Celebrating self-expression as a basic human right essential for the

healthy growth of youth, individuals and communities


Stephen H. Baird, Founder and Executive Director

PO Box 300112, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130-0030

Tele: 617-522-3407 TTY/MA RELAY 800-439-2370



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The History and Cultural Impact

of Street Performing in America

by Stephen Baird




2017 Attempt to impose inaudible at 20 feet rule on Michigan Ave. by Chicago City Council:
2009-2012 Arrest and legal actions of Chris Drew for selling art on streets of Chicago

Chicago, IL: SP., L, SUB. Best areas are Michigan Ave. days, Rush St. evenings and entrance of Lincoln Park Zoo on weekends. If there is a problem contact: ACLU of Illinois, 180 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 2300, Chicago, IL 60601-1287. Tel: 312-201-9740. http://www.aclu-il.orgChicago, Illinois, USA permit Street Performer Required to perform in a public area. Obtain permit from City Hall.  No amplified music is allowed. Fee: $75 (Saw it listed as $100 on city web site 8/09) Municipal Code Reference: 4-268 See Chicago web site.  http://www.cityofchicago.org
NOTE: Alderman Burton Natarus (Ward 42) has continued to unconstitutionally restrict Chicago street artists. (article links below). New ordinance passed in February 2006
Chicago bans street artists from its main street -- Dictatorships are silent democracies are noisy

"The responsibility of those who exercise power in a democratic government is not to reflect inflamed public feeling, but to help form its understanding" Felix Frankfurter 1958

Alderman Burton Natarus and Chicago City Council should ban all politicians from Michigan Avenue to lower the volume in Chicago, but it is so mush easier to pick on the poor and powerless street artists.

Barking dogs are one of the most frequent complaints made to police departments. Natarus should ban all dogs from Michigan Avenue. Dogs have more First Amendment rights in Chicago Ward 42 then people.

Noise complaints are often the central issue. Air planes 100-130 db, trains 80-110 db, trucks and buses 70-120 db, building air conditioners and exhaust fans 70-100 db and numerous other sources of city noise are 2-20 times greater than any street performer. Even water fountains and rain storms can measure over 90 db. Street performers often can not be measured because they are below the background noise levels. People most often complain about some one else's volume level and never their own contribution to the collective noise level of a complex society.

Only the rich and powerful can get a quiet residence in a big city.... Not the poor and powerless who live next to an airport, mass transit line or six-lane highway. Will Alderman Burton Natarus and Chicago City Council ban recess at all public schools because a few rich residents will be disturbed by the noise of children playing outside?

The real public safety issue in Chicago is abuse of alcohol. Natarus should ban alcohol sales on Michigan Avenue. Automobiles accidents kill and maim tens of thousands of people every year, but the penalties and license fees for street artists in Chicago are greater. Alderman Burton Natarus and Chicago City Council threatened to raise the street performance license fee to $150 to suppress the number of street artists. Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the citizen revolutionary soldiers of the United States must be rolling in their graves over this tax on free speech that makes the Stamp Act boycott historically irrelevant.

One of Natarus' deceptive excuses for the North Michigan Avenue ban and increased restrictions was the performances of unlicensed bucket drummers. With this same logic Natarus and Chicago City Council should ban all automobiles from Michigan Avenue, because an unlicensed driver is caught driving on Michigan Avenue with a broken muffler.

This is not an issue of public safety and noise, but class and race. Natarus and Chicago City Council did not and can not document any public safety issues caused by street performance accidents. The very people complaining about noise level contribute to the collective noise level exceeding 80 db. The commerce noise of the rich and powerful is not being restricted to the same level as the poor and powerless street artists.

Tap dancing, the blues and jazz were not invented at universities. They were crafted and perfected on the streets including the streets of Chicago. From Ben Franklin to Irving Berlin, Louis Armstrong to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Eubie Blake to Robin Williams -- the streets are where the foundations of American culture identity is formed.

A reason given for prohibiting street performers is the availability of other public areas. The Following US Supreme Court statement has been frequently quoted in numerous lower court decisions: "One is not to have the exercise of his liberty of expression in appropriate places abridged on the plea that it may be exercised in some other place." Schneider v State, 308 US l47, l63 (l939).

