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Reilly to downtown street performers: Stifle yourselves

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) speaks to City Council members in 2013. File Photo. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media

Nearly 20 years ago, Chicago street performers accused then-downtown Ald. Burton F. Natarus (42nd) of “urban cleansing” for spearheading another one of his infamous crackdowns to tone down their music.

They might soon be making the same complaint about current downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd).

Reilly is once again trying to tighten the legislative noose on street musicians who drive downtown residents and employees to distraction by banging on plastic buckets all day or playing “The Flintstones” theme song in a continuous loop on the saxophone.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Reilly introduced an ordinance that would turn long stretches of Michigan Avenue and State Street into “no-play zones,” where street musicians are prohibited from giving any performance “audible to a person with normal hearing standing 20 feet away.”

Reilly noted that similar “no-play zones” are already in place on a four-block stretch of North Michigan Avenue and at the Petrillo Band shell and Pritzker Pavillion.

At Millenium Park, street performances of any kind are strictly prohibited.

The new ordinance would prohibit street performances audible from 20 feet away on the Michigan Avenue and State Street corridors, on both sides of street. The Michigan Avenue corridor would stretch from Cedar to Balbo. The State Street stifle zone would run from Huron to Jackson Boulevard.

“Chicago loves and celebrates many of our street performers. But downtown, some performers willfully violate the city’s noise ordinance all day, every day,” Reilly wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“For the passers-by, a few minutes of pounding drums or buckets or amplified music may be enjoyable. But, for those residents, office workers and business owners who experience that noise for four, five, sometimes six hours straight, those sounds and performances aren’t ‘music’ or ‘enjoyable.’ It’s deafening, mind-numbing, maddening noise.”

Reilly acknowledged that the headaches caused by street performance “may sound like a trivial issue” to those who haven’t experienced it.

But, he argued that constant bombardment of noise is “negatively impacting the productivity of thousands of downtown office workers” and destroying the quality of life for “just as many” downtown residents.

It’s an issue that’s raised at “every single community meeting or condo association meeting” that Reilly attends near “one of those noise hot spots.”

“I’m simply seeking to afford those same protection against noise to my residential constituents and downtown office workers. The vast majority of people who live or work in the Loop on one of these two streets is desperate for a solution to the constant percussive noise, day in and day out,” he said.

“My residential and business constituents have endured this issue for years and they’ve had enough. They want a solution to this problem once and for all. The Police Department wants a less confusing ordinance to enforce. It is my hope that this ordinance will deliver improvements … while striking a balance that allows street performers to continue to express their creativity and entertain our visitors in downtown Chicago.”

Reilly argued that Chicago’s current street performer ordinance has been amended so many times in a failed attempt to stifle the noise, it has become a “confusing and cumbersome” hodge-podge that is difficult to enforce.

At least a few of those amendments were introduced by Reilly.

For example, the current ordinance requires police officers responding to noise complaints to simply “move the problem” two blocks away. That just generates new complaints on the next few blocks, triggering even more calls to 911.

That becomes a “vicious cycle and a drain on limited police resources downtown,” the alderman said.

Yet another provision requires police officers to “pace off 200 steps” and attempt to hold a conversation. If the noise drowns out that conversation at that distance, it’s considered a violation.

That requirement, too, is so “burdensome and confusing,” it discourages enforcement, the alderman said.