Celebrating self-expression as a basic human right essential for the
healthy growth of youth, individuals and communities
COMMUNITY ARTS ADVOCATES, INC.
Stephen H. Baird, Founder and Executive Director
PO Box 300112, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130-0030
Web site: http://www.communityartsadvocates.org
The History and Cultural Impact
of Street Performing in America
Below is the Wesleyan University Olin Fellowship 2004 Thesis by Maggie Starr. She researched and wote the paper during the summer of 2004. Good overview of the 1976-1990 Boston subway performances. -- Stephen Baird
FLASH NEWS: MBTA-Radio Threatens Subway Performances October 2007
by Maggie Starr © Maggie Starr 2004
Wesleyan University Olin Fellowship 2004
Between travelers bound for destinations in Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, Mare Streetpeople played her guitar on the Red Line platform at South Station. Passengers-to-be on their way to New York, the South Shore, and the Western Suburbs walked around and waited for their trains on the concourse above her head. Mare was singing a folk song for the people on the platform, with her guitar case open to donations in front of her. A man in with a clipped moustache approached her, walking quickly, but did not reach into his pockets for a quarter. Instead, he told Mare simply that she needed to leave the station, and left the "Chief Inspector" patch on the arm of his Transit Police uniform to say the rest.
Mare stopped playing and shuffled through her things. She quickly produced a permit with her name on it, a sign of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's permission for her to play and sing in the subway. The people in the MBTA's office, located about three stories above and a mile or two west of the South Station platform, may not have objected to Mare's presence, but their Chief Inspector did. He told Mare that her permit was invalid, and again that she had to leave.
In contrast to the clatter, elbowing, and rushing that take over the station when a train comes, subway platforms are almost stagnant in between the trains' arrivals. People come down the stairs and stand in an extended line along the platform, facing the empty track. A professional looking woman broke out of the scenery, though, and strode purposefully toward Mare and the officer. They both paused their interaction just long enough for her to get there, hand Mare a business card, and inform the inspector that as this woman's lawyer, she would take any further questions or comments regarding her client's right to be in the subway.
Faced with a new adversary, the inspector changed his tactic and made reference to a Performer's Manual, which allegedly give him final authority in the situation. Mare protested that even if such a manual existed, which she doubted, it had never been made available to her. As if to summarize the booklet, he told her that MBTA employees simply had to be obeyed. Mare's new lawyer seemed to be a step behind. She probably began to realize that this wasn't an isolated incident of police harassment, but an incident with history and a script of sorts already written. A train arrived, and the crowd on the platform started moving around Mare and the inspector. Riders positioned themselves on both sides of the doors, ready to elbow and maneuver their way on or off of the train as soon as possible. The lawyer, unsure of what to do, began to move away with the current of the station. She looked back as she boarded the train, and it pulled out of the station, rising to a roar and leaving behind the few people dashing down the stairs. When the clatter died down, the inspector told Mare once more that she really, because he said so, had to leave. He stood and watched as she packed up her guitar.
* * *
The Boston subway, or the T, has a specific subterranean atmosphere, a regular cast of commuters, conductors, and other characters, and clearly marked entrances and exits, but they resist the urge to become a self-contained little world by existing mostly as checkpoints on the way to somewhere else. They certainly do not have many atmospheric characteristics to make them popular destinations. While most people like light, subways are dingily lit with fluorescent bulbs. While most people like cleanliness, subways are always dirty ñ fumes, grit, and grime seem to collect on every possible surface, and in the corners you can often smell the piss in the walls. Of all the excitement Boston subways have caused over the years, stations have been behind very little of it. The engineering of the tunnels and trains have caught people's attention, but the stairs, elevators, platforms, and turnstiles that provide, or restrict access to them have hardly given the public reason to notice them. The platforms became a controversial space during the nineteen eighties, though, as performers like Mare organized a fight to stay on the platforms.
Descended of hurdy-gurdy men, troubadours, and folk musicians, Boston street musicians were curious and varied breed in the eighties. Many played the streets and subways full time, while others had alternate workplaces ranging from concert stages to office buildings. Mare, for one, came to Boston from Pennsylvania for a friend's high school graduation and ended up sticking around. She had great luck playing on the streets, and picked up a manager who was enchanted by a song he heard her sing on a corner. She fronted a band, and also found a niche for her excellent Janis Joplin impression, fronting a Janis cover band. The liberal does of Southern Comfort necessary to making her voice do what Janis' did eventually led to the end of that gig. For her health and sanity, she left it and went back to strumming and singing her own songs in Boston streets, subways, and coffee houses.
