by Jeremy Morrison
Staying cool in the Saturday shadows beneath the shade of the Saenger Theatre, Dano Barbosa strummed his guitar as passerby strolled downtown Pensacola. A small jar packed with some dollar bills sat on the sidewalk before him amidst bronze plaques laid into the walkway to recognize high-end donors to the arts.
“Believe it or not, this guitar was smashed in half a couple of weeks ago,” Barbosa laughed, recounting a recent bicycle accident on Cervatees Street.
The musician has been performing, or busking, along South Palafox for years. He recalls the summer of 2013 as a particularly hot time.
“There were $100-nights back then,” he said.
But not so much anymore. On this particular Saturday morning, tips were at a slow trickle.
“You know one thing that’s really put a damper on busking?” Barbosa paused. “Plastic. Not many people carry cash anymore.”
But plastic has been more common than cash for years. And it’s not the real reason Barbosa feels busking has gone downhill in Pensacola. The real reason, he believes, is the city’s multiple attempts to crack down on panhandling and the effect such efforts have on the collective community mindset.
“I’ve noticed it’s gotten kinda bad,” Barbosa explained. “To where everybody started hating on the street people.”
The musician, a native of the area who currently lives with his brother and sister-in-law, plans on taking off for travels soon. Perhaps to a city with a more thriving busking scene — “where people know that’s what you’re doing” — like New Orleans or Nashville.
“I gotta get out of this little dead zone right here,” he said. “You cannot truly busk in downtown Pensacola. You can’t make money. You can’t do it.”
That will be especially true if the city of Pensacola’s latest efforts to curb panhandling in the downtown core come to fruition. Currently, the Pensacola City Council is considering an ordinance that would bar any solicitation for donations in downtown; the ordinances stated aim is panhandling, but street performers would also be impacted.
But, it turns out, that busking may yet have a place in downtown Pensacola. A defined, controlled place where street performers adhere to some sort of yet-to-be-determined structure.
“Clearly, street performers add to the fabric of downtown, but you have to have some kind of control,” said John Peacock, chairman of the Downtown Improvement Board.
The ordinance being considered by the city council was triggered by a letter from Peacock and the DIB last fall, citing safety concerns and negative impacts to downtown businesses due to panhandling. Critics charge that the ordinance targets the area’s homeless community, imposing punitive measures (there’s fines for infractions) instead of offering resources.
A group of local musicians, meanwhile, have also come out in opposition to the busking aspect of the ordinance. They organized a mass-busking protest, planning to flood downtown with street-side music.
That protest had to be rescheduled to April 6 due to weather. That was, perhaps surprisingly, disappointing to DIB Executive Director Curt Morse.
“I’m bummed that everything got rained out,” Morse said.
He was planning on enjoying an evening of music. And he doesn’t feel the prospect of a new panhandling ordinance necessarily needs to preclude street performances from downtown.
“I think there’s a way to make this happen,” he said.
When homeless advocate Mike Kimbrel — an outspoken critic of the city’s attempts to ban panhandling from downtown — recently met Morse, he came away encouraged by the reception. He thought the DIB might even be softening on its support for the new ordinance.
“We actually had a two-hour-long conversation, I was blown away,” Kimbrel recounted. “My previous encounters with the DIB basically consist of getting yelled at and run out of their meeting.”
The two discussed the plight of the area’s homeless. And how some common experiences had shaped their respective perspectives.
“How seeing shanty towns in Jamaica effected us,” Kimbrel said.
Kimbrel said that he dived into the city’s previous forays into ordinances dealing with panhandling. He thought the two seemed to agree that an existing law — the so-called aggressive panhandling ordinance — perhaps already addressed the concerns laid out by the DIB.
“We both understood how we’re coming to this from opposite ends of the spectrum — I’m a homeless advocate and he represents downtown businesses,” Kimbrel said, describing the conversation as promising nonetheless. “He shared with me that he thought that talking about sidewalks and walkability was more important for downtown.”
But Morse had a different takeaway. The DIB, he said, is absolutely on board with the city’s proposed ordinance.
“I think it does exactly what it’s intended to do,” Morse said, stressing the DIB’s original case contending that panhandling negatively impacts downtown safety and economics. “We’re concerned about it.”
But the fact that buskers would also be included in the proposed ordinance gives him pause. Morse, a musician himself, said he appreciates street performances and considers them different than panhandling.
“Busking isn’t panhandling,” he explained, “not when it’s done the right way.”
But what does that mean? The right way?
“True buskers — not just a musician out to make money,” Morse continued, recalling street performers he’d seen in New Orleans that had inspired him to tip. “Street performing is actually giving something of value. When I hear someone that really knows how to play, really working their craft, I’m amazed by it.”
In contrast to the “right way,” Morse explained, some individuals don’t raise their performance to the level of busking. It’s just irritating.
“The ones I hear the most complaints about are either too high or drunk, with three strings on a guitar, that can’t sing and sound like two cats in a can,” Morse said.
Looking for some middle ground in the face of Pensacola’s proposed ordinance, the executive director has turned his gaze towards Asheville, N.C. The eclectic city at the foot of the Smokies has long been popular with street performers.
“Street performing is not only permitted, but encouraged,” Morse said. “And I think that’s really cool.”
Busking is permitted in Asheville’s downtown district. The city has a thriving community of street performers. But city officials have recently enacted a set of regulations to govern busking after the business community raised concerns about the crowding of sidewalks as people stopped to listen to the performers.
