By Neal Pollack
A couple weeks ago, I got a call from a mandolin player named Gary Smith. He told me the City Council was about to pass an ordinance that would limit where and when musicians could play on the street. Smith had read about it in the Sun-Times, and he was concerned. After obtaining a copy of the ordinance, he was aghast.
Performances, he discovered, would be banned on State Street between Congress and Wacker on weekdays from 11 AM to 2 PM and from 4 PM to 7:30 PM, and on weekends from 9 AM to 6 PM. Street musicians would be prohibited from playing during those same hours on Michigan Avenue from the Chicago River to Oak Street, except on Friday, when they'd be banned from 4 PM on. No performances would be allowed between Thanksgiving and the day after Christmas--the peak shopping season. Currently, licensed musicians can play "in any public area" between 10 AM and 9 PM Sundays through Thursdays and 10 AM and 10 PM Fridays and Saturdays.
The new law would impose other restrictions as well. "It is the policy of the City of Chicago that the occupants and users of premises in the City not be subjected to the continuous and unceasing sound of street performances while inside their residences or places of business," the proposed ordinance read. 'To further that policy and protect the health and welfare of City inhabitants, no performer or performing group may perform at the same location for more than two hours at a time. Once one performer or performing group stops playing at a given location, no other performer may perform at that location for a period of two hours after the first performer has stopped."
Essentially, the law would abolish street music downtown.
For three years Smith has made his living by playing the mandolin on the street. He didn't see how he could get around these new rules.
"This will be the end of my career," he said. "It's hard to believe how bad this law is. I don't know what I'm going to do. But I've got to do something."
The ordinance emerged from the office of 42nd Ward alderman Burton Natarus, who has been an enemy of street musicians for years. In July 1984, the City Council established similar restrictions on three streets in his ward: Rush, Division, and Michigan. Natarus, who drafted the law, claimed he was trying to mediate a conflict between art and commerce. He also mentioned area condo owners who wanted a quiet neighborhood.
"The performers forget people live here," Natarus said at the time. "Maybe if they toned it down, this wouldn't be a conflict."
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit on behalf of a banjo player named Walter Friedrich, arguing that the ordinance unfairly singled out performances from other forms of speech in public places. In 1985, U.S. District Court judge Marvin Aspen struck down the law.
Natarus steamed over his defeat. For the next 14 years, he collected complaints from residents. Finally he tried again, drafting the new ordinance with the aid of the city's corporation counsel. It has proven equally unpopular. When I visited the alderman in his City Hall office last week, he was prickly, having already been portrayed as a killjoy in both the Tribune and the Sun-Times. He dropped a bulging accordion folder in my lap. It was full of newspaper articles and residents' complaints.
"You have to understand how our office works," Natarus said. "I have a file! I'm not making this up! I have a problem! A history here!"
Then the monologue began. I barely had a chance to interrupt.
"We live in an environment where we're trying to have a mixed residential and business community. We're getting inundated with bikes. We're getting inundated with rollerbladers. We're getting inundated with hikers. The street performers are really exacerbating this problem. The noise! You don't hear it from down the street! You hear it up in the air! It resonates! I've had CEOs of banks complain, I've had CEOs of businesses. I have people coming home from work, and they cannot enjoy their lives!
"Right now you have a drummer who drums over in front of Marshall Field's. You cannot conduct business with that going on!
"Everybody says, 'Why are you creating such an issue?' But one of my jobs as alderman is trying to build a quality of life. You remember the Peruvians who used to play downtown?"
"Sure," I said.
"We never had any complaints about the Peruvians! They were accepted by everybody. I say, how loud do you have to play to get people to come listen to you? This doesn't interfere in any way with the impersonators. This doesn't interfere with the mimes or people who read poetry on the street. This doesn't interfere with clowns. This doesn't interfere with mimics."
"I have another noise problem. I'm gonna ask that all windows be closed. In saloons." He looked up at me proudly. "It'll happen," he said.
