Our View: The baffling case of the busted busker

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Our View: The baffling case of the busted busker
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(File photo)

By now, most Alexandrians are aware that opera singer Krista Clouse was arrested on September 2 for singing on the sidewalk in Old Town near the Il Porto restaurant. But many, us included, still don’t fully understand why.

Alexandria has a noise ordinance that requires a permit for amplified busking. Unfortunately, the regulation is poorly understood — by police and the residents alike — and it is inconsistently and subjectively enforced.

Clouse, whose charges eventually were dropped, indeed violated a city council-passed ordinance that outlaws street performing with an amplifier without a permit.

But a busker with an electric guitar and an amplifier performed Tuesday night on Market Square while city councilors sat in their legislative meeting. Unless he had a permit, he was also in violation of city code right under the noses of our city’s code writers — yet he played and left without incident.

Busking with an amplifier is commonplace in Alexandria. An amplified saxophone player performs almost every Saturday morning next to Market Square during the farmer’s market. He can be heard blocks away, probably in violation of both the decibel and amplifier provisions of the city code. Yet week after week he is there, and to our knowledge has not been arrested.

We are not anti-busking. In fact, we believe that Alexandria’s street performers have long added a welcome vibrancy to our city. Their entrepreneurial spirit is admirable. And it simply feels more festive when music is in the air.

Clouse’s arrest should be viewed as an opportunity to raise questions around the issue of street performing. For instance, should the city disallow street performers from plying their craft along the waterfront? Clouse reportedly was performing at the intersection of King and Lee streets on September 2 because she had been chased from her usual spot next to the Torpedo Factory.

Has longtime street performer Jamey Turner, who has played his glass organ at that spot for the past 30 years, also been chased away? If so, by whom? Is it fair to say street performers can’t play along the waterfront, yet restaurants can use the same public areas to sell food and drink? Isn’t the same true of city sidewalks in general, where al fresco dining — when given permission by the city — abounds?

City code pertaining to noise and street performing needs to be revisited, with an eye to clarifying and making it less subjective. Perhaps amplifiers should be allowed, but decibel levels restricted. After all, an unamplified saxophone can be louder than an amplified voice, and vice versa. But if amplifiers are to be disallowed altogether, they need to be disallowed for everyone.

The “ratting out” aspect of enforcing noise ordinances also can prove problematic. Much like the city’s three-day street parking rule, enforcement depends largely on one neighbor tattling on an- other. What’s impermissible on one block goes unnoticed on another. What if one person simply doesn’t like opera, or the saxophone reminds another of their unpleasant Uncle Fred?

Hopefully, our city’s commercial streets will remain hospitable to performers who add much to our local flavor. Any changes to the law need to happen after ample opportunity for public discussion. And if the code is amended, our police need to be educated on the ordinance so they can uniformly enforce it.

In the interim, it might be best if no more buskers are busted.

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