City Council Eyes New Street Performer Ordinance

Street performer in front of Quincy Market. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Written by Michael Sol Warren

By Michael Sol Warren
BU News Service

The action in Wednesday’s Boston City Council meeting came at the end of the agenda when Councilor Salvatore LaMattina called for a hearing to explore new regulations on street performers in the city.

“This proposal is not anti-street performers, but rather to prevent street performers from being bullied,” LaMattina said.

LaMattina’s proposed ordinance, which is cosponsored by council president Councilor Bill Linehan, would require all street performers in the city to obtain a $40 permit issued by the Boston Public Works Department. The permits would be for individuals, meaning each member of a performance group would need a permit, though a group of four or more performers would pay a maximum of $160.

“I want to make sure that every street performer has the opportunity to perform [at Faneuil Hall]. And I want to make sure that they’re not being bullied,” LaMattina said. “But at the same time I want to make sure that there’s some city department that will be able to enforce some of the noise ordinances that we have.”

“The previous administration felt that we couldn’t do anything because they have the right to perform there. And that’s not right,” he said.

The ordinance proposal comes after a letter of complaint was received by the mayor’s office regarding a group of street performers in front of Quincy Market. The author of the letter complained about racial messages throughout the show, writing “Tasteful entertainment NO! Racist, abusive and insulting YES!”. The author did not name a specific group of performers in the complaint. The name of the author is not known. Councilor Tim McCarthy said that he supports the ordinance because he’s worried about the content brought by some performers.

“What this is about, for me, is offensive language and offensive music,” McCarthy said.

The proposed ordinance was met with caution from other councilors. Councilor Ayanna Pressley said street artists and buskers are an asset to Boston, and that while the council often claims to support the arts, it is not always quick to support the artists. Councilor Josh Zakim said that he welcomed the hearing, but that he would like the council to keep in mind physical access to public areas when it comes to street performers. Councilor Michelle Wu said that she was worried about the council writing policy to address “a few bad apples.”

“Anytime I see more permitting, I get a little cautious,” Wu said.

Councilor Tito Jackson voiced his concerns about protecting the first amendment rights of the street performers, saying that any new ordinance should be treated as an “artists bill of rights.” Jackson added he’s worried that Public Works Department would be the department to connect with artists.

“These individuals make our city better,” Jackson said. “They’re really the character of Boston.”

Councilor Charles Yancey echoed Jackson’s message and also said performers sometimes take substantial risks to perform. Yancey also said he wished street performers were found in more parts of the city, not just tourist hot-spots like Faneuil Hall.

“We may not always understand the art that is on display, but we should embrace it,” Yancey said.

Multiple street artists were in the audience to hear the ordinance proposal. Ronald Holmes, who performs under the name “Scooby” for Breeze Team Entertainment, said that the council needs to be careful with the proposed ordinance. Holmes said  he hopes whatever the council decides to do will make it easier for street performers to perform in different parts of the city. He also said that Breeze Team tries to spread positive messages through their entertainment.

“We’re respectful, we have manners, we make people laugh and people love us,” Holmes said. “If there’s a problem with loud music we’ll turn it down. If they don’t want us to use the mic we’ll shut the mic off. We’ll use our voice.”

Joshua Rodriguez, a percussionist who performs in cities around the nation but spends his summers in front of Faneuil Hall, said being required to get a permit is not what worries him.

“Everywhere I go, I have to apply for a permit. I don’t mind a permit,” Rodriguez said. “What scares me is when they want to regulate where, when and how. They cannot do that.”

The proposed ordinance has been assigned to the Boston City Council’s Committee on Government Operations.

Other Meeting Points

  • The council passed an order from the mayor for the city to accept $180,000 in private funds for use by the Immigrant Integration and Empowerment Initiative, the New American Library Corners Initiative, Immigration Advice Clinics, the English for New Bostonian’s Initiative and other immigration services in Boston. The order did not name the specific sources of funding.
  • The council passed an order from the mayor for the Boston Police Department to accept $53,370 from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security for the continued funding of a Civilian Domestic Violence Advocate in East Boston and Jamaica Plain.
  • The council passed an order from the mayor for the city’s transportation department to accept $666,074 from the Federal Highway Administration through the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. The funds will pay for 80 percent of the costs of traffic management improvements for 15 intersections in the Bluehill Avenue-Warren Street area. The improvements will begin in Fiscal Year 2018.
  • The intersection of Dorchester Avenue and Sudan Street was dedicated as Hero Square in honor of World War II veterans.
  • All councilors were in attendance.

You can watch the full meeting here.

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