OCEAN CITY – Last week, City Council thought that street ends were the best place for Ocean City’s busking community, now it seems, they aren’t so sure.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas, who owns a shop on the Boardwalk, brought some concerns to the proverbial table at Tuesday’s work session at City Hall after the first real litmus test of sorts for the new street performer law in Ocean City proved to still cause a good bit of bottlenecking and blockage of the storefronts.
“I thought what I had voted for was the performers to be allowed to be on the street ends on the east side (oceanside) of the Boardwalk,” said Pillas. “What happened this weekend, was that performers set up on the west side of the Boardwalk, drew a crowd, and people had to walk all the way around the crowds and ended up missing the first few stores on the next block.”
Pillas said that in theory, the street end placement of the street performers would alleviate many concerns for the merchants, many of which claim that the presence of buskers not only takes attention away from pedestrians walking past the stores, but in many cases, allegedly creates a blocked entrance to the store itself.
“I don’t think this ordinance, as it’s written, works for the merchants, and I don’t think it works for the performers either,” said Pillas, “but I guess it’s a work in progress.”
Essentially, the placement of the buskers on the street ends has created a bit of a respite for the stores that sit mid-block, but doesn’t help the stores located at the end of the block or the beginning of the next street, according to Pillas.
“I know I come off pretty strong sometimes about what I really want for the merchants and the performers,” said Pillas, “but I truly want what’s best for everyone. I thought the street ends was the answer, but maybe it’s the street ends on the oceanside only.”
Several council members said that they witnessed first hand the apparent bottlenecking created by some of the street performers as they drew a crowd during their act and created an obstacle for pedestrians to walk around.
In most cases, it was the “flush” performers, like magicians for instance, who draw a big crowd, do their act and then pass the hat around at the end, who caused most of the bottlenecking, according to onlookers.
The “trickle” performers on the other hand, like the performers who simply strum their guitar and sing continuously as people walk by, didn’t seem to create a bottleneck as they rarely draw the large crowds like “flush” performers.
City Solicitor Guy Ayres warned the council about further limiting the spaces for the performers to do their acts, perhaps thwarting any chance of council attempting to amend the ordinance after just one weekend.
“You have to give them meaningful spots to do their act,” said Ayres. “You can’t cut it too much or you will be in danger of further limiting their 1st amendment rights.”
Although there are 27 street ends, per say, on the Boardwalk, it is common knowledge that most street performers rarely set up anywhere north of 9th street, with the majority doing their act south of 5th Street, where the bulk of the foot traffic is.
“They are essential to the flavor of the boardwalk,” said Councilman Joe Hall, “but when the performers came to us and spoke about this ordinance, I think they predicted that the street ends was going to still cause a problem.”
Just like the ordinance pertaining to the outdoor display guidelines for Boardwalk stores, the big sticking point for several members of the council, including Councilman Jim Hall, was to brief the police officers who patrol the Boardwalk on the exact rules of the ordinance.
“You should’ve heard the radio over the weekend, it was crazy,” said Hall. “The officers weren’t quite sure what to do about the bottlenecking. They need to know the exact rules so they can disperse the crowds after 15 minutes or whatever the time may be.”
According to the ordinance, street performers are supposed to be “mobile”, meaning that they can simply pick up and move to another street if asked, and police officers are supposed to break up crowds converging around particular performers after 15 minutes.
After the first weekend of the ordinance in effect, Mayor Rick Meehan was open for new ideas and left trying to figure out the best solution on the matter.
“We are certainly seeing how many of them that we have in Ocean City, and obviously wherever we put them they are going to draw a crowd because people truly enjoy their presence on the Boardwalk,” said Meehan.
Councilwoman Mary Knight brought up the example of Mallory Square in Key West, Fla., which is an area that not only welcomes street performers, but also promotes and embraces their presence, citing that Sunset Park or Somerset Street could be turned into a similar spot in Ocean City for buskers.
“If they are true entrepreneurs, maybe they could orchestrate a plan and draw people to Sunset Park, but I doubt that they will do that, as it’s too easy to stand in front of someone’s store on the Boardwalk,” said Knight.
Perhaps if the merchants want the buskers removed from the Boardwalk entirely, as council really doesn’t have anywhere else to put them other than the street ends, they should help them find a new place to play that will provide the necessary space to do their act and the crowds for them to make a living, some say.
“It’s really competitive up there on the Boardwalk, and that’s probably why those merchants are so successful,” said Meehan, “but we just made a major change in hopes of making everything better up there, and I think the merchants need to give this ordinance a chance and (council) the chance to monitor it for a few weeks.”