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Street Performers Are The Colorful Noise Of Chicago

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It's interesting what people get into an uproar about. There are few jobs, companies going bankrupt and homes going into foreclosure. The citizens of my hometown of Chicago however are apparently not upset enough at this. Rather than tackle the state of the economy, they decided that "noise pollution" is an issue that the city's politicians must deal with.

Alderman Brendan Reilly of the 42nd District of our fair city has decided to initiate a "Jack Webb" kind of enforcement that would make it easier for The Windy City to sweep away those pesky street performers. The tactic? A proposed ordinance that would if have two, instead of three, violations on your record and take away your license to perform. If you are louder than the opening minutes of Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song", then you lose your license after the first strike.

The Bucket Boys, a group of young kids who bang on buckets to make music, are one set of street performers who will victims of this new ordinance should it pass. Some have commented that these kids, who really don't do any harm, should be in school rather than out on the street performing music. Given the violence in Chicago's Public School System these days, that would be like throwing them from the frying pan directly into the fire.

I don't know the story of most people who perform on the streets. I do know that whatever these street performers are doing, at least it doesn't involve robbing someone of their hard-earned money. R. Kelly certainly laid the groundwork for future stardom during his days of being a street performer. Imagine if this ordinance was really enforced back in his early days? We the people of the Chi would miss out on the "brilliance" that is the "Trapped In The Closet" saga.

I recognize that people would like to be able to work, have conversations and take in all of the sights of of Chicago. I do think it is worth pointing out that this is however a city, not a suburb. A city is made up of a massive group of people who all brings their different lives and personalities. Street performers are a characteristic of a city, especially one such as Chicago.

In another context, street performers are characteristic of the variety of Chicago's population.  They are are a diverse mixture of different cultural backgrounds and musical styles.

I can certainly see Alderman Reilly's point about bringing down the noise level in his district, which consists of the Loop and the Near North side. I just find it disturbing that the people who live in Chicago who choose to work and play in a busy area of the city would actually be bothered by the noise of a certain group of people. Some of these individuals who take issue with street performers should really be taking more issue with the annoying habit of people carrying on stupid conversations on their cell phones in public, and loudly.

If you are bothered by noise, a city isn't for you. Let people, short of beating you over the head and harming you, live how they wanna live.

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About Matthew Milam

  • Joanne Huspek

    I agree. If you’re going to live in a place like Chicago (or New York or San Francisco) you’ve got to expect this kind of thing. If you want pastoral pleasures, it’s best to be in Hoffman Estates (or upstate New York or Napa Valley). City noise is half the charm of the city.

  • Downtowner

    With all due respect, this ordinance is not intended to push street performers out of the City of Chicago – it is intended to ensure that all street performances comply with the Environmental Noise Ordinance that regulates allowable decibel levels.

    Under Reilly’s proposal, any street performer – whether you’re a bucket beater, a saxophone player or mime – continues to enjoy the right to perform on the public way – so long as they are carrying a valid performer’s license and so long as they do not violate lawful decibel limits.

    If the bucket beaters or other drummers need to shove pillows into their buckets or drums to modulate the noise, so be it. Turning down the volume, ever so slightly, on these otherwise incredibly loud instruments allows these performers to display their “talents” while also respecting the need for downtown employees to be able to focus and concentrate while at work.

    Downtown workers understand that Chicago is a major metropolitan area and with that comes substantial ambient noise. That’s not the issue here.

    In this case, certain performers (including the bucket boys) are playing at volumes that reach double, sometimes triple the legally mandated decibel limits (intended to combat noise pollution).

    Try to imagine 4 or 5 hours of non-stop drumming at incredible decibel levels – so loud that it sounds as though the drummers are playing in the middle of your office. That is the real problem this alderman is seeking to cure.

    Alderman Reilly knows his ward is a noisy one – this is not about trying to bring a slice of the suburbs to downtown Chicago via “peace and quiet” – the Alderman is simply trying to establish reasonable limits

  • lindsey

    I would like to know what unamplified buckets could ever be heard in the middle of an office. Seems ridiculous. People playing music should be embraced rather than ridiculed. There are time and noise restrictions on music, but no one seems to turn down the microphone when a politician steps up to the podium.

  • City Dweller

    Cities are the most sustainable method of living in the contemporary world. That said, people have historically moved to cities because of job opportunity and conveniences, not because they care about future generations or want to be violated. People historically move away from cities because of such things as noise, crime, better schools for children, etc. There is no reason why someone who chooses to live in a city must deal with being a victim of crime or other people’s noise ordinance violations. There are laws and police that support this here, just like in the suburbs. It is extremely important that we have dense, vibrant, and diverse neighborhoods (residential and commercial mixed together) where people can coexist peacefully. Just because you don’t want to live in a suburb (comprised of non-diverse zoning areas), doesn’t mean that you have to live with crime and other people’s inconsiderate noise. To counter some of the other comments (not personal attacks):
    1) Yes you can hear bucket drumming clearly in an office 30 stories up. Further, a city is much more than just offices. I can name a few other uses of buildings found in cities: residential buildings, hotels, theaters (they lawfully contain their noises), etc. The decibels of amplified musical instruments cannot be matched by the city’s white noise, nor can good windows keep it those types of sound waves out.
    2) No, a person shouldn’t just expect it or else move to the suburbs – that is a personal opinion that seems selfishly unfair to future generations. There is ambient noise, and that is expected, and ambient noise is easy to tune-out for most people. Bucket drumming does not make or break the notion of urban diversity. There are plenty of other things going on here that are diverse that don’t bother people.
    3) To call these noises charming is also a personal opinion. I am guessing that someone who thinks that it is charming does not live here. It’s not the faults of city dwellers that non-city dweller’s lives are so boring that they are compelled to be entertained by coming to the city (a place where people historically live in reasonable proximity to their work) and are excited by bucket drumming because they only deal with it once in a while – probably on their days off or in passing to the metra station.
    4) People playing music is definitely embraced in a city. There are thousands of venues and countless personal spaces for this. Schools and organized events like parades and block parties also accommodate venues for displaying and encouraging these legitimate talents.
    5) Fortunately, it is considered a crime to violate an ordinance and warnings should be issued before fining someone. Many street music performers do usually violate a noise ordinance that is based on duration of sustained decibels that exceed reasonable conversation levels. The ambient noise of a city does not exceed reasonable conversation levels. Trains, trucks and buses sometimes passing do exceed these volumes, but are not in violation because they do not sustain for long periods of time. Noise ordinance violations may not be a violent crime, but it’s destruction to the city is paramount. Politicians know that they have to maintain a pleasant and safe work/commuting/living environment for large corporations who bring a lot of revenue to the city. Just like politicians in the suburbs, politicians here don’t want their revenue streams (which maintain existing and efficient infrastructure) to be annoyed by inconsiderate law-breakers and move elsewhere.

  • Rusty

    I know it’s years after the fact, but I wish I could invite Lindsey to our office so she’d know just how disruptive those “unamplified buckets” can be. Worse, if a mom walked by the sidewalk with a baby, those drums are well above the decibel level that can damage hearing. Also, isn’t anybody concerned that these kids aren’t in school?