Around the time that Mare was doing Janis several nights a week, a highly trained classical guitarist named Elliot Gibbons was having trouble marketing his Master's degree in New York City. He started playing in Central Park to make ends meet and found it to be the best paying job he could find. He was originally from Massachusetts, and on a trip to his home state, he had the chance to listen to some music in the Harvard Square stop on the T. He was so impressed that he decided to leave New York and moved to Boston in 1986.
The Boston he arrived in was not entirely welcoming. Both Boston and the neighboring city of Cambridge had ordinances that basically prohibited performances in their streets and parks. Following a trend in urban administration around the country, these cities were trying to prevent any unpredictable behavior in their public places. The underground subway stations, an alternative public thoroughfare, were under the same sort of administration. Municipal and transportation administrators placed a high value on control over the sort of behavior that could happen in their spaces.
Boston's subway spaces actually have their origins in crowd control. In the late nineteenth century Tremont Street, at the heart of Boston, couldn't handle the throngs of people and trolley cars that used it every day. Since it was the beginning or end of the line for many of the city's trolley routes, roughly four hundred of them ran up and down the street every hour, and the heavy pedestrian traffic on top of that made the crowding even heavier. To address the problem, the state legislature created the Boston Transit Commission, to study the problem, and a private company called the Boston Elevated Railway Company, which they expected would carry out the Commission's recommendations. Elevated train tracks existed in other American cities, but the Transit Commission ended up looking overseas for solution, and its gaze rested on the underground train tracks of London and Paris, Boston became the third city worldwide, and the first American city to build a subway.
The first car that ran under the city in September of 1897 was popular right away. The subway quickly accomplished its goal, reducing traffic on city streets, and making Tremont Street usable again. In the following decades, the original subway line was connected to other ones, to elevated railways, and to the city's trolley system, and each expansion was met with enthusiasm. On the inaugural runs of a few lines, people had to be turned away. Creating a space for the tracks in the earth beneath Boston turned out to be the hard work ñ the people of Boston found a place in their daily patterns for the subway easily and quickly.
The system became gradually more integrated, and eventually became too important and too lucrative to be run by private enterprise. In 1947 the state took control of the city's railways and created the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Its jurisdiction was extended over the next few decades to include bus, and additional rail transit all over eastern Massachusetts, and The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority was born in 1964.
Despite all the tracks it had inherited from its predecessor agencies, the MBTA continued to expand its facilities up through the mid-eighties. One of its last and largest projects was the expansion of the Red line further into Cambridge and Somerville, which added four new stations and the tracks to connect them with the rest of the system. The expansion started in 1976 and conveniently coincided with the beginning of a Federal Department of Transportation fund for "Design, Art, and Architecture" in public transportation. Through the fund, the T could get up to 2% of its construction budget from the federal government provided that it spent the money on art in transportation.
The MBTA took advantage of the funds, and commissioned artists to design permanent works for the new stations. Through the Cambridge Arts Council, a Cambridge municipal organization, the fund also provided for some temporary works to assuage public annoyance during the construction. The whole project was known as "Arts on the Line." It was the Bostonian manifestation of a national trend in urban planning, coming from the federal government on down that saw public art as valuable to the public. The idea was that art would beautify public spaces, increasing property values, and expose the masses to their recommended daily allowance of "culture."
Through the program and the federal funds, major sculptures were installed in the new stations, and a few temporary works and events were designed around the ongoing construction to generate good will among local residents. The finished stations were more aesthetically pleasing than they otherwise would have been, and service was being extended, but a lot of riders were still unenthusiastic about the T. People could wait on platforms for more than twenty minutes for an unreliable train that would be reliably slow in getting them to their destination.
