On a recent sunny afternoon, at the corner of State and Washington streets, streams of people walked by a group of young men pounding out beats on plastic buckets.
The street performers, commonly called bucket boys, attracted an audience on the sidewalk. But some downtown residents and workers want the performances to stop, and they are hoping aldermen will approve a proposed crackdown that’s slated for a vote at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
“I can be on a phone call — totally indoors — and actually not be able to hear people on the phone because of the bucket boy noise outside,” said Karl Fogel, a partner at a technology company downtown. “It’s just drumming on buckets, and it’s not that interesting after a while.”
The city’s municipal code currently includes a host of restrictions on street performers, who are required to obtain a permit that can cost up to $100. Performers can’t be louder than an average conversation heard from 100 feet, and violators can be fined $300 for the first offense and $500 for every time afterward, with the possibility of serving 24 hours of community service.
Ald. Brendan Reilly, whose 42nd Ward includes the city’s downtown area, has proposed to ban street performances that can be heard from a distance of more than 20 feet. This new regulation would only be enforced on Michigan Avenue between Cedar Street and Balbo Avenue, and on State Street between Huron Street and Jackson Boulevard.
Some performers said they do not understand why people are harping on them.
“When these people moved in these buildings of downtown Chicago — which is the loudest part of Chicago — how can you be mad about noise?” said Ajee Haywood, 22, who plays buckets with a group near Fogel’s office.
He said there are many other sources of noise downtown — like trucks, buses and crowds of tourists — so complaining about street performers doesn’t make sense.
Other major U.S. cities have struggled with regulating street performances without violating the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. In 2013, St. Louis officials scrapped a 16-year-old ordinance requiring street performers to audition before obtaining a $100 permit.
In New York City, musicians are not required to pay for a permit as long as they’re not using a speaker, megaphone or stereo. But they are banned from playing near or in city parks. If they’re playing in Times Square, they can only perform in designated areas.
While street performers in Chicago might be a nuisance for some people, they also add character to the city, said Joe Hakeen, a tourist from Michigan.
“It’s sort of the heart and soul of what’s going on,” he said.
Claire Donnelly is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @donnellyclairee.