This is why Morse feels the DIB and city could consider Asheville’s experience as a template that can be transferred to Pensacola.
“I would love to be the incubator for that here in Pensacola,” he said.
In Asheville, buskers must observe designated distances between performing areas. That distance has traditionally been 40 feet, but two areas identified as high-traffic have seen their distances raised to 120 feet. The Asheville Buskers Collective also has a set of etiquette suggestions, such as limiting performances to two hours so that another busker can begin. The new rules, as well as the formation of the buskers collective itself, came about during a multi-year conversation between city officials and members of the area’s busking community. A pilot program meant to try out the new set of rules just launched in January.
“I mean, there is structure to it, but it’s not like, ‘Hey, this is how you have to do it. This is where you have to do it,’” Morse explained.
Morse said that overlaying some sort of structure to Pensacola’s busking scene — admittedly, not a scene anywhere comparable in size to Asheville’s — is an “embryonic” concept. The notion hasn’t been breached with city officials yet and won’t be laid on the DIB Board of Directors until its April 11 meeting. He’s not sure exactly what a finished product would look like.
“Make it to where there’s no heavy-duty threshold they have to cross, maybe there’s no permits,” Morse said, outlining a rough sketch.
One aspect of any future structuring would likely be venue. Morse said that he’s eyeing a space in the downtown core that would be appropriate for busking, but didn’t elaborate.
That means that the traditional theatre of the busker would likely be off limits. They would no longer be able to perform on any random space along the sidewalk.
“I don’t think you can do that, because now you’re impeding on their — do you know what an LTU is?” Morse asked.
An LTU, or license to use permit, allows for a business to use its sidewalk frontage in exchange for a fee to the city. For example, restaurants secure an LTU in order to set up sidewalk dining.
“To have performing in front of their venue where they’re trying to sell food, spirits, whatever — that’s not the best experience,” Morse said.
Whatever form future busking rules might take, Morse said he’s looking for a collaborative effort. He said he would like to get input and feedback from local street performers as well as the downtown business community.
“I don’t want to do anything in a vacuum,” he explained. “You don’t come up with good ideas that way. You come out with some sterile idea that you pour out on the ground and say, ‘What — ?’”
The executive director mentioned he plans to reach out to local musicians. Specifically, to Nathan Marona, who has organized the April 6 busking protest.
Marona said he was aware that there could be some effort to salvage busking from the proposed panhandling ordinance.
“There were some mutterings on that at the city council meeting,” the musician said, adding that he’d also heard that the DIB was in contact with people involved with Asheville’s busking community.
Though he and Morse have yet to talk, Marona didn’t sound hip on the concept of imposing rules on street performers. He understood the intent, but disagreed with the spirit.
“I think it’s pretty stupid. I think as long as common sense is involved it should be allowed anywhere,” Marona said. “I mean, obviously if someone has drums set up on a table outside Bodacious Brew, that’s stupid.”
Morse takes a different view. He chafes at the suggestion that rules applied to street performers would serve to sanitize an organic activity that is, in some ways, defined by its lack of regulation.
“I think ‘sanitized’ is not probably the best term,” Morse said.
The executive director feels that the structure is needed in order to save a space for street performances in Pensacola’s downtown landscape. He believes such measures would be mutually beneficial for the business community as well as buskers.
“What I think needs to happen for the benefit of true street performers, is we need to come up with some guidelines and even a place where they can do it and be successful doing it,” Morse said.
Such guidelines would spare people from the lady with the three-stringed guitar. And Morse believes that buskers would be on board with the effort, glad to see such performers gone.
“They might agree that that lady sitting there playing guitar is not street performing,” he said. “They’re not doing anybody any good.”
Peacock agrees. He’s down with street performers, as long as they are within the bounds of what he considers acceptable for downtown.
“We want to encourage as much of that as possible,” he said, “as long as it’s family friendly.”
Taking a break from playing his guitar on Palafox’s sidewalk, Barbosa paused and considered for a moment the concept of a more-controlled busking environment.
At first, the notion was inviting. He’s familiar with the lady with the three-stringed guitar.
“She sits there and does like this,” Barbosa laughed, imitating a lazy, dull strum on his guitar. “She makes money with sympathy tips. There’s more sympathy tips down here than talent tips.”
And the musician is pretty sure he’d make the cut if any kind of quality-control measures are imposed. He’s heard of other communities where street performers have to jump through such hoops, essentially auditioning to prove their talent meets the bar.
“Like, if I went in, I’d pick out my best numbers and say, ‘Here’s what I got,’” the musician said. “I know without a doubt I’d get a permit.”
But upon further consideration, Barbosa pivots. Such control and structure governing street performers didn’t sound quite right. It sounded a little sterile.
“When you start trying to push the street people and buskers out, you’re pushing the culture out,” the musician said. “When you push the culture out, you’re saying you can’t be New Orleans. You’re too wimpy.”
To read more about Pensacola’s proposed panhandling ordinance, read “Pensacola’s Downtown Scrub Down.”
To read more about the April 6 busking protest, read “Protest Song.”
To learn more about Asheville’s busking pilot program, check out the city’s street performer guide here.
(Correction: this article originally stated that Asheville now has two-hour time limits for street performers; the two-hour limit is not a law, but rather a suggestion of etiquette agreed upon by members of the Asheville Buskers Collective.)