The then-governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis was a big supporter of public transportation, and known for riding the T to the State House in the mornings. His other pet issue was public arts, and so he got behind a program called Music Under Boston. Run out of the MBTA's public relations department, the program scheduled members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and other high-prestige local musicians to play the busiest stations during rush hour. The theory, one supposes, was that "music soothes even the savage commuter" and it may have done just that, because without improving service frequency or speed, it got the MBTA some positive press.
Perhaps because the federal arts money had spoiled them, the MBTA didn't want to put much, or any, money into the program. As MUB entered its second year, with good press and national recognition rolling in, the MBTA subcontracted in out to a small non-profit called Articulture, later the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center. It was run out of the organization's Main Street office for a number of years by Geri Giardella, and was a success with many of the musicians who participated as well as with the wider public.
John Bigelow, another classical guitarist, was among the thirty or so musicians who played for the program in specific time-slots and locations. He was familiar with playing the streets and subways already, but found that he liked the convenience of knowing exactly where and when he could set up. When he went out to perform at other times, he could find his first choice of spot occupied and have to tool around the subways looking for a free place to play.
The Music Under Boston administrators at the CMAC were fond of it as well, so when money got tight at the beginning of the 1985 recession, they tried hard to get money to continue it out of the T. When that failed, they applied for grants, but again came up empty handed. Arts on the Line had been run with federal dollars, which the T had been happy to spend liberally. When its own budget was on the line, though, it was much less committed to art in its subways.
Musicians were upset and anxious. They started a letter writing campaign, and more than one musician offered to personally assist with the administration of the program. For a program that had a considerable number of problems, its loss generated a big response. Knowing that you could play at a certain spot at a certain time was nice, but having a prime spot reserved for a musician who didn't show up was frustrating, and needing to plan your schedule a month in advance could be all but impossible. The program had been valuable because it was a small sign of approval from the T and because it had created a relationship between artists and the T. Without that official relationship, the T was not accountable to the artists and the artists were at the mercy of MBTA officials on the platforms.
And that, as artists learned, was not a good place to be. It seemed that almost every Boston musicians had been confronted by a police officer from either the city of Boston or the MBTA's Transit Police and told that they were violating some sort of rule. MBTA officers demanded permits even during time periods when permits weren't being issued, and often claimed that permits only applied to certain stations. Artists could be kicked out of stations without having any avenue for complaint.
Playing above ground was just as hazardous. On Boston Common and on street corners around the city officers who felt like enforcing it could force musicians to leave their spots by enforcing one of several broad and out-dated statutes. Ruthanna Welch was one performer who had had her share of run-ins with the police while performing in Boston. On a trip to Europe after one of these encounters, she was stopped at the passport booth at the Amsterdam airport. She was kept waiting while Dutch officials reviewed her records and finally decided to deny her entrance to the country. They were suspicious of the arrests she had under a public ordinance that prohibited, among other things, prostitution.
Below ground, there wasn't a specific statute or rule, however outlandish, to guide police behavior. It was never clear what MBTA policy, if any, the Transit Police were enforcing, and that lead to the enforcement of almost as many policies as there were officers. There was the "only my friends can play here" policy; the "you sound great, here's a dollar, and can you play a Benny Goodman tune next?" policy, and the ever-present "I'm having a bad day, get out of here" policy.
After the end of MUB, subway musicians came to expect not knowing what to expect. Without any background on a certain officer's feelings toward performers, a musician couldn't guess whether the Transit Police officer coming down the platform was going to throw a dollar in the tip jar or throw the performer out of the station.
Though it is not always used correctly, the authority of police officers to know and enforce what is legal is generally not questioned. A police officer is not a super-human; there is no special reason to obey her, except that she has the power of several levels of government running through her. In the US, Congress has a great deal of power, which it exercises through laws. That power then flows down to smaller authorities that comply with and enforce those laws. The chief of a police department tells the officers about the law and power congress had to create the law crackles down to them. The officer can arrest people who violate the law with all the power of Congress behind them. There are checks in place to discourage officers for arresting people for no reason, but the truth of the matter is that their badges symbolize all of the power they need, whether they are fulfilling the mandate of congress or not.
