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Buskers push Cambridge to embrace street performing

Artists want city officials to tweak policies

Krista Speroni strums her guitar inside Cambridge City Hall with her band Woven.Steve Annear/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — On the steps of City Hall on Tuesday night, Keytar Bear slapped his costumed fingers against his instrument, blasting funky tunes out of the speakers and into the ears of people sprawled on the front lawn.

Inside, in the council chamber, a mix of artists strummed their guitars and plucked at their violins as people danced.

Following a committee hearing to discuss ways to make street performing more inviting for artists trying to make a living wage, Cambridge City Hall looked more like a concert venue than a place where constituents come to pay their bills.

The free entertainment was a symbolic message from the busking community to elected officials: The performing arts matter, and the city could do more to embrace them.

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The Neighborhood and Long Term Planning, Public Facilities, Arts and Celebrations Committee hearing was chaired by Councilor Nadeem Mazen.

The hearing allowed artists to air their grievances, and point out glitches in city policies that may be hindering creative freedoms once enjoyed by street performers.

“We have the talent, and we have the venues here. So we just need to coordinate our policy and programming a little bit better to bring that energy back,” Mazen said. “It seems like we lost it so slowly that nobody even realized we had.”

Many who attended the hearing said Cambridge was once a hub for outdoor entertainment, attracting performers of all kinds from across the world to show off their talents in open spaces, particularly Harvard Square.

Those days are gone, they said.

“Harvard Square used to have charm, and was cool. But performers don’t think that’s the case anymore,” said Al Millar, an Australian chainsaw juggler and contortionist who goes by the name of “Alakazam.”

Millar moved to the United States in the late ’90s to expand his audience. He said he was attracted by the rumors about Harvard Square’s inclusiveness and popularity.

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“We all talk to each other and hear of places to go. You go to London, you go to Paris, you go to Amsterdam, you go to Tokyo — and Harvard Square was one of those places you used to hear about,” he said. “There’s nothing really special about Harvard Square anymore.”

Millar said performers like himself, who are not musicians, have difficulty generating a large audience in the square because the foot traffic, atmosphere, and city policies have changed.

Performers must obtain a $40 permit from the city before they hit the streets. The city also has monitors who go out and check the sound levels of artists to make sure they stay below 80 decibels. If a crowd watching a performer gets too large, police are requested to clear away spectators obstructing the sidewalks.

“If you’re an ambient act and play music, maybe it’s still OK,” said Millar. “But as an actor who needs a couple hundred people watching, and foot traffic, it’s not good anymore.”

Vice Mayor Dennis Benzan was receptive to performers’ concerns.

As a former breakdancer who frequented what’s known as “The Pit,” in Harvard Square, Benzan said artists are a necessity because they breathe life into the community.

“We generated quite a bit of money [breakdancing],” he said. “We were excited about it.”

Julie Barry, Cambridge’s director of community arts and the street buskers’s liaison, said she had been toying around with possible revisions to the city’s street performers ordinance.

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“Some of the things in there are exclusionary; some of them are restrictive,” she said.

Determined to reinvigorate the program, she asked performers not to “write Cambridge off just yet.”

“Give us a minute, let us take a look at [the ordinance], and then come back and revisit it. Hopefully, we will find that happy medium so everybody can coexist in the community,” she said.


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.