Alderman Burton Natarus and Chicago City Council have not brought understanding and clarity to the street performance issues in Chicago, but exploited the situation for personal political gain.

Stephen Baird 2006

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"Little Howling Wolf" playing sax on the Chicago River draw bridge on Michigan Ave. in 1982.


The battle to street perform in Chicago dramatically changed in 1982 when I received a call from Cynthia Haring aka "Destiny Quibble" complaining she could not perform on the streets or subway platforms in Chicago like she did in Boston when she was a student at Berklee College of Music. It became a dynamic four-year commitment.

Attorney Robert Wynbrandt was a young trademark and copyright attorney Cynthia Haring aka "Destiny Quibble" had been working with previously from Jenner and Block, one of Chicago's largest law firms. Attorney Robert Wynbrandt conducted a brilliant campaign to pass a new ordinance to open up Chicago to street performances (Attorney Robert Wynbrandt eventually became a Partner in Jenner and Block and the CEO of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons). This was a volatile period in the Chicago political landscape. Mayor Richard Daley had just died (I do not believe this change would have happened during his life time of rigid police control of the city). Mayor Jane Byrne was elected the first woman mayor and Mayor Herald Washington was elected the first black mayor. Much of the real political power during this transitional time period was with the City Council and individual district Alderman.

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No musical instruments allowed sign posted

in Grant Park in Chicago.


Street performances and the harassment of the street artists have been part of the history of Chicago as the above photo from a Chicago Folk Music Magazine documented in an article by Mick Scott. However, the sounds of music are irrepressible. The Maxwell Street flea market is one of the most historic street performance areas in the country where all the great blues artists-- Big Bill Broonzy, Lightning Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Jessie Fuller all played (http://www.openair.org See the Maxwell Street in Chicago webpages). Maxwell Street Market was shut down in 1994. A great 2 cd set by Rooster Blues Records documented some of the artists. See: http://www.baddogblues.com/nighthawk/press.htm

The strategy to open up Chicago centered on a media campaign to support a new ordinance. It was backed up with the legal threats of First Amendment law suits. The Goldstein v Nantucket court case was decided in 1979 and the Davenport v Alexandria, VA was just decided in 1983. Expert urban planners and witnesses were invited to testify before the City Council including William H, Whyte (Rediscovering the Center City (Doubleday 1988) by William H. Whyte Read pages 32-39 for his description of street entertainers, the Davenport v Alexandria, VA and the Friedrich v. Chicago court cases).

The short story is:

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Chicago Contacts

Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center (UM-CAC) http://www.art-teez.org/free-speech.htm
Email: umcac@art-teez.org  Telephone: 773/561-7676 

UM-CAC, P.O. Box 408363, Chicago, IL 60640

Chris Drew writes about life selling art on the streets of Chicago and Chicago's failure to live up to the First Amendment. See the blog with photos at: http://www.c-drew.com/blog/

Legal help in Chicago can come from different sources depending on the issues:

First Amendment issues by:

ACLU of Illinois


For legal intake contact

There is an online form

By Phone: (312) 201-9740

(800) 572-1092 (inside Illinois only)

By Fax: (312) 201-9760

ACLU of Illinois Intake Department, 180 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 2300, Chicago, IL 60601


For more arts related issues:

Lawyers for the Creative Arts, 213 W. Institute Pl., Suite 401, Chicago, IL 60610

Tel (312) 649-4111 FAX (312) 944- 2195



William E. Rattner, Executive Director. Email: wrattner@law-arts.org

Marci A. Rolnik, Legal Director. Email: mrolnik@law-arts.org

Katina Spearman, Administrative Director. Email: kspearman@law-arts.org


OPENAIR-MARKET NET: The World Wide Guide to Farmers' Markets, Street Markets, Flea Markets and Street Vendors


Steve Balkin is an economics professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, director of the Self-Employment Research Project, a frequent visitor to open air markets, and an advocate. Email: oikon@pobox.com

Street Arts and Buskers Advocates

Community Arts Advocates Index

Copyright 1999-2017 by Stephen Baird