- Photo courtesy of Stephen Sloan
San Diego has Big Toe, the Balboa Park busker who’s missing both arms yet still plays guitar beautifully with his feet and might be the city’s most notable street performer, and the Living Music Box, who turns heads with her fantastic costume and quiet, graceful performances at Seaport Village and various street fairs and festivals around town.
Street performers set up shop in popular destinations in a city’s urban core. They become an important part of a city’s identity by activating public parks, plazas and promenades, adding to the culture of a place by doing their thing and doing it well—be it magic, music, art or any other burst of creativity or craft.
“We actually bring people to the city,” says William J. Dorsett, a busker who typically performs in front of Anthony’s Fish Grotto at the embarcadero along San Diego’s bay front. He calls himself the San Diego Rose Man because he asks for donations in exchange for roses and other trinkets made from palm leaves. “The city would be a boring place if all it was were shops, the beaches and bars. When you have a diverse group like a mime on this corner, a guitar player down there, an artist on this corner, a jewelry guy over there—all of these things come together to create a rich culture that people want to come back to.”
And yet, Dorsett says, the city doesn’t seem to appreciate what he and his fellow buskers do. Instead, he claims, San Diego Police officers regularly harass him and his cohorts, treating buskers like criminals and infringing on what Dorsett vehemently asserts is their Frist Amendment right to free speech and expression.
Dorsett has become a vocal busking-rights advocate during the past few years, partly as a result of his own struggles. Last summer, the Port of San Diego rewrote its rules regulating vendors, limiting what port officials call “expressive activities” to 14 specific areas along the San Diego waterfront where vendors or buskers can perform or sell their art without a permit. At first, the port didn’t put Dorsett’s roses into the category of approved “expressive activities,” but after he started an online petition and met with port representatives, he eventually convinced them of his craft’s artistic merit and was allowed to continue.
His actions have earned him mentions in U-T San Diego and Voice of San Diego, thrusting him into the spotlight and casting him as the go-to guy for local buskers in need of legal advice. Most of the time, he simply helps other buskers track down the phone numbers of police sergeants or encourages them to write to the Citizen’s Review Board on Police Practices. He recently went to court with a fellow busker and was looking forward to challenging the busker’s ticket, but, as is almost always the case, the infraction was eventually dismissed.
David Millette, a jewelry maker who sets up at the seawall at the end of Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach, is another local busker who’s received media attention in recent months. Millette met with San Diego Mayor Bob Filner in April after receiving a ticket and explained why what he does should be protected by the First Amendment. Filner agreed and issued Millette a letter stating that he had permission to sell his art in local parks and beaches.
Millette put the mayor’s letter to the test recently after getting hassled for busking again.
“They gave me a ticket for no business license and no city tax certificate and then made me stop selling,” Millette explained. “I immediately called the central police station when I got home, and they said it was a mistake and actually came to pick up the ticket at my house in Chula Vista. They said the mayor’s letter covered me.”
But for the rest of the buskers without a personal permission slip, each time they perform on public property, they face the possibility of getting a ticket. Often, police will cite street performers for unrelated infractions such as violating a noise ordinance, sidewalk encroachment or panhandling since there’s no citywide ordinance addressing buskers directly.
In Balboa Park—the most sought-after location for buskers—performers are required to get a permit through a lottery system. At 10 a.m. every first Saturday of the month, a large crowd of buskers lines up outside the Balboa Park Administration Building. A park ranger hands out small wooden cubes with numbers scrawled on them and, via random drawing, slowly doles out 10 permits for musicians, 10 permits for performers (balloon artists, fortune tellers, etc.) and five for show acts, like magicians, jugglers and dancers.
“It’s a tedious process, but, for what I do, I usually do get a permit,” says Stephen Sloan, or Sleeveless the Magician. “Musicians, face painters and fortune tellers— they usually have a hard time because there’s more of them.”
Sloan’s been busking in Balboa Park for more than 30 years. He says he remembers a time when performers didn’t have to get permits. It wasn’t a problem, he says, until more and more buskers started entering the scene and space became a commodity worth fighting for. The permitting system helped the overcrowding issue, Sloan says, but he doesn’t necessarily think it’s the ideal approach.
“I don’t think I could go as far as to say it’s fair,” he says. “But, on the other hand, it’s the system, so I’m working within the system rather than having to deal with problems for not being in the system, and it makes my life a little easier.”
A musician clutching the No. 20 blue lottery block wanted to remain anonymous since she depends on performing in Balboa Park to pay her rent. She says the worst part of the lottery system is that many performers let the permits go to waste.
“A lot of the people who get a permit don’t use it, and when I get one, I come almost every day,” she explains. “It bothers me that people who really need it and don’t have another job can’t come and use the park when there’s nobody there who has a permit.”
The different rules in the various hotspots throughout the city make it hard on buskers, Dorsett says. And while some police officers support buskers, he says, others seem to have a vendetta against them. He’s tired of the piecemeal approach to policing San Diego’s buskers.
To help spread awareness and work to make changes, Dorsett and Millett started a Facebook group (San Diego Buskers) and, last month, organized a meeting with Filner. The date of the busker meeting, however, happened to fall during the week Filner was first publicly accused of sexual harassment. Lee Burdick, who’s since become Filner’s chief of staff, met with the group of artists instead.
“I think she said she was going to pass it along to [the] City Council and get it on the docket,” a hopeful Dorsett says. “But I haven’t heard anything back.”
With all the troubles in the Mayor’s office, Dorsett and Millett don’t expect to hear back any time soon, but they say they’ll continue to connect the local busker community to one another through Facebook and, maybe in the future, affect some kind of citywide change in how buskers are treated.
“The whole plan is to try to get the city to write a new code that not only reflects the constitutional protections that we already have, but makes the police aware that buskers are protected and causes them to leave us alone rather than constantly harassing us,” Dorsett says. “We’re just trying to get by and provide a service to the city at the same time.”
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