"You know," I said, "this law hasn't been very popular..."
"Who's in this business to be popular?" said the alderman. "I'm not popular with the street performers, and I'm not popular with the civil-liberties people. But we have a constituent-oriented office here. I'm actually very civil-liberties conscious. I'm one of the only ones who voted against the gang-loitering ordinance. I just thought it was unconstitutional. Don't write that. Daley'll get mad at me."
Alderman Natarus stressed that there would be hearings on the issue at 11 AM on Thursday, July 1, at City Hall. That's when everything would be decided, he said.
In reality, though, the hearings would decide nothing. The decision will be made at the City Council meeting next Wednesday, July 7, when the ordinance is scheduled to come to a vote.
Natarus said people have to understand that he has many decisions to make. These require patience and nearly Solomonic wisdom.
"Please be fair," he said.
He showed me an award he'd received, along with Alderman Bernard Stone, for working to persuade Swiss banks to make restitution to the families of former customers who had been killed in the Holocaust.
Gary Smith was waiting outside Natarus's office. By coincidence, he had scheduled an appointment with the alderman just after mine. He was wearing a tie with cows on it. He wanted to remind Natarus that city sidewalks are currently blocked by more fiberglass cows than street musicians.
Smith had been busy since we'd last talked. He'd already compiled a phone list of performers who were angry about the ordinance. Now he was asking people to sign a petition opposing the law. He also passed out flyers asking them to come to the hearing.
"Street performers do add a wonderfully positive human aspect to the welcoming atmosphere of the city," the flyer said. "To remove street music from the public during shopping hours is unconscionable. Preservation of this cherished art form and Chicago tradition is important, for once it's gone it won't return."
Smith brought Natarus a bunch of photos he'd taken over the weekend. They showed kids playing bucket drums in front of the Water Tower. These kids were the real problem, he said. They're loud, they don't have a license, and they aren't intimidated when the police chase them away. Smith said he'd begged these kids to stuff their buckets with newspaper to mute their sound, but they wouldn't listen to him.
"Those kids are the problem," he said. "They bother the musicians who are trying to make beautiful music for the city."
It's not surprising that the bucket drummers are the focus of much of the hostility, both from Michigan Avenue residents and from licensed street musicians. The 1984 street-music ordinance was drafted after kids started break-dancing for tips on Michigan Avenue. Many of the kids had drifted over from nearby Cabrini-Green, and store owners complained that they hurt business. These days the kids are banging buckets, and the same people are complaining.
Just as in the early 80s, the kids have their defenders. One group is also circulating petitions to stop Natarus's law. The leader is Virus X, a longtime street drummer and member of the Revolutionary Communist Party who frequently plays with the bucket kids. He says they shouldn't be singled out.
"People need to understand if you start pointing the finger at someone else you're all gonna lose," he says. "I've had my beefs with the bucket kids, especially when they tried to take my sticks. But I didn't cuss them out. I didn't treat them like garbage. I really haven't had any hassle with them. Nobody's ass is so clean that these kids have got to be made scapegoats."
Virus X has been passing out flyers downtown, warning people about the law. He even convened a meeting of street musicians on Tuesday, June 28, at the Taco Bell at State and Lake. He wanted all street musicians to come together to devise a strategy to prevent the ordinance from coming to a vote. The meeting included the bucket kids, whom he calls the law's greatest potential victims. "Because of their age, they are not allowed to get a license," he writes in his flyer. "Instead of commending their spirit, their initiative and drive--they are harassed, threatened, their buckets and sticks confiscated, and at times hauled off by police."
He connects the law with other recent efforts to gentrify the downtown area. The flyer is blunt: "Let's be clear. The real issue here has little to do with actual threats to 'health' and 'safety' from street performers, but a growing effort by higher-ups in the city to remove all obstacles (in their minds) to a more upscale moneymaking city. Case in point--in the last few years we have seen the shelter and housing options for homeless and low income people dry up, their 'health' and 'safety' being of little concern."
