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chicago tribune
USA Today

Noise restrictions in Chicago muzzle makeshift musicians

By Judy Keen, USA TODAY
CHICAGO — Street performers here such as bucket drummers, saxophonists, bagpipers and singers are being ordered to pipe down, making Chicago the latest city to try to reduce urban noise.

The City Council adopted the restrictions Wednesday to ban all performances on a busy four-block stretch of Michigan Avenue known as the Magnificent Mile. The regulations also lower acceptable decibel levels everywhere else in the city and require entertainers exceeding 55 decibels — the level of loud talking — to pack up by 8 p.m. on weeknights. Permit fees will increase from $50 to $75.

Mayor Richard Daley hasn't said whether he supports the measure, which was approved by a wide margin. Alderman Burton Natarus, who proposed the changes, says Daley asked him to include restrictions during concerts at Millennium Park.

The crackdown was prompted by complaints from businesses and residents such as Susan Mardell, who lives on the 29th floor of a Michigan Avenue building. She says outdoor music, especially from groups whacking on plastic buckets, "echoes up through your apartment through closed windows and closed doors. ... It's a repetitious, jarring kind of noise."

Supporters of the new restrictions say street cacophony is a quality-of-life issue — the same point New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made in his effort to limit noise from car alarms, dogs and air conditioners in his city.

"We're just trying to find an environment that allows the performers to practice their craft and make a few bucks ... and respect everybody else," says Rick Roman, owner of Signature Room at the 95th, a downtown Chicago restaurant.

John Maxson, president of the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association, a business group, says the noise "has a significant impact" on office workers' productivity and annoys customers in stores.

The same debate is playing out in other cities, but some communities encourage street performances:

• Honolulu is debating whether to limit street performances to six designated spots on four blocks in the Waikiki neighborhood from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mayor Mufi Hannemann vetoed a measure last month that would have barred performers from the area during those hours. The city passed a ban in 2000 that was struck down after the American Civil Liberties Union argued it restricted free speech.

• Baltimore's City Council holds a hearing today on a proposal to license street performers. The goals: bring in cash with permit fees costing $50-$75 and make the city more lively.

• Last week, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance creating a "free speech and expression zone" that protects street performers in Venice Beach. There are noise restrictions. The music must be inaudible 50 feet away and inside adjacent buildings — when doors and windows are closed. "Performers should be considered a treasure," says Councilman Bill Rosendahl, the proposal's sponsor. "That is what brings the tourists."

Tim Nutt, who records street music across the USA and posts it on his website, streetnote.org, says Chicago's rich musical heritage makes it a surprising place to limit performances. "Cars without mufflers are much more of a nuisance. We should never consider street music to be a form of noise pollution," Nutt says.

Stephen Baird of Community Arts Advocates, a non-profit group in Boston that advises street performers on legal issues, says courts have consistently upheld musicians' right to perform in public.

"The battle is often over noise and time, place and manner," he says. Public performances are part of the nation's history, he says, and "when you ban street music, you ban your cultural heritage."

Natarus says crowds gathered around performers can create safety problems by forcing other pedestrians into the street. "I'm very sympathetic to people ... who come home at the end of the day and don't want to be aggravated by these loud sounds," he says.