Entertainers who pluck guitars, dance, or juggle long knives may one day need to dip into their tip buckets to pay for a permit before performing outdoors in Boston.
In a City Council meeting Wednesday, Councilors Salvatore LaMattina and Bill Linehan floated a plan that, if passed, would force buskers citywide to obtain a $40 annual permit to practice their trade.
The resolution was discussed briefly during the regularly scheduled council meeting, and forwarded to the Committee on Government Operations, which will slate a formal hearing on the proposal at a later date.
LaMattina said he’d like to “reasonably regulate” the acts. The plan was inspired by complaints from both performers and residents, the councilor said.
“This proposal is not anti-street performers,” LaMattina said. “We have received several complaints from both street performers and residents who have felt harassed and threatened from some of the other performers utilizing public space, particularly in the Faneuil Hall area. Many residents have also complained about noise issues, as well.”
The proposal defines “performing” as acting, singing, playing musical instruments, pantomime, juggling, magic, dancing, reading, puppetry, and reciting. If performers travel in a group, each member would need to pay for an individual $40 permit, according to the plan, with a $160 cap.
Currently, the city does not regulate or require on-street entertainers to obtain permits prior to performing, according to a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office.
Boston police and Department of Public Works employees would be responsible for enforcing rules and could revoke a permit. The commissioner of Public Works would dole out the permits, according to the councilors’ proposal.
The idea was met with mixed reactions during Wednesday’s hearing. Some councilors said the restrictions could impinge on people’s First Amendment rights and cut into their daily income.
“I rise to just say: ‘Caution,’ ” said Councilor Tito Jackson. “I see hundreds of people being entertained. . . . We should proceed with caution in terms of the regulatory environment for these individuals, who I believe add to the city of Boston.”
Jackson also said it “scares” him to think that the DPW would handle something related to the arts.
Others said it would be important to tread lightly as officials move forward, because performers are catalysts for economic vitality in Boston and boost foot traffic in public spaces.
“Very often, although we champion the arts and the benefits of the arts, we are not always creating a climate that supports the actual artists,” said Councilor Ayanna Pressley. “This is how they make a living, so we have to find a way to coexist.”
Stephen Baird, executive director of the Street Arts & Buskers Advocates, said the proposal was vague and didn’t shed enough light on what performers could or could not do.
“It’s so badly written,” he said. “They are proud of this? It’s, like, good grief.”
Baird, who was part of a civil lawsuit that in 2004 helped scale back restrictions for buskers in Boston, said the plan “doesn’t say what you can do, and it doesn’t even have hours on it. And if they are complaining about noise, it doesn’t address the noise issue.”
Baird is not opposed to an ordinance that would require performers to have permits, but this particular one is not the correct approach, he said.
“As it’s written, it’s [a] shambles,” he said.
LaMattina said parts of the proposal were modeled after busking rules used in Cambridge. Performers there must obtain a $40 permit from the city before they hit the streets and must stay at least 50 feet away from other acts.
But Baird said Boston’s plan is “not like Cambridge’s at all.”
Cambridge is having its own problems with how to regulate outdoor acts. Last month, when its Neighborhood and Long Term Planning, Public Facilities, Arts and Celebrations Committee held a hearing on ways to make street performing more inviting for artists, many complained that the current ordinance is too restrictive.
No date has been set for Boston’s hearing, but councilors hope, whatever the outcome, it doesn’t kill the musical vibe.
“These individuals make our city better, and they’re really the character of the city of Boston,” said Jackson. “When there was nothing but a cellphone store up in downtown, folks with a pushcart and some folks with a boombox and some love for music were doing their thing.”
Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.