Proposed ordinance may drown out street performers Alderman wants performers to quiet down, pay more
By James Ewert
Assistant City Beat Editor
If 42nd Ward Alderman Burton Natarus and his constituents get their way, street musicians along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile will be singing a softer tune.
At the Nov. 30 city council meeting, Natarus proposed revisions to the current law regarding street musicians and performers. The new guidelines proposed by Natarus reduce the distance musicians can be heard from 200 feet away to 50 feet, as well as raise the minimum fine for violations from $200 to $300.
Natarus, who proposed a more rigid ordinance in 1999 that failed to make it through city council, said he has revived efforts for new guidelines because the people in his ward, which incorporates much of the Central Loop and Gold Coast, have been calling for it.
“The point of the matter is, I just don’t see the value of people pounding on cans and people with a drum set pounding away with no music or anything else and making noise so people can’t enjoy their apartments,” Natarus said. “That’s all this [ordinance] is designed to stop.”
The new limitations would require all street musicians to pay a $150 permit fee (up from $50), display photo identification at all times and stay away from the area around the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park during concerts. Street musicians are also prohibited from performing on what the new ordinance calls “the highly congested area” of Michigan Avenue between East Delaware Place and East Superior Street.
Bill Currie, a street musician, said he was effectively banned by police from playing his bagpipes too loud in front of Water Tower Place earlier this September.
“This is clearly a constitutional issue about the right the public has to public spaces,” said Currie who has hired a lawyer and plans to file a class action lawsuit against the city for the citation he received.
Currie said constraints from ordinances continue to pile up on top of each other and are beginning to hinder the public’s right to express themselves
“I usually get a tremendous response from people, tourists and locals. It’s always been nothing but positive,” Currie said. “I play the bag pipes and they have really only one level you can play at; I can’t really turn them down.”
Tim Nutt, founder of Streetnote.org, a nonprofit organization run out of San Francisco that provides opportunities for street musicians to be heard, said street music is a crucial aspect of the culture of any city.
“We live in real noisy cities and the noise that surrounds us is traffic and people screaming. Street music brings in an element of triangulation between the music, the performers and the people walking the streets,” Nutt said.
Nutt visited Chicago last summer during the Chicago Loop Alliance’s (formerly the Greater State Street Council/Central Michigan Avenue Association) State Street Live event, which featured street musicians and performers from around the city. Nutt said what surprised him about Chicago was how much it seemed the city was helping out musicians. He said most people he talked to when he was in Chicago seemed to think street musicians helped businesses.
“It makes the streets more of a communal where people can share things,” Nutt said. ‘Without that, it would lead back into a society where people stay indoors and use the street simply as a passage way to get quickly from one place to another.”
Natarus didn’t comment on the status of his new proposal, but said he is not out to get street musicians like a lot of people seem to think.
“I’m not against street musicians, in fact, I’m the one who put them on the street in the first place,” Natarus said. “It is my constituents.”
Matt Richards, who works at the Gap at 555 N. Michigan Ave., the stretch where the new street performing proposal is targeting, said that he personally hasn’t heard many people complaining about street music or performers.
“I don’t recall anyone ever complaining about street musicians,” Richards said. “In my experience, it has been the opposite of that. A lot of people from out of town seem to actually enjoy that sort of thing. Being able to experience something like that in an urban area is what they are here for.”
Remington Pettygrove, street musician and sophomore business major at DePaul University, said he doesn’t agree with the new proposal.
“Street musicians are part of Chicago,” Pettygrove said. “That’s what makes up our culture.”