There is a debate going on in San Diego over the rights of street performers to entertain the public and earn a few bucks. The issues that San Diego artists face today are not new. Restrictions on public performances are common in many cities. There is a balance that needs to be reached by police, the city, business owners and performers. And all parties need to be responsible.
I’ve enjoyed a long career as a juggling act, which began with street performing in public venues around the world.
My twin brother and I began street performing at an early age. On weekends, we’d perform our juggling and comedy act for hundreds of visitors at the popular Harborplace Pavilion in the heart of Baltimore’s downtown tourist area. We passed the hat for up to four performances a day, earning money to help pay for college. But that didn’t come without paying our dues.
Harborplace, like many other tourist-centric venues, required street performers to apply, audition and get permitted. The competition was intense. There were performers who had been passing the hat for years in the city. But every performer was given a chance to be seen. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it provided for an organized, well thought-out entertainment program.
Washington Square Park is a popular place for tourists in New York City’s Greenwich Village. On fall weekends, the center fountain was turned off – which allowed the best street performers from around the city to perform “in the round” to enormous crowds. This was a first-come, first-served policy. Popular acts like Joey Joey and The Chinaman ruled the spot. As newcomers to the city during our freshmen year at New York University, we tried to break into the ranks. We showed up early – really early. No luck for the juggling twins. First-come, first-served just wasn’t respected. Longevity and seniority ruled that park.
We tried our hand at non-regulated street performing too, and that didn’t work out as well. We set up shop in front of the famous Atlas Statue at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. We drew a crowd so large that people passing by had to step into the street just to continue on their way. Not 15 minutes into our show, two police officers on mounted horses ordered us to stop. As kids, we pushed our luck and continued a bit. There were lots of cheers for us, boos for the cops, and ultimately, an abrupt end to our show.
I’ve been part of this process in various cities and organizations, and I’ve seen its challenges and benefits. I believe there should be ordinances in place that clearly define the boundaries of what is acceptable by street performers and artists. Street entertainment should be subject to licenses, permits and regulations, just like any other business.
There are several types of street artists, and they all have their own needs and challenges. Musicians normally require an open street corner or extended sidewalk to allow for a small audience. Craft artists who peddle hand-made artistries often can set up shop on any corner. “Statue” artists stand frozen, painted in silver or bronze, on a platform and don’t require much space. Costume actors often stroll the street dressed as popular cartoon characters or movie stars. Our show always required a plaza or amphitheater large enough to accommodate crowds in the hundreds as well as electricity and lights for evening shows.
Requiring permits for each of these types of acts ensures three things. First, it ensures artists are vetted, insured and safe for the general public. Just what San Diego needs – a YouTube video of a juggler on a unicycle crashing into nearby diners.
Second, it ensures the city earns its fair share of income. We can’t tolerate an artist selling arts and crafts on the street corner without a permit. If a nearby store is expected to pay a business license and sales tax on its products, then it’s only fair these artists do the same.
Third, it ensures a higher level of competence and compliance. I’m all for seeing unique street characters in San Diego. I’m the first to stroll through Comic-Chaos each summer and enjoy the sights and sounds. I love every minute of it. At the same time, when every Tom, Dick and Harry is out in costume, without regulation, you could be standing next to a Dick who happens to be a pickpocket – not uncommon in tourist areas.
I’m confident the discussion here in San Diego can lead to a more positive relationship between the city and street performers. But street entertainers need to be managed appropriately so that the San Diego experience is positive for residents and visitors. And just as other localities have discovered, the process of organizing street entertainment can be positive and productive. With input from the American Civil Liberties Union, Las Vegas requires permits and regulates locations along Fremont Street Experience. New York City requires permits and limits performance locations. Pier 39 in San Francisco requires permits and assigns locations via a lottery system.
San Diego should also require permits.
My word of advice to performers: While freedom of speech is always a priority, I hope we can all be responsible citizens and respect our community, our neighbors and our fellow business owners. Our talent is important to the culture and appeal of the destination. With an open mind, constructive dialogue with our city leaders, we can help elevate the street arts in San Diego.
Nick Karvounis is a professional juggler and half of the identical twin comedy act Nick & Alex. He works as a content editor for the San Diego Tourism Authority. Karvounis’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.