Madison has a strange relationship with State Street, its alternately venerated and maligned pedestrian thoroughfare.
Clearly, it's a draw for visitors and residents alike, an outdoor shopping mall and a gateway between Capitol and campus. It's a great place to watch people, grab a bite and enjoy the color and funkiness that make it special.
A big part of the street's charm comes from the many and varied street performers who play there. Since I've lived in Madison, I've come to know and love (or at least be perversely fascinated by) some of the regulars: the country-road virtuosity of Catfish Stephenson, the strange free jazz of JoAnne Pow!ers and the foot-tappin' bluegrass of the Boo Bradley Band, to name a few.
Over the years, the street has undergone some serious esthetic changes. City overseers have set out to make it more "welcoming." They tore out the old bus shelters, benches and streetlights and made the towering, glassy Overture Center their crowned jewel.
Meanwhile, the street's less immediately marketable attributes have come in for more and more criticism. What to do about the homeless people who hang out in Peace Park? What about the panhandlers? Now, what about all those dang dirty musicians and performers?
Warren Hansen, Madison's street vending coordinator, has proposed making downtown's buskers register and pay a fee. He would charge $10 a day or $50 a year for the right to play music, make balloon animals for children or even do interpretive dance along State Street or the Square.
Talk about a solution in search of a problem!
Ideas like this have been floated before, and certain people have had to fight for their right to play (like "Orange Guy" Tom Ryan, who likes to play his piccolo near the food carts on Library Mall). But, for the most part, street musicians have generated little fuss, providing one of the key elements of the downtown's atmosphere.
There are already regulations in place. Performers need a permit to plug in an amp. And on Farmers' Market Saturdays, they can only use the opposite side of the street from vendors. Still, Hansen and now Ald. Mike Verveer are concerned that things are getting out of hand.
Verveer has said he's willing to sponsor a bill to dictate the "time, place, and manner" in which street performers may do their thing. The State Journal, in its article on this development, cites a recent "glut" of buskers during the market as the impetus for concern.
I've been a performer and a pedestrian, and I can say that 90% of Madison's performers are courteous and polite. They maintain a reasonable distance from other musicians, and I've never seen a single one harass passersby or impede the thoroughfare.
And that supposed glut? If there's been an uptick at all, I suspect it's driven mainly by the less-than-fabulous state of the economy. So these fees and restrictions, if imposed, would harm those performers who need the money most.
Beyond that, I worry about giving the government the ability to set arbitrary limits on art.
We are not, after all, talking about people selling food or other merchandise. You don't have to pay the musicians to hear their songs, and there's no risk anyone will get sick from an off-key note. The services are freely provided, and compensated by choice.
Like all art, enjoyment is subjective. You may not like everything you hear or see, but consider it a small price to pay for having a talented and diverse bunch of performers in our city.
Madison makes a lot of noise about its thriving arts community. And the city does have dedicated, hard-working folks who've helped make it into a creative cultural center. City government, on the other hand, seems more intent on sterilizing and washing away the elements that make us unique.
The Loft teen center was exiled from State Street some years ago, freeing the area of pesky, hormonal adolescents. Plans are constantly being floated to beautify Peace Park and kick out its transient population. The Overture Center, now racked with financial woes, displaced several well-loved shops and restaurants (I miss the Radical Rye like a hooked fish misses water).
This move is simply the latest in a slow but steady effort to make the street as bland and watered down as possible.
It's time for us to stop shaking our fists and kicking the crunchier, less predictable elements off our collective lawn. We need to embrace what makes Madison special.
That's more than just our civic buildings and shiny art fairs. It's the everyday people who provide their own unique perspectives and styles, even when it isn't your particular cup of tea. Not everyone, after all, wants to drink chamomile all year-round.