Courtesy / Alexei Wood
One early September morning in Travis Park, my saxophone whispered into the city streets. I opened my eyes to a San Antonio Police officer standing in front of me.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said, steady but not stern. “There is no solicitation allowed in the park, you’ll have to pack up.”
“Actually, officer,” I replied with a smile, “that’s not the case.”
The Downtown Street Performer Policy was passed in March 2016, but it took until this summer for many musicians to hear about it. The policy is still being ironed out in terms of implementation as City officials and street performers look to bring a more robust and colorful cultural presence to downtown San Antonio.
“How can we have street performers without being in conflict with our current city ordinances?” said John Jacks, interim director of Center City Development and Operations (CCDO), referencing the series of ordinances passed that prohibit aggressive panhandling. “We knew there was a place for street performers in our downtown, as it has been successful in other cities.”
The CCDO’s main purpose is to facilitate the development of neighborhoods, cultural centers, and businesses in the downtown area to create a thriving Central Business District that fosters a warm and inviting atmosphere for residents, employees, and visitors. Recently the department added Market Square and La Villita to the list of facilities under its purview, which gave the leaders of the department extra incentive to take a second look at the way performance art is experienced downtown.
“The idea is to foster a sense of community by bringing more events and culture to downtown,” Jacks said. “We want to get the people who are visiting as well as those who don’t think about coming downtown to come take part.”
Jacks acknowledged that a peaceful and proper performer culture can build the kind of environment his department intends to create.
The original ordinances on panhandling were designed to address panhandling situations that are egregious and aggressive in nature, which most street performers, or “buskers,” are not.
Some major highlights of the policy, which was updated as recently as Oct. 19, include articles stating that performers are prhibited from using any amplification, blocking the flow of pedestrians, and performing before 11a.m. or after 10 p.m, with the exception of Friday and Saturday, when the curfew is extended until 11 p.m. You can download and print the policy in full here.
“We’ve talked with downtown stakeholders (and) street performers: What is the fine line we can establish so that it meets the goal of having a vibrant downtown?” Jacks said, referring to issues such as respect for downtown residents, noise levels, and traffic control. “We’re working with the police department to implement this policy (and find out) what is within our regulation – when does a situation violate (the policy) and when does it not?”
Back in Travis Park, as I pulled out my cell phone to show the officer the official Downtown Street Performer Policy, a superior officer arrived on the scene. I politely explained to the officer that I was within my bounds, and when he asked me to slow down and remain calm (I was), he explained to the original officer on the scene that there is in fact a new policy on busking. He then called his sergeant to make sure.
Under the new policy, there are indeed restricted areas throughout downtown, meant to honor the respective businesses, residents, and tourism that vendors have worked hard to establish along areas such as Market Square, the River Walk, and La Villita.
Public parks are among the most encouraged places for musicians – and performers of any kind, for that matter – to share their art.
“Travis Park, Milam Park, areas along and adjacent to Houston Street are perfect,” said Jim Mery, CCDO deputy director. “There is a vibrancy to a street when you start bringing in people and they show their talents. We want that activity. When Centro launched their brand there was a musician on the street playing, and it was really cool to witness.”
It should also be noted that Centro San Antonio is still running its pilot program, Houston Street Live! that promotes downtown street performance, and even provides a stipend for doing so. If you are interested in applying, click here.
During the brand launch in September, drummer Julian Anthony was all smiles. “I’m out here, it’s vibrant, a great place to meet people and make some music,” he shouted over all the commotion as dignitaries and faces of everyday San Antonio walked past, changing their cadence just a bit to match the beat.
“I just found out about it (the policy) and as soon as it came to my attention I was all over it,” he told the Rivard Report that night.
Anthony, surrounded by his kit of high hat, snare, tom, bass drum, and cymbal, confessed that before learning about this policy he had never had the confidence to shine out on the open streets. Now he can’t get enough.
“Reeling in people with talent is always something I’ve wanted to do, but I’ve never really been a part of a band to be playing consistently, locally,” Anthony said. “But now that you can play freely you can get people involved, get ‘em dancing, do what you do best.”
Anthony is not a full-time musician, but he wants to be one and is grateful for the opportunity to let people hear his music out on the streets.
“I get to make some money off of it and, of course, have fun with it,” he said, just as local poet Don Mathis came to join in on the jam session. “You gotta get it out somehow. There’s a genuine smile on my face, man, that’s why I’m out here.”
After the officers left on that September morning an Indian woman, who was playing with her son in Travis Park, struck up a conversation with me and my friends Rod Guzman and Kyle Garcia of local band Last Flight Home. She was visiting from Virginia and was pleasantly surprised to find music in the park.
“I love San Antonio,” she said. As we continued to play she filmed a video of the guys, followed them on Facebook and created a post simply titled, “Awesome!”
We were joined by an extra guitar, that of Alfredo “Toro” Flores, and the first dollar bills began to drop into our case as entrepreneurs, tourists, and politicos swam about the streets in a hurry (or not at all), many of them stopping to take in the rarity of live music on their lunch break.
“I walk along these streets every day and this is a real treat,” said one.
“This adds a great energy to this area,” said another.
They stopped to take pictures and share stories of how they too once played the saxophone. For a moment, our worlds intertwined and we were happier for knowing it.
Guitarist Guzman said the new policy has opened up his world in an exciting and enticing way.
“All the hard work I used to put into other things, I can now put that into what I love,” he said. “Success doesn’t worry me. If you put your heart into it, everything will fall into place. You’ll find success in your own way.”
Up until recently, Guzman was a student at San Antonio College, but left to pursue his musical dreams.
“Time that I would’ve spent on studying, I get to focus on my art,” Guzman said, mentioning everything from networking time to laying down tracks and, of course, busking. “I’m excited about this policy because our music can now fund our music. What we were doing in our bedrooms once we can now do on the streets.”
The policy appears to be an effort by the City of San Antonio to encourage the exact feeling that Guzman described, and to create a cyclical relationship between the observer and the performer, now together on the same urban stage.
“If people feel compelled to give, that money goes toward our music,” Guzman said. “When they give, we give back – that’s pretty cool.”