The opening of the new light rail stations offers expansion of a lot more than just mobility. It also represents the creation of new venues for Seattle's buskers and street performers. As anyone who has ever gone anywhere in a city will attest, the presence of music (from classical to strummy singer-songwriter to freestyle rap), juggling, impromptu stand-up comedy, and even mime is a necessary and often enlivening facet of any transit system in the world.
I often wonder how the changing nature of public space and the ubiquity of the smartphone affect both the ethics and the expectations of street performance. The general noise floor of urban life has gone up several decibels. It's increasingly normal for people to have loud conversations on speakerphone on the bus, at the cafe, in the movie theater. Plus there is the simple fact is that no matter what you're doing, you're almost certain to be doing at least one other thing at the same time. All these issues made me wonder about the relative value of busking.
In conducting an informal poll among my close personal friends (or Facebook, as I call them), I was somewhat shocked to discover that nearly all of them seem not merely to approve of, but to actively love, the practice. Some extolled the virtues of busking as a means of expression, some as a form of public apprenticeship, some as a way of making a little extra jingle, some as a vessel for truly memorable artistic encounters, and several as an illustration of what they love about living in a city.
I was, I will not deny, caught off guard by the warmth and generosity of their perspectives. Often I find myself stuck in the downward-facing curmudgeon pose I adopted as a young Seattleite, and get caught up in my ethical objection to the entitlement and arrogance of street performers.
On reflection, however, there's another name for that entitlement and arrogance: audacity, which is the essential characteristic of all great performance. And the possibility of creating an unexpected moment of connection, or even diversion, into the increasingly dour archipelago of nuisances we call Seattle outweighs the risk of being assailed, however fleetingly, by another 348 verses of "Brown Eyed Girl" or whatever.
And so, in preparation for spending more time on the light rail, I abdicate my rolled eyes and throw my lot in with the busker lovers.
There's only one problem: Busking is prohibited inside Seattle light rail stations.
According to Sound Transit public information officer Bruce Gray, the policy in the new stations will be what it is at the existing ones: No busking on the platforms or anywhere else commuters need to move quickly. Same goes for the trains themselves.
He added that there will be plenty of areas, such as the station entrances, where buskers will be able to set up and play. But there is no permitting system, like the one at Pike Place Market, where $30 buys street performers a year's worth of access, or even the airport, which has developed a well-organized and curated system for musical performance.
This means that fare enforcement and security officers will have the discretion to ask, or tell, buskers to move along.
It's difficult to anticipate what the environment of the stations will be like in this regard, but Gray said it hasn't been a problem at any of the existing stations on the light rail line (or on the trains themselves), and no one at Sound Transit is expecting a problem at the new ones.
"We're really more focused on getting up and running," he told me. "If it turns out to be a big issue, it's something we're ready to address."