20
Aug
09

No parking—not if it’s a guitar, at least

It’s kind of slipped under the radar here in Ottawa, but if you haven’t heard 2009 is the last year that buskers will be able to freely set-up shop in the ByWard Market to play for passers-by. That’s because—as of next year—they will have to purchase a permit from the City in order to play. Costing either $10 for a single day, or $100 for the entire season, buskers will then be able to play for up to six hours a day, provided they don’t spend more than one hour in any one location. According to the City, this will be put in place to minimize disputes that may occur between buskers over prime locations.

Now I don’t exactly spend hours every day observing the activities and interactions of the buskers in the market, but in the four years I’ve lived in this city, I’ve only ever seen one argument over whether or not someone can play in a particular spot (it was right in front of the Beavertails, incidentally). Furthermore, any time I’ve seen buskers interacting, it’s looked pretty amicable to me, and I can’t ever recall seeing a situation where City workers or the Ottawa Police had to intervene. This is all anecdotal, of course, and I’m an outsider to the busking world, but that’s my perspective on the matter.

At the end of the day, though, I can’t help but find this a little disturbing. Sidewalks, especially in an area like the Market, are one of the city’s most fundamental public places. It’s where urban-dwellers, suburbanites, tourists, the rich, the poor, and everyone in between brushes up against one another, and they are traditionally the place where people are able to excercise their right to freedom of expression. And, of course, their right to perform, which can include things like sidewalk chalk drawings, people pretending to be statues, and music, whether it be a beautiful classic violin piece or someone hacking their way through a Neil Young song. No matter what, buskers and street artists are invaluable in adding vibrancy and colour (sometimes literally) to the street.

This move to require buskers to purchase permits smacks of the City trying to manage just who comes out to busk. The Market attracts many highly skilled buskers, but also those who are less talented. The latter category, from my observations, seem to be more likely to be homeless or down-on-their-luck, and are precisely the sort of people who would likely be unable to afford to invest in a permit. It reminds me far too much of the way the underpass between the Government Conference Centre and Sussex Avenue is turned into a regulated art and performance space during tourist season in order to discourage homeless people from gathering underneath it. In both cases, an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude appears to be the prevelant one, which I find to be unfortunate.

My other major concern here is that overregulation has an unfortunate tendancy to negatively impact public spaces. I’m not expecting the death of the Market, but it might just lose a little bit of its vibrancy if buskers find it tough to set up shop. You only have to look at Sparks Street to see what happens when a public space is too tightly controlled; in that case, the National Capital Commission has regulated a formerly integral part of the downtown core nearly to death. It’s a cautionary tale, and a policy direction that should be avoided if at all possible.

Just one more quick note, I wanted to extend my thanks to Ottawa Start for including me in their list of 30 essential Ottawa blogs. There are some good reads in there, and I recommend browsing through and checking some of them out.

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8 Responses to “No parking—not if it’s a guitar, at least”


  1. August 20, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Seconding that sense of unwarranted disturbance of something that’s been working reasonably well as is for quite some time. And I believe you’ve set the terms of the argument quite well, with a good sense of history’s mistakes here.

  2. August 20, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Hi Matthew. Thanks for the shout-out re: OttawaStart’s 30 Essential Blogs.

    On the subject of busking — I always thought that Ottawa had an existing license fee for buskers – how is this different from what is already in place?

    • 3 David McClelland
      August 20, 2009 at 10:13 pm

      Not that I’m aware of… a quick Google search didn’t bring anything up, anyway. I know some cities do, but I’m not aware of any permit system besides this one in Ottawa.

  3. August 21, 2009 at 1:20 am

    I am also very much against buskers paying to be there. They make me smile when I see them on my way to work, or doing whatever else in the market. Where else could I see tap dancers, guitar players and the occasional string quartet within mere feet of each other? And when I see them repeatedly, its a comfortable feeling because I recognize them. It definitely adds something wonderful to the market atmosphere.

    I read an article with two sisters who play instruments in the market, to make a little money for themselves [they’re not adult age, so its a good way to make some cash] but they likely wont afford to pay for the permits. That’s sad! Don’t take childrens fun away!

    Something you failed to touch on though, is the idea that the buskers will have to rotate each hour, in order to allow various people to perform at busier spots. I do like this idea, because it is in the spirit of fairness. Which can’t be said for the city trying to control who uses publics spaces.

  4. August 21, 2009 at 10:16 am

    Great points, I agree with them all.

    Not only does Ottawa provide the least amount of funding to arts, culture and heritage groups of large cities in Canada, but we’re actually charging them to enliven our public spaces!

    Send yer buskers over to Centretown. We’ll happily take them, no charge.

    – RG>

    • August 26, 2009 at 4:34 pm

      I suspect the retailers who’ve already been to war to prevent chip wagons from flourishing at what they saw as their expense will have something to say about that in due course.

  5. February 12, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    Funny – I’ve been looking all over the web for the last hour, trying to actually find a copy of the new license regulations. I’ve found zip. Nothing even on the City of Ottawa website. All I’ve found are news and blog articles about the subject.

    Do you know if this only applies to the market area, or the entire city?


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