Virus X thinks the aldermen aren't even acting on the majority's wishes. "There are many who will mourn the loss of an art form as old as the city itself," he writes. "The small child dancing down the sidewalk to the rhythm of the drums. The senior who stops by each day for a free concert. The tourist who comes to town looking to find genuine street music. Pass the ordinance, and the city council will be stealing some of the joy from their lives."
Not all street musicians think alike, and neither do all residents of the downtown area. When it comes to street music, there is no consensus on what should or shouldn't be tolerated. Here's a sampling of opinions:
"I used to work at 333 N. Michigan. There was a drummer outside the building. He went for eight hours a day, and it literally made it impossible for me to work. Now we live on the 69th floor over here, and it drives me crazy. I have kids who I try to put down for naps, and I can't. I love street music--when it's on the street. But when I'm in my house, it's like having a noisy neighbor. It's equivalent to somebody who plays his music too loud or who has a dog that won't stop barking."
"You can't pull down everyone just because one group of people is doing wrong. They're messing with our First Amendment rights. If the alderman goes out and campaigns, no one is telling him he can only campaign from 2 to 4 and not on Saturday. He's going where the people are, and that's what we do. We're not trying to present a safety hazard. To tell us that we can't perform at all from the day after Thanksgiving until the day after Christmas, that's absurd. That's when we make most of our money."
"I'm all for music, but I don't want to hear it constantly. And on weekends it's just hour after hour. And this is with my windows closed. There's some guys that keep on playing the same tune, and there are some who can't keep a tune. This one saxophone player is still going at 9:30 at night, and it just drives me crazy."
"If this ordinance passes, the problem is still going to be there. Because the cops aren't enforcing the laws anyway. The people that don't follow them are still gonna come and do what they want to do. All I see happening is the city being left with the sound of buses, tires, and police saying hurry up and go. It's gonna become a city full of drones."
"We bought our permits from City Hall, and we made an agreement with the city. They should honor our permits under the conditions we agreed upon."
"I live near Water Tower park and I've been listening to musicians down here over the years. It's gotten worse. It originally started with the guy who played Sesame Street all the time on his saxophone. It's hard to explain to people, but unless you deal with it on a daily basis, you don't understand. One of the things people really don't understand is that you might hear a street musician 200 feet away on the street, but above street level it's like a box canyon. It amplifies the sound. You can hear the musicians from blocks away sometimes."
"I don't even know specifically what the damn problems are. It's just like the CTA. They started banning musicians before they even started talking about the problems."
"I just got a letter from someone from Poland who I met while I was playing last year. He could barely write English, but he said that he'll always associate street music with Chicago."
"Did Alderman Natarus give you my number? I didn't vote for him. Street musicians, bah! You know what really gets me steamed? I just got back from Europe. I don't know what the hell the matter is with America. Why do we have these crummy bathrooms? Here all the bathroom doors have big gaps on either side. In Europe, if you want to count your money or do something private, you can take care of it because the stalls are enclosed. So maybe the alderman can do something about that, the big jerk. Plus I have another beef. I detest the airlines. I hope that United, American, and Northwest get it in the rear one of these days. I don't give a damn about the street musicians. I understand they're making them quit at ten o'clock now, and that's fine."
"We had a couple from Florida who said they were in town for business but that they walked all the way to the Water Tower because they'd seen us last winter. I'm not tooting my own horn. But still, that's a tourist, and they like what we're doing. We've had thousands of people who've given a dollar or who have a kind word to say. That means more than anything. If you're gonna give me a dollar, I have to be doing something right."
"It's easy for people who visit the neighborhood to enjoy the music and then go home. But I don't think they'd want these people playing in front of their house either."