Though they didn't have a system of accountability or even particularly firmly set rules, performers were awfully good at negotiating and regulating their interactions. Generally, though, performers knew what to expect from each other. There was simply an understanding that one performer wouldn't "set up on" another ñ start playing only a short distance away. Even volume was controlled, for the most part, by a common courtesy for other performers and nearby pedestrians. If a musician arrived at a spot and found it occupied, he could ask to be next in line, and set up a time when he could come back and take over the spot. Things tended to run smoothly, but there were always times when musicians violated the unwritten compact.
Once during the Music Under Boston years, when John Bigelow had set up with his amplifier at Park Street, an oboist and a clarinetist came up to him and told him that they were scheduled for his spot. Knowing that the Park Street stop wasn't actually administered by MUB, he refused to move, and the woodwind players left. No sooner had Bigelow gotten midway through his next song, though, they started playing only fifty feet down the platform. Angered, he confronted them about it, and they seemed to leave a second time. They started playing again, though, on the platform across the tracks. Deciding to beat them at their game, he moved across the tracks, too, and played songs that clashed with theirs as much as possible.
In post-MUB confusion, some musicians also manipulated the system to the disadvantage of other performers. One guitarist was known as "the guy who owned the orange line," because he had a letter from an MBTA official allowing him to play at orange line stations. The letter didn't promise exclusivity, but with the cooperation of a few T employees, he managed to monopolize his favorite stations for a while.
The loose understanding that existed was generally enough to keep things between musicians running smoothly from day to day, but when a larger problem emerged, so did higher levels of organization. The best example of this was the Harvard flip. The stop in busy Harvard Square is a popular station with good acoustics and good tips, so artists arrived as early as possible to secure their place there. Often a few artists would hand the station off to each other after one had been the first to arrive in the morning, effectively monopolizing the station.
Harvard is in Cambridge, on the Red Line, so people who lived in Boston, or who had to change trains to get onto the Red Line were at a distinct disadvantage in the race to the Square each morning. As the competition grew, a few musicians even had friends who worked for the MBTA let them into the station before the first train came.
Elliot Gibbons, Sharrhan Williamson, Craig Michaels, and Lourdes Pita came up with and instituted the idea of the Harvard Flip in response to this situation. Everyone who wants to play at Harvard at any point in the day meets at the station at seven o'clock in the morning and does a series of coin tosses to narrow the group down to three musicians for three shifts in the day. The remaining three all flipped again, and since coins only have two sides, they will come up either one tail and two heads or vice versa. The musician who has the odd coin ñ the single heads or tails ñ gets first pick of the morning, afternoon, or night shift, and then the other two flip for first choice of the other two shifts.
It was a bit tricky to get started, since the people who had been arriving earliest and claiming the station did not want to give up access to their favorite venue. Elliot lived fairly near to Harvard Square, though, and so he solved that problem by arriving first himself. Once the flip started happening regularly, it was extremely successful at fairly scheduling the station every day. It still takes place every morning at seven, almost twenty years later.
It was important for musicians to come up with a way of sharing playing time and space amongst themselves because places to play were an important resource. This was true especially in Boston, because subways played a different role in a performer's seasonal round than they would somewhere with a warmer climate. Subways are a refuge from a rainy day everywhere, but it gets cold in Boston. Playing out-of-doors in the winter can be impossible with gloves on, and not particularly lucrative, since passers-by aren't likely to take their hands out of their coat pockets to leave some change. Many people who might otherwise play the streets move indoors in the fall, and play there until spring. Someone kicked out by a zealous T official in the summer can try their luck above ground, but in winter the access to the platforms is economically essential.
It is not surprising, then, that the first organization to stop police harassment started in the winter. It is surprising, though, that one of its major organizers was someone who hadn't played the subway in years. Stephen Baird was a big organizer in the Boston folk world, and an advocate for street musicians across the country who had grown up in a conservative Boston suburb. He was an Eagle Scout, and then a chemical engineering major at Boston's Northeastern University, but the anti-war and civil rights movements pushed him to the left, and by the time he dropped out of chemical engineering to become a street musician, he was already an impressive organizer.
He knew how to make things happen in the music world. Through a scholarship fund for student disc jockeys, he got folk music played every day on Boston radio. He published a directory of folk musicians so that they could get in touch with each other and potential bookers could get in touch with them. He organized a coffee house at Northeastern that attracted performers like Bonnie Raitt in her early years. He ran a Street Performer's newsletter, connected artists with resources like lawyers, and was instrumental in fighting the cities of Boston and Cambridge for artists' rights to perform above ground.
