Negotiating the twists and turns of Houston's regulations involving playing on street corners.
Negotiating the twists and turns of Houston's regulations involving playing on street corners.
Photo by Doogie Roux

Busking the Streets of Houston

It is often argued that buskers can play an important role in contributing to the cultural life of a city. Of course, it's fun to unexpectedly come across something beautiful. But even more, buskers can reinforce our romantic notion of a city.

I don't know how common bucket drummers really are in New York City subways, but in my mind they are as iconic as their French accordion-playing counterparts, who I imagine populate every street corner in Paris. I've personally appreciated buskers in Istanbul and Brussels, and at least some of that appreciation was a reinforcement of my previously held beliefs about those places.

But I wasn't inspired to write this article out of a sense of civic responsibility. I came to this cause for more personal reasons. Reasons that all musicians will understand. Money reasons.

Among many other things, I play the accordion in a cover band. Or rather, I work hard at improving my accordion skills in a cover band. I'm not a particularly good accordionist, but I do enjoy playing in this band, and I wanted to get better at my instrument. So I started practicing. A lot. For me. Which is to say: a few times a week.

Like a lot of musicians, I don't really enjoy practicing by myself. (I do know quite a few guitarists who enjoy practicing in the privacy of their homes, but I think this propensity for rehearsal is wrapped up in their love of being a guitarist as much as any desire for self-improvement. They enjoy seeing themselves with a guitar in their hands, whether or not someone else is around to watch them. Accordionists don't necessarily have the same glamorous self-image. We are a humbler breed.)

It's not that I'm lazy. It's just that practicing can be kind of boring. It always has been. Since I was a little kid. Your mind wanders while your hands go through their paces, and pretty soon you're thinking about other things, and then you realize that you're thirsty, and you put down your accordion, and practice is over a couple minutes after it started.

It was during one of these attempted rehearsals that I had a small revelation. I realized, in that moment, that I didn't sound half bad. In fact, I sounded good enough that someone might be willing to pay me to play. And then it struck me: I should get paid to rehearse.

And that was the moment when I began to care about buskers.

* * *

The local regulations governing buskers can be found in

Chapters 28

and

40

of Houston's Code of Ordinances, where street performers of all type are mostly banned, and musicians are unfortunately categorized as a nuisance, along with gasoline siphons, ditches, barbed wire, uncovered cisterns, and pimps.

An exception is made, however, for the Theater District, which is defined as being the area “to the mid-point of and bounded by Preston Street on the north, Dallas Street on the south, Milam Street on the east, and Interstate Highway 45 on the west.” Individual musicians (as well as bands, singers and, yes, mimes) with a permit can perform in this limited area only. No amplification is allowed.

Bands were banned from busking everywhere in the city as far back as 1914, although no mention was made of individual musicians until more recently. There was little change to the wording of this particular ordinance during successive revisions to the code, and our current ordinance still uses much of the same language. The 1914 ban remained in effect at least through the 1960s, but by the early 1990s, revitalization efforts in downtown had begun, and the code was altered to allow for the limited presence of street performers in what was just then starting to be referred to as the “Theater District.”

Obviously, the Theater District is an absurdly small portion of Houston, and leaves out parts of town that might be considered ideal for buskers: Main Street and Montrose, as well as those rare other streets that invite casual pedestrian traffic, like 19th Street in the Heights. What's more, this piece of the code may actually be unconstitutional. There's plenty of case law establishing busking as legally protected free speech, and additional case law prohibiting the restricting of busking from areas where other free speech is allowed (see Turley v. New York City.) In other words, if you can legally have a march on Main Street, you ought to be able to busk there too.

But for the time being I was prepared to accept these limitations. Section 40-264 of the Code provides a list of points to be addressed in a permit application, and pointed me to the City fee schedule to figure out how much a permit would set me back. The city's website claims that “The City fee schedule displays all permit, license, and registration fees established by authority of the City of Houston Code of Ordinances,” but a permit fee for street performers is not listed there. I wrote to the email address on their website for more information.