Gary Smith walked toward the Berwyn el station. He was pushing a dolly that held a microphone stand, a small amplifier, two folding chairs, and a mandolin case. He also carried a backpack full of flyers and petitions.
He wore a straw hat and a T-shirt, having changed out of the dress shirt and cow tie he'd worn to meet with the alderman. I helped him lug his equipment up the stairs and onto the platform.
"This is the hardest part of the day," he said.
"So how'd the meeting go?" I asked.
"The alderman has got a problem," he said. "He's got complaints, and he has to address them. I just think there are other ways it can be done. We certainly had a nice conversation. He's approachable. When you're an alderman in the most expensive ward in the country, it's a big responsibility. You've got concerns that other people don't have, but you've gotta have street music, and it needs to be accessible to everyone. He's not crazy. He's quite intelligent. But his approach is wrong."
On the way downtown, Smith told me a few things about himself. He's been playing music since he was 12--he's 48 now. He started with the guitar, but he cut his hand in an accident and needed surgery. Afterward he couldn't hold a guitar pick correctly, so he switched to the mandolin, which has a slightly different grip.
I asked how he'd made a living before playing street music.
"I have to talk to someone before I can answer that question," he said cryptically. "Nothing illegal. It's the only thing I'm qualified to do anymore, though. Because of my hand, I can't type fast enough to be useful on a computer. And I've got gangrene in my right leg. I had 24 operations on it. So I sit down when I play. It hurts to stand too long."
When we got off the train at the Chicago stop, Smith ducked into McDonald's and made a phone call. Back on the street, he continued his story.
"I was a chiropractor," he said. "But I wasn't making enough money to pay off my student loans. One especially horrible one was from the Department of Health and Human Services. If you go into default on those loans, they take away your ability to work with state and federal insurance or medicare. Between that and managed care, I couldn't make enough money from cash patients to keep my doors open. So I went bankrupt. Playing music was the only way I could think of to make a living."
We stopped under a big oak tree at the corner of Chicago and Michigan, and Smith unfolded the two chairs, one for himself and one for his political material. His music case contained a mandolin, a photograph of his parents, a bag of Jolly Ranchers, and a pair of earplugs, which he wears to drown out street noise while he plays. He clipped a sign to the case. It read, "Support the Arts. I'd Appreciate It If You'd Start Here."
Within 15 minutes of playing, he'd made nearly $10. He'd also collected several signatures on his petition.
"I get so relaxed out here," he said. "I don't know if you'd call it meditation, but it's certainly introspective thought. Once the traffic dies down in the evening, I like to play really gentle music. There are no more trucks, and not so many buses. When this one store down this block closes for the night, a friend of mine sings. It's a spot perfectly suited for someone with a gentle voice. You should see the lovers come along! The whole area's lit up in a soft vignette. You have to look at the world that way when you play music. Between the music and the strollers, it's a wonderful experience."
He played over the screams of a fire engine, the grind of a cement truck, the wail of an ambulance, and various noises from buses, automobiles, and construction equipment. Unless you were a few feet away, it was hard to hear the lazy trill of his mandolin over the constant din.
Clyde Hogg, who lives on Ontario Street, stopped to sign Smith's petition. "They oughta pass a law to stop people from banging on buckets," he said.
"Exactly my point," said Smith.
"Yeah, there are a lot of musicians who play beautifully here. I used to live in San Francisco, and we had great street music there. All they have to do is enforce the fucking law."
"I guess I'm not alone," Smith said.
Smith plays six days a week, usually from 11 AM to 9 PM. Lately he's lost valuable moneymaking time trying to organize musicians against the proposed ordinance. He says, "It's hard to make tips when you're asking people to call their alderman."
Around dusk, tourists and shoppers paused to watch Smith play the mandolin. He was making good money. The construction had ceased and the buses were running less frequently. No lovers had yet appeared, but Smith was hopeful. As I walked toward the el, he was still sitting under the tree, playing his beautiful music.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.