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Committee zeroes in on downtown performers

Committee zeroes in on downtown performers


November 20, 2002
Sentinel staff writer

SANTA CRUZ - Imagine an avenue filled with permit-carrying clowns,
fiddlers and bongo artists.
There’s a chance it could happen, now that two City Council
members have suggested a “permitting system” for street acts that
solicit donations. One proposal, drawn up by city staff, includes a
plan for an ID card to be carried by street buskers. A similar plan is in
place in Santa Monica.
Council members Ed Porter and Emily Reilly, during a Tuesday meeting
of the council’s downtown working group, said the permit holders
would be exempt from downtown space restrictions that keep
panhandlers 14 feet from crosswalks, kiosks, benches and storefronts.
They said the permitting system would be a more formal,
city-regulated version of an old set of “voluntary guidelines.”
“None of this is written in stone,” Reilly stressed. But street
musicians at the meeting had lukewarm-to-scathing reactions.
The city’s street musicians are hailed as local color by some and
dismissed by others as noise pollution. But they’ve become a key
aspect of the dispute over downtown’s future.
A musician who goes by the name “Cosmic Chris” said he’s often
hassled for playing in the wrong place, even though the City Council
voted in July to temporarily exempt musicians from the space rules
affecting panhandlers. He also said he doesn’t like the fact that
permit-holding musicians would have to abide by so many rules, such
as moving whenever they are asked.
“Who asks you to move? An irate merchant? Anybody in a bad
mood?” he said before storming out of the chamber.
Porter and Reilly emphasized that all aspects of the proposal are
“fluid,” and that the idea has yet to go before the full council.
Another city panel, the Downtown Commission, will discuss the
proposal at 8:30 a.m. Thursday in City Hall.
An attempt to set up “exemption zones” for street acts areas
where the panhandler space rules would not apply stalled in the
face of merchant resistance.
Accordionist Frank Lima, who goes by the name “Morgani,” said he
wouldn’t mind signing an agreement but didn’t like the idea of carrying
an ID card. He said he knows many street artists who would have a
problem signing an agreement with the city to abide by certain rules.
He was concerned about accusations of special treatment by
homeless activists, who oppose the panhandler rules, “and that’s
where it could really bite us in the butt.”
Some demanded a blanket space-rules exemption for all musicians.
Others said the city must answer serious questions about the
permitting system: How much power would police have to yank a
permit? Would a permit plan give the city undue control over the
creative process? Would it allow police to crack down on more radical
musicians who don’t work closely with merchants?
Porter insisted the permit idea is “not to jury performance, just make
sure performers know what is reasonably expected of them.”
Bookshop Santa Cruz owner Neal Coonerty said it’s “stupid” to have
musicians carry ID cards or apply for special permits. Coonerty, who
helped draft the city’s 1994 space restrictions on panhandlers when
he was a councilman, said the city might humiliate itself.
“Are they going to arrest Christmas carolers?” Coonerty asked.
Musicians were more receptive about a proposed “busker’s guild,”
with benefits for those who join, though several were skeptical about
the city being involved.
In July, the council voted 5-2 to approve new rules that greatly
increase space restrictions on panhandlers, and ban all after-dark
beggars and street “sports” like Hackey Sack. Most new rules
drafted in response to complaints about harassment and drug dealing
are now being enforced.
But the council, responding to activist outcry, agreed in July to give
money-soliciting musicians and political tablers a seven-month
reprieve from the rules, which keep beggars 14 feet away from kiosks,
crosswalks, benches and storefronts.
Activist Sherry Conable said the entire discussion about granting
exemptions for downtown musicians struck her as nonsensical
because musicians aren’t causing the problems downtown anyhow.
“We are trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Downtown Association executive director Keith Holtaway said he
thought the permit idea could work, but worried it would create
excessive work for downtown hosts who have to educate people
about the new rules.
Another rule supporter is downtown resident Jan Tait, who said she
loves the street musicians but wants a more respectful downtown,
and says drummers often wake her up.
The permitted musicians would have to agree to various
They would be issued an ID cards and have to show it upon request
of police and others. One version of the plan would require the ID to
be worn at all times.
They could not obstruct an open store entrance, and would need to
move along when asked.
They would have to keep the sidewalk open for passers-by, and
clean up any mess before leaving.
They could perform in one space for no longer than a set period of
time that is yet to be determined.
The draft proposal mentions the possibility of fees being charged for
the permits, but Porter and Reilly said they both oppose that.
Porter and Reilly said that no matter what happens with the
permitting idea, they will push the rest of the council to change
downtown ordinances “so performers can accept offerings in more
Contact Dan White at dwhite (at)


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