After a week with no response, I called and was told that I should visit the Permitting Center on the first floor of their offices at 1002 Washington Avenue. The staff there couldn't have been friendlier, but in the end they were not able to provide any more information. I was told that my request was not covered by their noise or non-food vendor permits, and it was suggested that I contact the Theater District, which I did. I also sent a follow up email to Houston's Deputy Director of the Permitting Center asking for further clarification.

Kathryn McNiel, the CEO of Houston's Theater District was, like everyone I spoke to for this article, extremely gracious. (Houstonians are just nice people, aren't they?) She was not aware of ordinances related to street performers, and understandably assumed that they were in fact banned everywhere in the city. Like others I spoke to, she subscribed to the notion that street performers can contribute to a city's cultural vibrancy, but was unable to provide any further information.

* * *

But then, a day after my email to the Deputy Director of the Permitting Center, an application suddenly appeared in my inbox. My email had been forwarded to a Senior Project Manager with Houston Public Works, Traffic Drainage Operations and Mobility Permits, who responded to me succinctly, as if they got this request all the time. You can request your own application at mobilitypermits@houstontx.gov. The application covered a lot of the same ground that the City Code did. But it also stated the fee — $10 for 30 days, or $50 for a year – and reiterated what is in my opinion the most odious portion of the Code: any street performer must get “written permission from the abutting property owners.” This was the part that I'd been dreading the most.

Would-be street performers are expected not just to stay within the bounds of the Theater District, but to pick a single spot for the duration of their permit, and to get permission from the nearest business to be there. (If you choose to work around the clock, you are allowed to choose two spots—a day shift and a night shift.) Houston is a business town, and a certain amount of deference to business owners is understandable.

But, if you look at a map of the Theater District, you'll understand just how limiting this provision is. There are very few places in this area that provide the kind of foot traffic that buskers are looking for: people heading out for a night on the town. People in somewhat less of a hurry than we usually are in Houston. There's a movie theater, and the Alley, and some other major arts venues. A handful of restaurants and a hotel. And that's about it. The rest of the Theater District is made up of parking lots and office towers. It turns out that one's ability to get a permit in Houston doesn't depend on the city at all. It depends on the whim of about a dozen business owners.

What the hell. I was in for the long haul. I printed out a handful of homemade permission slips and hit the streets.

* * *

In the movie version of this article, this next part would be the montage scene. Picture door after door getting slammed in my face. What music would be playing during the montage scene? A fast-paced polka maybe? And who is playing me in the movie? Unfortunately, we'll never know the answers to these questions, because I was denied the struggle that is required of the hero in any decent film. It turns out that Houstonians in the restaurant business are just as friendly as every other Houstonian I spoke to for this article.

The first restaurant manager I approached put me off firmly but politely with the contact information for a property manager. But the second business was a different story entirely. The gruff, older manager there expressed his opinion that I (and anyone else) should be allowed to perform without any kind of permit at all. Two minutes and a handshake later, I walked out the door with a signed letter of permission.

If I seem a little cagey about the specific location of this business, let's just say that the restrictions of the application process were starting to have an effect on whatever meager capitalistic instincts I have. There are a handful of locations in the Theater District that are at all attractive to the part-time busker. If I announced my location, would that spur competition from other street performers? Would the owner of the restaurant suddenly be inundated with requests from every amateur folk singer and juggler in town? It didn't seem fair to me or him.

But I'll tell you this much: the food served by this establishment originates in a Mediterranean culture that has a somewhat stereotypical association with the accordion.

* * *

I only received an application after sending an email declaring that I was writing an article, and I introduced myself to business owners with the same information. It's hard to say if the information and permission I received would have been as forthcoming for someone else. I tried two other businesses, but no dice. They didn't say “no” outright, but they passed the buck until I decided it was best to go ahead and file my application.

The Mobility Permitting Section of the Traffic Management Branch of Houston Public Works offices out of the 5th floor at 611 Walker, ironically, in the Theater District. I considered asking for a permit to perform on their sidewalk, but thought better of it, and showed up with the required paperwork and a money order. (They accept cashier’s checks and money orders only, which seems like another small but unnecessary hurdle in the process.) This is where I had been told to go, but their website makes no mention of street performer permits.

The hallway on the fifth floor is so nondescript that the word “nondescript” might be a bit too showy for it. There is no reception area, just a few chairs lined up along the wall. I knocked one one of the doors and a woman answered. I explained myself while she looked over my paperwork.