He also knew how to make things happen in the world of government and bureaucracy. In his fights against the cities of Boston and Cambridge, Baird had helped to start an organization called the Street Artists Guild, and he was familiar with the mechanics of a battle like the one taking on the MBTA would require. He knew a lot of people who played in the subways, and was aware of the situation with the Transit Police.
In January of 1987, with police harassment continuing and also beginning to stop artists from selling their cassettes, a flier went up. It announced an "Open Public Meeting" about the "MBTA crack down on Subway Performers." The silhouette of a violinist at work was next to the time and place: January sixth at the Nameless Coffee House in Harvard Square. With word of mouth helping out, about thirty performers came to the meeting. The turn out was admirably high given that, as John Bigelow put it, trying to organize subway musicians was like "trying to sweep ants."
The meeting was publicized to reporters as well as performers, and the former group proved significantly easier to invite. All it took was a press release directed to the attention of news, arts, and lifestyle editors, and there was a media presence at the meeting. The press release was on Folk Arts Network stationary, and listed useful phone numbers for reporters, in case they had any questions. The numbers were for Baird, Bigelow, hammer dulcimerist David Neiman, and the MBTA Public Affairs Office. Even before the meeting, pressure on the T had begun.
The first meeting was relatively loosely organized, and included a lot of story telling. Artist shared stories of extremely varied treatment by T employees. They came to a consensus that the inconsistent policy enforcement had to change, and that the MBTA needed to consult with artists about any new policy. Baird sent a letter to Timothy Gens in MBTA Public Affairs saying just that, and asking for a guarantee of artist input before the next meeting that had been scheduled, on January twenty-seventh.
At the second meeting, the group began to get more organized. Subway artists are not immediately associated with organization in many people's minds, but the Subway Artists' Guild into a highly organized operation. Baird nominated an executive slate, and subcommittees were formed for community and media outreach. There was also a negotiating group, which was to meet with T representatives and try to hammer things out. At all the meetings, Baird handed out sign-in sheets and kept records of addresses, phone numbers, and number of meetings attended. Meetings were run with agendas, albeit written with marker on paper taped to the wall, and a consensus was reached on every decision.
The negotiating committee was formed to represent the group as a whole. They were only a few people ñ David Nieman, Elliot Gibbons, Baird, Bigelow, and Sharrhan ñ but they still wanted to represent everyone as fairly as possible. To get a better idea of what everybody thought, they asked. Elliot Gibbons drew up a detailed survey about desired schedules, desired spots at stations, and experiences in the subways. The project was extremely labor-intensive, but the negotiators made good use of the information, surprising the T negotiators with their preparedness.
It was the T representatives, actually, who were unprepared for the meetings. They entered the negotiations assuming that street performers were generally derelicts, little better than beggars, and so wouldn't be strong negotiators, but found themselves sitting across from some very smart politicians. Their assumptions about the musicians were common ones, and have been made by passers-by, and even courts, for years. Subway performing is not a highly respected profession, perhaps because it does not have the usual trappings of "respectable professions." Musicians who work full time in the streets and subways make their own schedules and don't receive a salary. Their income can vary dramatically from week to week, and they are responsible only to themselves. This doesn't mean that they aren't very good musicians, or that they are incapable of holding a job ñ many hold part or full time jobs not related to music, and many play paid gigs at clubs and festivals in addition to their performances in public places. It does mean, though, that they have a degree of freedom that people in more traditional lines of work can barely imagine, and tend not to understand.
The first step in the negotiations was to get an idea of where the two parties stood in relation to each other. They found that they agreed that stations should be made available to performers somehow, that amplifiers shouldn't be categorically banned, and that an audition system would be impossible to orchestrate. They disagreed, though, on whether musicians' first amendment rights were being violated when they were prevented from playing or selling their music, and on whether a future program would be strictly scheduled or more flexible. The T argued that it had control over the stations, so much so that the first amendment did not apply there, and planned to maintain that control by keeping close tabs on where and when musicians could enter their regularly scheduled systems of arrivals and departures.
