By Harry Kane
Proposed legislation would allow street performers access to Somerville streets. City officials want to update the ordinance just in time for the warm weather, yet there’s still no timetable designated.
“Right now if you look at how the code of ordinances is written,” said Alderman-At-Large Jack Connolly, “unless you’re performing or demonstrating for a military parade, or some such item like that, all street activity performances are technically under the old code of ordinances — not permitted.”
Connolly feels the old code is detrimental to the spirit of an open and democratic society. “We have an energetic place around the Davis Square Plaza,” Connolly said. The new ordinance would accommodate street musicians, jugglers, robotic statue people, and the like.
Currently, the ordinance does not allow for a musician combo to be permitted in a location, said Connolly. If the ordinance update were successful, musicians would basically just be allowed to show up on Friday afternoon and set-up.
In tough economic times any extra income helps. Performers could get tips by showing up with a couple of guitars and amplifier and start playing.
One concern is the noise pollution. Residents and business owners may not all want street performers. Yet, some people share the sentiment that street performers draw crowds, and that could help businesses.
Connolly’s other concern: out-of-town musicians might monopolize the spots in Davis Square. That would be disappointing for local talent, he expressed. An ebb and flow of different performers would be fair.
“I’m just a little gun-shy about it, because I have seen people try and come on Friday and Saturday and try and monopolize that space on a pretty regular basis,” said Connolly. He hopes that the Legislative Matters Committee can avoid any more red tape.
The conversation began last spring when Ward Six Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz was approached by a couple of street performers. Apparently, Somerville Police officers asked the performers to leave Statue Park and obtain a permit.
The street performers rushed to City Hall for a permit, but were unable to get one, said Gewirtz, because “we don’t have street musician permits.”
After the run-in with street performers, Gewirtz did some digging and found the original ordinance from the 1960’s. In theory, “the ordinance that’s on the books is highly likely to be unconstitutional,” said Gewirtz. It was time to make some modifications. That was about one year ago.
Currently, the Legislative Matters Committee is looking at doing away with the permit entirely. “We all pretty much came to an agreement on what we wanted the ordinance to look like, and that we didn’t want to require a permit, but that we wanted to change all the language,” said Gewirtz.
“I’d like to see them be able to just come out and play within the realm of reason.” The updated ordinance would seek to do just that. “The spring is upon us, and this is the time when street musicians are going to start to come out,” said Gewirtz.
Performers will be subject to fines if they break the regulations. “We create certain rules for public spaces,” said Gewritz, “so that we can avoid that problem when at the same time guarantee people their individual liberties.”
Gregory Jenkins, director of the Somerville Arts Council had a different perspective. He said street musicians usually have a “polite etiquette” and don’t need a permit.
“Usually what we tell people is, if it’s not a large band – just a singer/songwriter situation – and they want to perform in the plaza and Davis Square, that they’re not too loud, and they don’t play too late at night, generally they can get away with it,” said Jenkins.
The other scenario might involve the creation of a street musician permit like in Cambridge. Following the April 4 Legislative Matters Committee more information will surface.