St. Augustine, a city rich in culture, art and music, has become a safe haven for street performers. The law though, has hindered the ability of these artists to carry out and act upon their talents on certain streets in the downtown historic district that the city is so famous for.
For many years, artists and musicians have lined the streets of downtown St. Augustine in hopes of finding a home to express and demonstrate their pieces and talents to locals and tourists alike.
If you have been to downtown St. Augustine, you know the most popular street in the downtown district for street performers is St. George Street. When walking down St. George Street, you often find musicians playing tunes in the alleyways and side streets. What many people do not know though is that those musicians are either teetering on the border of breaking the law or actually doing so to play their music.
These musicians come in all different shapes, sizes and personalities, but all seem to have a common goal: expressing their love for what they do.
According to city ordinance 2003-08, it is illegal for musicians, “To regulate outdoor and street performances on pedestrian St. George street from Cathedral Place north to Orange Street and approaching and intersecting public streets, lanes, and thoroughfares; providing for severability; providing for inclusion in the code of the city of St. Augustine.” On the basis that “it is of primary concern and interest to the City of St. Augustine, Fla., to vigilantly protect and preserve the quality and historical and cultural ambiance of the historical sections of the City.”
The argument by most musicians and artists though is that their music and presence provides just that.
Aaron Esposito has been performing on and around St. George Street for close to four years, both on the street corners and in the bars and restaurants. Esposito says he understands both sides of the law as it’s written.
“I get why the law is in place, because if a musician is playing right outside of a venue that is providing live music, it takes away from their business and hinders their ability to run their business properly,” he said. “But in New York City for example, you can see 10 musicians in the subway before you walk back up the stairs onto the sidewalk, and it’s a great way for musicians to get their sound out there and it gives you this experience of New York that you won’t get anywhere else. Having a law that prevents playing on St. George Street somewhat hinders the ability of St. Augustine to possess that special vibe like New York provides.”
After catching up with a number of these musicians, as well as patrons and live music venue employees, it seems as though most people have reached a general understanding and attitude toward the law.
Tim Valley, a bartender at Mi Casa Café on St. George Street known for its live music, agrees that there should be a compromise to the law giving musicians more rights, while regulating the areas where they should be allowed to play.
“You know I enjoy the music, depending on who and where the street performers are playing. But overall I think it’s great for tourism and bad for business,” said Valley.
He explained that he understands that the street performers are a big part of the reputation and history of St. Augustine, but that it all depends on who is playing and where.
“You know there are the real musicians who define what this town is all about, then there are the panhandlers or bums who just make noise and bang on stuff to make a buck, and I think that’s what caused the law to be passed and pushed away the real musicians who deserve to be able to play down here,” said Valley. “You know people got tired of seeing those people, and businesses got angry when panhandlers would play right in front of their businesses taking away money from both the establishment and the real musicians.”
In the past the city allowed musicians to play on St. George Street in designated areas if they had a license, which really supplied a unique vibe to the downtown area. The law has caused much controversy over the last 10 years and since it was passed, musicians on St. George Street have faced obstacles when trying to reach the people.
Captain Ralph Hayes and his dog Maggie, featured on YouTube, have been performing on St. George Street for over 15 years, and are among a number of musicians who have been affected by the law.
“They have been trying to get us off the street, but they haven’t really bothered us too much because most of the bums aren’t around here during the day. There are about two or three people who play on this street and we are all musicians who have played for quite sometime,” said Hayes.
Most people agree that the musicians like Hayes, should have more freedom to perform along or closer to St. George Street, but that it should be regulated through rules such as designated street performer areas and licensing for all public street performers to make sure that the people playing are quality musicians and are at a reasonable distance away from venues that offer live music.
Erika Marin is a sample distributor for Pizalley’s, a pizza parlor on St. George Street that often provides live music at happy hour. Her job is too stand outside Pizalley’s and give out pizza samples to passing pedestrians.
“It’s such a beautiful and artistic town. There should be art and music everywhere, but I think it should be regulated. It is my job to get people’s attention to come in and try our food. If there is someone playing loud music right next to me, it makes it hard for me to do my job. But as long as they’re in a respectable area, I don’t understand why musicians shouldn’t be allowed to play,” said Marin.
Courtman Cubbedge, a cashier at Kilwin’s Chocolate on St. George Street made an interesting point.
“People are attracted to the sound of the music, and subconsciously the music draws people into that St. George Street vibe, and for a place like us at Kilwin’s, people smell us before they see us and when there are musicians outside our place it’s like a combination of the music and smell of fudge that I think gives off this one-of-a-kind feel and your senses are going off, which provides that full St. George experience,” said Cubbedge.
Law or no law, St. George Street is a one-of-a-kind place with its own feel and personality and it seems as though everyone agrees that without the art and music around it, the street wouldn’t be the same.