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Downtown musicians propose self-regulation

Downtown musicians propose self-regulation


November 22, 2002
Sentinel staff writer

SANTA CRUZ -- Fiddlers and folkies, jugglers and punk-rock cellists
are taking the law into their own hands.
Tired of outside attempts to solve their troubles, local street artists
plan to form a self-policing, self-regulating Busker’s Guild downtown.
The guild would provide conflict resolution and develop a set of
ground rules for street performers, supporters say. They say the guild
would interact with merchants and serve as a lobbying group.
Local musician Coleen Douglas has compiled about a dozen names
and e-mail addresses of people who want to take part. “If you want
musicians to regulate themselves, it’ll be a lot cheaper, and more
successful, than a (government) permit system.”
She was referring to a recent proposal to give street musicians ID
cards exempting them from space restrictions if they agree to comply
with a list of city rules such as not blocking storefronts and
dispersing crowds if they get out of hand.
Local leaders seem supportive of the guild concept. Two council
members, Emily Reilly and Ed Porter, asked for input on guilds during a
Tuesday night downtown issues meeting after unveiling the permitting
The permit idea is controversial among street musicians. At the
Tuesday meeting, a few said it was an attempt to regulate creativity.
Porter said permits would let musicians know what is expected of
them but “would not be a means to jury performance.”
One musician, Bruce Engelhardt, said he supports permits, “because it
might be beneficial to both groups if musicians of good quality perform
with minimal obstruction.” But Engelhardt, who plays in clubs as well
as on the avenue, also thinks the guild is a great idea that could
protect street musicians, and encourage them to work with
The catalyst for all this discussion was a set of stricter downtown
rules the council approved in July after many complaints about
aggressive panhandlers, drug sales and harassment. The rules expand
space limits on panhandlers, keeping them 14 feet from kiosks,
benches, crosswalks and storefronts.
Because of language in city laws regarding “display devices,” the
space limits would have affected money-soliciting musicians, too.
Street acts raised such an outcry, however, that the council insisted
the musicians were an “unintended consequence” and voted to
exempt them from the space restrictions, at least until mid-January.
Engelhardt would prefer the city exempt musicians permanently from
the 14-foot setback rule “because people culturally contributing to
downtown should get some recognition, as opposed to (panhandlers)
going down there hoping people will give them something.”
City activists and a number of street artists say exempting musicians
from rules restricting panhandlers raises sticky free-speech issues
that could only be rectified if the City Council rolled back the space
restrictions for everyone.
They also say a permit plan would put musicians in the peculiar
position of applying to practice their right to free expression.
“It’s not morally or ethically acceptable to identify one class of First
Amendment speech and stigmatize another,” activist Thomas Leavitt
Supporters of the guild need to work out the details: How would the
guild address merchant concerns? Would there be any government
oversight? How would the guild rules be enforced?
At least three members of the seven-member Downtown Commission
Thomas Mantel, Julie Shattuck and Sheila Coonerty supported
the self-regulation concept at the commission’s Thursday meeting.
Mantel said musicians should remain exempt from the 14-foot
setbacks at least until they have a chance to show whether
self-regulation works.
“I feel it’s important to put it in the street performer’s hands,” he
The commission will discuss the street-musician permit proposal again
Dec. 2.
Contact Dan White at dwhite (at)


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