What About Art?

news2Downtown’s sit/lie ordinance continues to stir discussion about sidewalk performers and vendors

Changes made in 2009 to loitering rules on Pacific Avenue—commonly known as Santa Cruz’s “sit/lie ordinance”—have some locals asking whether panhandlers and loiterers should be treated differently than artists and merchants.

The rules aim to keep sidewalks clear for walking and entrances to businesses accessible, according to Mayor Ryan Coonerty. However, there is no nuance written in to distinguish between performers and people who choose to hang out with no apparent purpose.

Before 2009, Chapter 5.43 of Santa Cruz Municipal Code made it illegal for anyone to perform or sit within 10 feet of public art, business entrances or kiosks. The new version extended that distance to 14 feet from any business, sculpture or kiosk, and 50 feet from automated teller machines. Without a special events permit from the Parks and Recreation Department, the law also requires people to move 100 feet down the street after one hour. The permits are given for non-commercial events, which puts artists looking to sell their work in a sort of legal limbo. There is not currently a system set up for permitted sales of work except on the basis that it is by donation.

Street performers are frustrated at being squeezed closer to the gutter and asked to move along just as they are getting into their set, says software developer and local musician Peter Lindener.

“When you chase the talent off the street, you end up with musicians who are a bit of an embarrassment,” Lindener says. “When you don’t chase the good talent away, this vacuum that creates this embarrassment doesn’t happen.”

He supports extending the time limit to an hour and a half to allow musicians time to get set up and put on a full performance, but believes the most fair way would be to leave the time limit and other rules on public space up to popular vote through what he calls “Informational Theoretical Democracy.” In this process, people would vote through social networking websites to determine the time limit and other issues.

Peter Salvano, a Santa Cruz resident and political activist, agrees that street performers add a reason for people to come downtown. Although he says he personally doesn’t like some of the music being played, he is against having any sort of fee or permit process for performers.

“It’s the funky ambiance of Downtown Santa Cruz, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Salvano. “That’s why I live here.”

After studying the loitering rules here, San Francisco has passed similar sit/lie ordinances to deal with crime and aggressive panhandling, but has been able to do so without affecting the musicians and street merchants that line the sidewalks on streets such as Market and Haight streets. Performers and merchants there apply for permits from the Art Commission that allow them to be in one place despite the time limits as part of the city’s Art In Public Places program. Lindener points to this model as a successful way to encourage and manage street activity, and as something that could add to the tourism industry.

“I [think] that Pacific Avenue [could] be a healthy social environment where musicians meet each other and discover each other’s talents, because that is where the music happens,” he says. “Sometimes business owners get so obsessed with the money they forget about the culture that draws people to Santa Cruz in the first place.”

Lindener feels that a more welcoming approach to street performers would make Santa Cruz a must stop destination for touring artists because it will become known as a place to network between skilled artists. This, he says, will increase tourism because people will follow these artists as they flow here.

Most shop owners and managers say they enjoy the performers on Pacific Avenue and see the cultural value. However, even if the acts are a draw for people, they say such performances don’t necessarily result in more customers.

Large crowds often gather in front O’Neill Surf Shop to watch outdoor music, dancing, or other artistic displays. While O’Neill’s staff often has to ask the crowd to keep their front door clear, Manager of Advertising and Promotions Elfin Saffer says there is no evidence that onlookers come inside to shop during or after watching a performance.

“What really brings in customers is a hit movie,” says Saffer. “When people come out [of Regal Santa Cruz 9], they cross the street and shop. Between the Cinema 9, Urban Outfitters, [Pacific] Wave and ourselves we have a pretty [good mix].”

When the subject turns to street vendors, the community dialogue becomes more complicated. As of June, the City of Santa Cruz had an unemployment rate of around 11.5 percent. Coonerty, who says street vendors have had a terrible effect on the economy in the Bay Area, does not welcome the idea of added competition for businesses.

“To be frank, I would like to see a few more street performers downtown, but artists selling their goods is different,” says Coonerty. “I don’t think you want to have businesses having people setup in front of their stores. … It basically destroyed Telegraph [Avenue in Oakland and Berkeley].”

Matias Portela has become a regular downtown vendor recently, selling his jewelry at a table that takes several minutes to set up and break down. While this makes the one-hour time limit unrealistic, he says he is often able to stay for several hours without being bothered.

“It’s impossible for me to rent a shop,” says Portela. “I work with my hands, so I can’t [fill] a big shop.”

He has a permit to sell his work on the sidewalk in San Francisco, which he says works better for his business. He simply calls the city’s Art Commission in the morning when he wants to sell his necklaces and stones. In Santa Cruz he says he is often allowed to stay long past the one-hour time limit, but says he has also occasionally been asked to move by the downtown hosts.

Lindener says that creating competition with brick and mortar businesses can cause tension, but in hard times everyone should have a chance to get back on their feet.

“There does need to be a culture that is more receptive [to] the concept that street vendors could easily be part of the ecosystem,” says Lindener. “There is cramped view that says big money runs the commerce, and if you’re not big money, you’re out. That is what our economy is suffering from right now.”

Salvano is on the fence about merchants being allowed to do business free of the big costs that businesses have. After some thought, he arrives at the proposal of having a three day “grace period” for artists and craftsman that come downtown to sell their work.

“If it’s just a fluke that you are down here and spreading your necklaces out, that is one thing,” says Salvano. “But if you are down here day in an day out and have basically opened a business on the sidewalk. … After three days you [should] have to go get a permit.”

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