The concern that the MBTA always returned to was safety. For safety purposes, they said, T officials needed to have ultimate authority in their stations. Ironically enough, though, given all of the T's concerns, there was a good deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that musicians actually made the platforms safer. Mare's friends used to call her the conscience of the subway, and she could have qualified as a guardian angel, too. Once while playing a subway she saw a train door close on the cane of a blind man. The train started to move and drag the man along the platform, but Mare was able to yell into her microphone and alert the driver, who stopped the train. The extra set of eyes has made a difference in all sorts of situations ñ performers have saved riders from muggings and heart attacks before the Transit Police could arrive on the scene.
It is not too hard to believe that people are less likely to commit crimes when there are potential witnesses. Nor is it hard to believe that the more people present, the smaller the likelihood that someone will be injured in an accident and languish unnoticed. The T is not alone, though, in implementing policies that assume the opposite. Many plazas, parks, and public spaces designed and built in the seventies and eighties were built on notions of what shouldn't occur there rather than on notions of what should.
Much of the development of public and semi-public areas done during seventies and eighties was done by private companies participating in revitalization plans for downtown areas. They planted flowers, but with small fences around them to prevent anyone from getting too close to them. They build benches for people to sit on, but not so long, so wide, or so comfortable that some derelict might think of sleeping there. They built walls at a height perfect for sitting, but topped them with iron railings or jagged rocks, again to prevent homeless people from sitting or sleeping on them. Unsurprisingly, these tactics led to the construction of places that were unwelcoming not only to "undesirables," but to everyone.
Rather than promoting a vital, busy street life, much of this kind of development tried to make sidewalks unnecessary. Blank storefronts, malls that are entered through parking lots, and walkways a story or two above the street all tried to take people off of the streets. It was a strange move for redevelopment plans that often counted making the streets safe as one of their goals ñ most people would rather walk down the crowded, busy Las Vegas strip at midnight than down a deserted street with no one else in sight.
The MBTA was not alone in thinking that public spaces should be purely functional thoroughfares. These ideas were shared between urban planners and public transportation administrators across the country. It is perfectly logical that if one is running or modifying a subway system in a major city, one should keep up with what the subways in other major cities are doing, but the unintended consequence of this was that ideas and trends jumped from Toronto to Chicago to Boston without careful consideration of how the needs and conditions in those cities differed.
The MBTA entered negotiations with a frame of reference that had more to do with the state of public transportation in America than it did to do with the state of public transportation in Boston. In New York, T negotiators told the performers, musicians were allowed to play on the mezzanines of many stations, but not on the platforms. It sounded logical to the MBTA, but New York and Boston had completely different subways with completely different station architecture. If musicians were prevented from playing on the platforms in Boston, they would be forced, for the most part, to play in the doorways.
At the base of the negotiations between transportation administrators and street musicians was a fundamental difference of opinion on whose space the subway was. For the MBTA, each subway station was part of a carefully scheduled and controlled system that moved people around the city. For the artists, each station was part of a chain of public venues, places where they and the people listening to them were part of something more than the simple act of moving from one place to another.
The musicians tried to combat the T's point of view by inserting their own language and perspective into drafts of the agreement. They wanted to write police behavior into the agreement, knowing that it was ultimately more important what the police did than what the administrators thought they might do. The MBTA was operating, though, on the standard assumption that the officer's actions would naturally reflect the letter and spirit of agreements made by their superiors, and thought such a clause unnecessary.
Despite the drastically different starting points that the T and the artists had, or perhaps because of them, the T set itself a deadline fairly early in the negotiations. Everything should be ironed out, they said, by April first, 1987. After communicating that, though, the T negotiators disappeared into the State Transportation building and the draft proposals disappeared with them. When the T missed its own deadline, another public meeting was called, and the Artists Guild set a deadline of their own, giving the T until May eighteenth to finalize an agreement. If they did not, the consensus was, the Guild would file a lawsuit.
These months had been hectic for people involved in negotiating, surveying, and keeping performers and reporters updated of progress and the lack thereof. It was even more hectic given that their lives were continuing around them. Elliot Gibbons was still working to support a young child, and many others were still involved in their regular musical gigs, wherever those were, as well as the lives of their families and friends.