“This all looks correct,” she said, “but I've never done one before.”

She disappeared behind the door to confer with a supervisor, and I sat down to wait. Every now and then, someone would come out of another door on their way to the elevator, and more than half of them gave me a look of concern and asked if I had been helped. I tell you. Even in this dreary and carpeted nothingscape. Houstonians. Nicest people I know.

Ten minutes later, she was back. She handed me a photocopy of my application signed by her boss, gave me a receipt for my money order, and that was that. I was legally authorized to perform accordion music in one tiny outdoor area of Houston. It seems entirely possible that my permit might be one of the only active ones around.

At the very least I'm willing to wager that I'm currently Houston's only legally authorized street accordionist.

* * *

Street performers in other towns talk about a camaraderie among buskers. You leave a reasonable distance between yourself and other performers, and you respect the brick and mortar businesses in your vicinity. By doing so, everyone wins: business owners gain a more attractive street scene, and buskers succeed or fail on their own merits. Houston's current code does not encourage such an environment. One might even argue that the current code discourages entrepreneurship and limits the potential of established businesses.

Permits for street performers in other cities can be surprisingly affordable, reasonably regulated, and easy to research. A busker in Chicago's subway will spend about $60 a year for the necessary documentation. Street performers without amplification can legally busk in much of New York City without any permit at all. And buskers in both places can figure this out in less than 30 seconds online.

But getting a permit in Houston could be a lot easier, and the limitations could be less severe. Many cities with restrictive codes are beginning to rethink their policies. San Antonio revoked its ban on busking in 2016 with an eye towards enhancing “the vibrancy, vitality and ambience” of their downtown. I trust that Houston's leaders can come up with an improved policy that satisfies the interests of business owners, buskers, residents and visitors to our city. If I were to write my city councilmember or start a petition regarding street performer permits, I would ask for three simple things:

• To make permit information for street performers as accessible as it is for other permits;
• To revise that portion of the application that requires applicants to get permission from local business owners. Street performers should respect their neighbors, and their behavior should be reasonably regulated with enforceable guidelines. But this provision, as currently written, further restricts the available area for busking by letting business owners be the judges of who gets to play where, while also placing an unfair additional burden on the applicant;
• And, most importantly, to broaden the geographical area where busking is allowed in order to bring the city's Ordinance in line with established freedom of speech rulings on the matter.

Getting noticed or not?
Getting noticed or not?
Photo by Doogie Roux
* * *

When I spoke to my friends about these efforts, they were always encouraging. In fact, they wanted me to go farther. A lot farther. It was suggested that I busk without a permit, or in a prohibited area, with an eye towards being ticketed and an eventual trial, where I could plead my case publicly. It was frequently suggested that I “take this all the way!”

The people who suggested this know that I have a lot of things going on, and that I barely scrape out a living as it is. I was surprised that they were so ready for me to become a full-time martyr to the cause, time and expense be damned. After a while, it kind of started to seem like my “friends” just thought it would be amusing if I wound up in jail. I mean: these are people who really know me well. They should know, better than most, that I'm no hero.

And I am well aware that any progress I have encouraged here on behalf of buskers has perhaps only insured that you are more likely to hear many more renditions of Pink Floyd's “Wish You Were Here” on the streets of our city – not necessarily a net gain for the citizenry. Activism in any form can be a double-edged sword. When you work for the good others, there's no guarantee that those you are working for will be good.

It's also true that, in this era of resurgent white supremacy, where the patriarchy holds on as tightly as ever to its power, the plight of buskers can seem like a small fight. But maybe it's still a fight worth having. It has to do, in its way, with the First Amendment, the quality of life in Houston, and with supporting artists. And if you don't care about helping musicians, maybe you'll consider speaking up for the mimes?

Because really, it's going to take someone other than me to make this happen. I'm hardly an activist, and I'm certainly not self-confident enough to think I can change public policy, even regarding something as trivial as this. Like I said before: I'm no hero. I'm just an accordionist. Looking for tips. See you in the Theater District.

(Fade to a lone accordionist seated on a stool on a hot, lonely Houston sidewalk. He plays a haunting melody as the screen fades to black...)

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