Buskers Butt Heads with Port of S.F.

Categories: Politics

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Performance anxiety over proposed regulations for Pier 39-area showmen


By Joe Eskenazi


When Eric Cash says something feels just like walking on broken glass, he knows of what he speaks. The 30-year-old comedian regularly shambles on the shards in his street act (he also eats fire, which, he confesses, plays hell with his liver).

So, when asked which is more difficult – walking on broken glass or working with the Port of San Francisco over rules regulating waterfront street performances – Cash lets out a hearty laugh.

“Well, I know how to walk on broken glass,” he says.

Officials at the Port don’t know from broken glass, but they hinted that they’re not having so much fun with this process, either. An attempt to ostensibly manage crowd safety and mobility and establish acceptable levels of noise – which would allow street musicians to use amplifiers without worry of arrest and confiscation – has resulted in angry recriminations, finger-pointing and internecine warfare within the ranks of the street performers.

The Port hopes to institute its “pilot program” by November, but elements such as three-hour time slots for performers to be determined at a monthly lottery and a $500 yearly licensing fee for buskers have Cash rattled – “That takes the ‘street’ out of street performance.”

A 180-minute performance, he informed the Port at a Sept. 11 meeting, will lead to musicians “playing the same six songs over and over again” and result in hostility from the sedentary Pier 39-area merchants forced to listen to them. He complains the $500 licensing fee is a blatant attempt by established acts to price up-and-comers out of the market and is prohibitively higher than the fees other cities charge (materials provided by the city, in fact, note a yearly fee of $37 for performers at Santa Monica pier, 30 bucks at Seattle’s Pike Place and fees ranging from $30 to $110 for groups at Granville Island in Canada).

Katharine Arrow, the senior property manager for the Port of S.F.’s north waterfront says the area’s “many visitors, wooden piers and wooden buildings” justifies the Port’s regulation of performers using fire, as well as guns, knives or swords (“I don’t think broken glass is on there.”). While the possibility of a street performer inadvertently burning Pier 39 to a crisp is something right out of Chuck Palahniuk, Cash is not amused. The notion of a higher authority telling him what he can and cannot do in his act is an anathema to him and he promises litigation if it ever comes to pass.

Cash claims to speak on behalf of the “Circle Performers,” a group of buskers who ply their craft from dusk into the wee hours at the paved circle on Jefferson and Powell near Pier 41. The pilot program’s proposed 10 p.m. cutoff also doesn’t sit well with him; “inane” is one of the more polite words he used to describe that notion.

Finally, Cash asked why street performers, many of whom help bring hundreds of cash-heavy tourists into the San Francisco’s most merchant-laden area, aren’t compensated by the city. Don’t laugh, said the comedian: Seattle and Cleveland pay their street performers. This suggestion seemed to literally stun Arrow when I reiterated it to her during our interview: “I have no budget for that,” she said quietly. “The city has many hiring rules. I can’t imagine how one … can get a salary from the city for performing in that way.”

The theatricality of a man who eats fire and treads upon broken glass isn’t sitting well with everyone and you can add Stephen Dreyfus to that camp. The veteran S.F. street saxophonist has attempted for decades to institute some sort of regulation for itinerant musicians to curb what he describes as a campaign of police harassment (you can read, at length, about his efforts here). Dreyfus says he’s been threatened with arrest countless times for sax on the street and hasn’t been able to use amplification for the past year or hawk CDs for the past four.

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All Dreyfus wants is parity with street artists, who pay the city $600 a year and can sell what they wish from their carts (musicians have often been cited for selling CDs without a peddlers’ license and then had their cases booted from court because there’s no license they’re eligible to buy).

The musician claimed much of the vitriol street performers have directed toward one another over this matter is due to panic over vanishing performance space. As San Francisco grows ever more developed, onetime venues have been transformed into shopping complexes or codos. Musicians, magicians and acrobats now find themselves virtually atop one another. Those doing well in the present, Dreyfus claimed, are happy to preserve the status quo.

Cash, meanwhile, said he’s reaching out to merchants to join his coalition of performers objecting to the Port’s program. It’ll be a not entirely welcome diversion from his “day job” – having a 300-pound Midwestern tourist jump on his chest while he’s sprawled atop broken glass.

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