The threat of a lawsuit was the only legal leverage that the artists had over the MBTA, but the time and of actually filing one meant that it had to remain a threat. The T wasn't actually responsible to anyone who used it ñ it was an independent entity that had to answer only to the state legislature that funded it. Conflicting interpretations existed about whether it was created with authority only do run trains and buses, or whether it had more extensive control over the facilities through which it operated those things, but either way the legislature and the governors' office were its only checks short of a federal lawsuit.
Baird said that in almost all of the campaigns he has waged against cities and organizations for street musicians' rights, there has been a component that is a civics lesson for the performers. He believed that progress needed to be made in all three branches of government, and that the system of checks and balances with which our country is so conveniently endowed should be used to the artists' advantage. He wanted to teach them, he said, "to be political animals." With this in mind, the Guild came up a plan to get leverage where they needed it: in the state house.
Massachusetts State Senator Michael Barrett represented the city of Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston and home to quite a number of performers. The Cambridge Senate seat was among the most liberal in the state, so the cause of the Subway Artists Guild seemed like it might be up Barrett's alley, and his place on the Senate Transportation Committee made him a useful potential ally for the subway performers.
The Subway Artists' Guild was a non-profit, and therefore prohibited from engaging in political fundraising. Its members, the musicians, didn't have lots of extra cash that they could use for campaign contributions, in any case. They did have audiences, though. Hundreds of eligible voters heard and saw them every day. Their impromptu endorsements and performances at campaign events were a great unofficial contribution
The MBTA could probably ignore a group of disgruntled performers indefinitely if they wanted to, but hey had to respond quickly to Senators in charge of their budget. Barrett orchestrated a series of public hearings that got an agreement out of the T, a little less than a year after the performers' first meeting.
As subways were being developed, one of the biggest problems that engineers faced was not how to build the tunnels or the tracks that would take trains from one place to another, but how to make the trains go. Overhead power lines were difficult, and sending electricity through the rails wouldn't work. They could design the rails to carry the tonnage required by the subway cars, or they could design them to carry the electricity the cars needed to run, but they couldn't design them to do both. Their solution was simple. They added another rail that didn't carry any weight, but that carried the thousands of volts the trains needed. It solved the problem perfectly, and still gets Boston's subways around town today, but its drawback is that it can't simply shut off after a train passes. There is always a current running through the third rail, and it has caused its share of injuries and deaths. When the trains aren't running on the rails, people expect that the current won't run, either. They're wrong, though. The power is always flowing through them.
Harassment in some stations continued, though the Subway Artists Guild provided an avenue for addressing incidents. Ultimately, though, a piece of paper in a downtown office wasn't sufficient inspiration for some Transit Police officers to turn over a new leaf. Like the subway musicians had developed their own method of regulating themselves, the officers had gotten used to certain ways of acting towards each other and people on the platforms. Though in theory they are the manifestation of the MBTA's agreements and regulations, it is impossible to expect them to be anything more than people.
The research for this progress could not have been completed without the help of many generous people. I am extremely grateful to Stephen Baird for talking with me and sharing his personal archives and files of the Subway Artists Guild. Our conversations, and the papers and clippings that he sifted through with me were extremely valuable. Mare Streetpeople, John Bigelow, David Nieman, Sharrhan Williamson, and Elliot Gibbons were all very kind to share there experiences, scrapbooks, and knowledge with me. I could not have told their story without them.
Many people were very generous with their time during my work on this project, but I would not have been able to begin it without the financial generosity of an Olin Fellowship.
I am also indebted to a number of people that I was not fortunate enough to speak with. I would not have an understanding of administrative approaches to public spaces without William Whyte, author of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (The Conservation Foundation, 1980), and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Evelyn Blumenberg, and Renia Ehrenfeucht, authors of "Sidewalk Democracy: Municipalities and the Regulation of Public Space" (in the forthcoming book to be published by Routledge, Regulating Place: Standards and the Shaping of Urban America, edited by Eran Ben Joseph and Terry Szwold 2004). Susie Tannenbaum's who wrote, Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York provided a great deal of valuable information on trends in subway administration and a picture of another subway system dealing with the same issues.
I am also indebted to Brian Cudahy's Change at Park Street Under (S. Greene Press, 1972), which provided a clear and detailed history of the subway system in Boston.
Street Arts and Buskers Advocates
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