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
Statement to Chicago City Council
by Allan Schnaiberg
Re Chapter 36.1
on November 5, 1982
I am Dr. Allan Schnaiberg, currently Professor of Sociology and Urban Affairs at Northwestern University (1810 Chicago Avenue, Evanston), and I wish to speak against part of the draft Ordinance, but in favor of a more positive ordinance favoring street performance in Chicago. I am speaking in my private capacity, but as someone with considerable experience in urban social structure, and in the social and economic problems of modern cities. Moreover, I have worked professionally in many American cities, including Detroit, Ann Arbor, Chicago, San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Boulder, as well as major Canadian cities, including Montreal and Toronto, and cities abroad, including Berlin, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Georgetown, West Malaysia. Much of my research has dealt with social and economic inequalities in cities and rural areas, and so I feel qualified to address issues of inequity that this ordinance may introduce or deal with.
Objections to street performance seem to center around two issues: (1) this introduces inequities with respect to commercial performers who entertain off the streets, in private or public spaces, and who may be deemed to suffer unfair competition with street performers; and (2) the nature of street performances that are especially successful in that they attract large crowds that impede street traffic flow. I will try to address each of these concerns briefly.
With respect to unfair competition claims, I propose that these are generally ungrounded. My sense of the markets for commercial (or sponsored public events) performances is that these are rather distinct from the markets for street performances. They are distinct in at least the following ways: (1) more affluent audiences for street performances contribute such small amounts of money to street performers that these contributions do not affect the capacity of these groups to purchase commercial tickets, nor do they seem in any way to influence their desire to purchase such tickets, since the comfort and privacy of commercial spaces and performances are so much greater than that of the street audience; (2) for the less affluent street audiences, they may contribute nothing too the performer, or, if they contribute a small token, this in no way affects their capacity to purchase private performance tickets, since this capacity is in general well beyond their means today. Put in the language of economics, the outlays for street performance by these two audience segments in no way affects the ìtasteî for commercial performance negatively: i.e., it does not lower the income elasticity of demand for commercial tickets.
Indeed, I would make the reverse argument to those who represent commercial performers. The presence of street performers increases, if anything, the future market for commercial performances. This is because the non-participatory media (TV and radio and films) do not appear to induce some segments of the population to attend live performances; but the experience of skilled street performers and performances often whets the appetite of audiences who would otherwise not seek out live performances when their income permits it. Thus the market for street performances is not in a substitution or zero-sum relation with live commercial performances, but is, if anything, a stimulus to the latter market, in a positive-sum game. Both markets thus benefit from privately-supported street performances, then.
Let me try to push the Council one step further on the equity issue of street performances. From my observations of many North American, European, and Asian cities in the past decade and a half, the financial support for street performances is positively distributive. That is, much of the financial burden seems to fall on those best able to pay. For the lower-income members of the city, this means that they are able to enjoy a free public good, with the expenses covered by more affluent street audience members. This is equivalent to a progressive income tax to support the arts, coupled with a wider audience for the arts than most publicly-supported programs are able to reach (that is, the "streets" are often more democratically populated than many public auditoriums with publicly-financed performances). The reason for this is fairly straightforward: street performers need to be concerned about their livelihoods, if they do street performances as one means of supporting themselves. Thus, they select street locations where there is both a sufficient density of pedestrians to support their efforts. All other members of the audience become essentially "free riders," then, subsidized by this target group. My observation over the years is, indeed, that it is the less affluent members of the audience who stay the entire performances (since they have fewer chances of witnessing live arts), and the more affluent members of the audience contribute and move on quickly (perhaps their contributions are slightly higher in fact because they feel guilty at leaving in the middle of the performance.)
For the City of Chicago, in fact, I suspect this subsidization of public entertainment is one effective substitute for the failed suburban commuter taxes that have been proposed for years. Many of the street performances take place on or near major modes of transit that commuters from the ring of Chicago metropolitan suburbs use daily. Insofar as these suburban commuters constitute one target audience of street performers, then we in effect see a suburban commuter tax in effect, with tax revenues going to provide live arts performances that are in theory available to all Chicago residents. And since transit nodes are often points of maximum interchange between city and suburban commuters, they are performances that are in fact available to a wide diversity of Chicago residents. Let me assure you that all my experience with public financing of Arts and Humanities suggests that street performances are a far more equitable and a far more efficient way of getting public pleasures to the less affluent, with costs borne by others. And in a time of shrinking public revenues, and even faster shrinkage of such revenues available for the support of the arts, it seems unconscionable not to encourage every type of street performance. And let me underscore that by ìstreet performanceî I mean one supported by ìpassing the hatî at the time of the performance: there is no other equitable mechanism to achieve such public goods delivery, I would argue.
Finally, I want to speak briefly to the matter of street performances and congestion of city streets. Following the profound insights of planners such as Jane Jacobs, reinforced by recent pedestrian-observation studies of my fellow sociologist William Whyte, I want to suggest that our major urban problems in North America stem from too little pedestrian congestion and too much vehicular congestion. Urbanites (and even many suburbanites) find comfort and attraction in pedestrian congestion. That is why a sole street observer looking up soon collects a crowd, regardless of what he or she is looking at! Seriously, street activity is an inherently social activity: too little street congestion, it has been shown, actually decreases the propensity of many urban and suburban dwellers to shop or walk certain streets. And this is true quite independently of the risks of street crime, A heighted street density introduced by street performances actually reduces fear of crime, and increases numbers of pedestrians (thus often enhancing commercial activity in the areas near street performances). And this is true of local residents as well as tourists. Interestingly, although pickpocket activity may increase because of density, this does not seem to dampen enthusiasm for street performances (and of course pickpocket activity risks increase in every crowd situation, and that includes: commercial entertainment and shopping). Thus the increase in street performances will enhance the attractiveness of Chicago street to residents, suburbanites, and tourists alike - thereby increasing local profits and tax revenues and making Chicago a more livable place still.
In summary, then, street performances are one mechanism to make Chicago's quality of life higher for all residents, and to do so with no increased burden on its less fortunate or affluent residents. It is far more likely that street performers and other commercial investors in Chicago rather than diminish them - and equally likely achieve these highly desirable outcomes, however, it is necessary to encourage street performances with "free-will" offerings: that become available without increased tax or other burdens for the less-affluent city residents. The present ordinance seems workable except for section 36.1-6; the original draft contained far more suitable language permitting and regulating free-will offerings, and this draft section should be restated.
Street Arts and Buskers Advocates
Copyright © 1999-2005 by Stephen Baird