A Day in the Life of a Berkeley Street Musician

Do you remember voting to let an unelected group of wealthy property owners hire people to control our public spaces? Neither do I. Yet, the Block by Block program is expanding from coast to coast as a nonsensical response to poverty and the housing crisis. Public spaces should be for everyone.

As told to Carol Denney

“I am a folk musician and I currently make my living in Berkeley. I sing in the downtown BART station Monday through Friday mornings. I sing at the Center Street Farmers’ Market three Saturdays out of each month. I usually sing an hour-long shift at the BART station on weekday afternoons.

“Basically, I sing three hours a day for tips and occasional CD sales. I play guitar and sing without amplification, leaving my guitar case open to display my CD and to collect any money people wish to contribute for the music.

“This afternoon, I left my house later than usual and when I came to the BART station, other musicians were playing, both inside the station and above ground near the entrance. Rather than go home without making a dime, I decided to try singing across the street on Center Street.

“I chose a spot next to the side window of Games of Berkeley, tucking my guitar case under the window where the sidewalk is wider so as not to impede pedestrians. I stood next to my open case singing. I had been at it for about half an hour and earned one dollar when a Berkeley Ambassador showed up and interrupted my song.

“He told me, ‘You can’t play next to the building — it’s a business. You can play at the curb.’

“No musician would want to play at the curb where traffic and noisy traffic signals compete for the airwaves. No musician would want to breathe smog and exhaust.

“I packed up my guitar and adjourned to the nearby bus stop to wait for my next bus home, but as I sat there I began to wonder: ‘Who are the Berkeley Ambassadors and what authority do they have to tell me where I can and cannot stand or sing on a public sidewalk?’

“I went home to research the question and could only find out that the Ambassadors are employed by a company headquartered in Kentucky, until I called an activist friend whom I thought might have some information.

“She told me that the Ambassadors have their own program for busking musicians, involving getting a permit from them. Curiously, the Ambassador who told me I could not play next to a business neglected to tell me about the Ambassadors’ music program.”

“Saxman Uptown.” Painting by Arnold White. Street musicians have been an accepted part of American society for more than 100 years. Blues music owes its very existence to street musicians who performed it on the streets.


Note from Carol Denney: This story was told to me by a musician who wishes to remain an anonymous. It raises an important question: Do you remember voting to let an unelected group of wealthy property owners hire people to control our public spaces? Neither do I.

Yet, the Kentucky-based Block by Block program continues to grow from coast to coast as a nonsensical response to poverty and the housing crisis. Let the Berkeley City Council know that public spaces should be for everyone.

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