Ald. Brendan Reilly wants to turn down the volume in the 42nd Ward.
On Jan. 25, Reilly introduced an ordinance that would limit where street musicians can perform in his ward, an area that includes many downtown hotspots, including Streeterville.
The Chicago Tribune’s Mary Wisniewski interviewed some street musicians who might migrate to the subway if the ordinance gets approved. Wisniewski spoke with Morning Shift’s Tony Sarabia to explain the details of the ordinance and its possible effects.
Tony Sarabia: Can you give us a sense of what this proposed ordinance would do?
Mary Wisniewski: What it proposes is that if a person with normal hearing can hear someone playing 20 feet away, that should be forbidden. This would be okay if you’re a mime, but pretty much any other instrument is going to carry further than 20 feet. I actually did a test in my living room where I had my husband go “La la la” 20 feet away from me and I could definitely hear him. So what this would do in effect is get rid of most instruments.
Sarabia: And this is being proposed due to complaints?
Wisniewski: Alderman Reilly said that people who work and live in the area complain about the constant noise. If you’re a tourist walking down the street and you hear someone playing the saxophone and the trumpet, that can be charming. But if you’re in the store right next to it and hear it all day, it can be really, really annoying.
Sarabia: What are the rules for performing down in the subway?
Wisniewski: Down in the subway you’re limited to only three stations: Jackson on the Blue Line, Jackson on the Red Line and Washington on the Blue Line.
Sarabia: I get on the train at the Grand Avenue Red Line station and I’ve seen musicians a number of times.
Wisniewski: Right, but people do get kicked out when they try to play there, so it’s whether or not you want to take the risk.
When I did this article I found that other cities are both much more open about allowing musicians in subways and also much more organized. They have auditions in New York City. They have auditions in Toronto. New York will let you play in any subway as long as you’re not blocking someone, but to get the top spots -- Times Square and Penn Station -- you have to go through this very intense audition process.
Sarabia: Why doesn’t Chicago host auditions like New York or Toronto?
Wisniewski: The CTA told me they don’t want to do auditions. They limit it to these three stations because they don’t want to interfere with neighbors and residents who might be bothered at other stations.
I talked to subway musicians and was surprised to find out that most of them are in favor of auditions. They like the idea of rooting out some of the people who they consider hustlers: people who are not real musicians and are just down there trying to get some money.
Sarabia: Street performers do need a license though, correct?
Wisniewski: They do need a license. It’s $100 for two years. My older daughters, who are both musicians, were street performers for a while and they were really good, so they made some good money. In the subway you need $10 for a full-year permit. Some musicians have both permits. But anyone can do it.
Sarabia: Are there fears that if this ordinance goes through we will see more musicians going down into the subways?
Wisniewski: Well, it already happens when it’s really cold weather. Some street performers only perform in the summer time. Some try to do it year round, but when it gets really cold they come down to the subway. So it’s a little bit more crowded in the winter than it is in the summer… If they really enforce Alderman Reilly’s ordinance, if it gets through, this could be a consequence.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click ‘Play’ above to listen to the whole segment.
Editor’s note: WBEZ invited Alderman Reilly to participate in this interview but did not receive a response prior to broadcast.