games, a very tall young man in a newsboy cap and suspenders. A friend could be heard in the distance banging on a drum kit. Kusajima said she felt ambivalent about the attention that her confrontation with the police had garnered (“What I want to do every day is spread positive energy”), but she was glad it had given her an opportunity to speak out on behalf of the city’s buskers. Nearly 3,000 people have signed a petition that she posted online; among other things, it calls for the city to allow street performers to play amplified music below a specific decibel level at certain times.
Kusajima is 24 and stands a little over five feet tall. She wore cropped pants made out of a lightweight fabric and a black-and-yellow T-shirt bearing the name of her high-school dance club back in Japan (“Chiffons”). Her hair was pulled back in a clip; when she loosens it to dance, it falls over her face and hangs down to her waist. (She performs under the pseudonym Let Hair Down.) She described her style as improvisatory. Most days, she twirls and sways in an exuberant trance; once, after the police made her turn off the music, she spent two hours slowly writhing on the ground in silence. She started taking modern dance lessons when she was 6, in Yokohama. At 18, she left Japan to study dance at SUNY Purchase, in Westchester. She was living there when the pandemic began. For the next four months, she rarely left campus. She took online dance courses, which “really made me crazy,” she said. “I wasn’t sharing my dance with anybody. I’m just dancing for the same tables and chairs and walls every day, over and over.”
Last September, craving human connection, she found her way to the park, where she met a Japanese painter called Pinokio who conjured fantastical visions of women and dragons on big sheets of paper rolled out on the ground like rugs. She began collaborating with him, dancing as he painted. In November, when he went back to Japan, he encouraged her to carry on without him. Since then, she has danced six days a week, performing in thunderstorms, snow, and stifling heat. When the weather allows, she dips her hands and feet in a bowl of black paint and dances on paper, covering one side and then the other with Abstract Expressionist smudges and splatters. She says that she has made about 70 artworks this way.
We strolled through the park, chatting with people she knew. “You’re all over the city!” one man called out. “That’s pretty cool!” Navil Corbetts, better known as Navil the Dream, a Surrealist painter from Ecuador who wore a fake jaguar tooth on a necklace, told us that the police had hassled him for displaying the prices of his paintings. A pair of officers stood under a nearby lamppost as we spoke. “They are just standing there for hours and hours,” Kusajima said. She paused to consider how that might feel. “I imagine it’s kind of painful to see all those people who are enjoying art and coming together and feeling the community and real humanity, but they can’t.”
“The problem is not them,” Corbetts said, agreeing. “They just follow rules. The people that are on top, that have the money, that live around here, they want to change things. But for six generations the park has been like this — how you gonna change it?” On the other side of the fountain, about 15 people ranging from college age to retirement were clustered around the drummer we’d heard earlier. One was pretty drunk. Apart from that, the scene could have been staged by SS+K, the advertising agency that had created the campaign promoting New York City’s recovery. A young Black rapper was freestyling while an old white hippie strummed a guitar. A Black man with a trim silver mustache greeted Kusajima warmly, holding her hands while he belted out the chorus of “My Girl.” Kusajima freed her hair from the clip and started bouncing from foot to foot, swinging her arms.
Then the cops appeared. A lieutenant in a white shirt said the music had to stop; the mayor had recently instituted a 10 p.m. park curfew. The drummer struck a cymbal in protest. There were shouts of “Fuck you, police” and “Let them play.” The man who’d been serenading Kusajima addressed the lieutenant. “I got a question for you,” he said. “Why do you guys target the musicians? You got bikes running through here, skateboards running through here. You only target the musicians. You’re not being fair.”
The lieutenant didn’t acknowledge the question. Standing with his thumbs hooked into the front pockets of his shirt, he waited for the drummer to put down his sticks. Then he turned and walked away. “Are you walking away?” the singer demanded, his voice rising. “At least respect me enough as a man to answer my question.”
The lieutenant turned back. “I’m not walking away,” he said.
“I’m not no piece of dirt, man,” the singer said. “I asked you a reasonable, logical question. I have a degree in computer science.”
The lieutenant shrugged. “I don’t make the rules,” he said. He turned and walked away, this time definitively. The singer said, “He hasn’t answered the question.”
It was getting late, and Kusajima had to head home to Bushwick. Lingering near some maple trees, she pointed out that Washington Square had once been the city’s potter’s field — a cemetery for poor New Yorkers, whose bones remain buried under the park to this day. She’d learned this from a street performer who rolls an upright piano into the park a few times a week. “He told me, ‘Think about it. All those trees are taking nutrition from them — from their bodies, from their souls.’” She paused. “I really think that it makes sense why this park is so special and unique and magical. I feel this indescribable energy. It’s coming literally from underground and from the trees and from this entire environment, and I am receiving all that energy from history, and it just comes out of my body when I dance.”