Sometimes it pays to be an ornery loudmouth. The City of Seattle, which oversees and partially funds Seattle Center, has agreed to pay outspoken street magician and balloon-maker "Magic Mike" Berger $20,000 in compensation for violating his constitutional right to do magic in public. Berger, who has been busking in town for more than 20 years, has repeatedly tangled with the Seattle Center over its claim that he couldn't perform at the park without a photo ID and Center-issued permit. Berger finally called bullshit, and U.S. District Court Judge James Robart agreed. The city has not announced whether it will appeal the decision.

"They were pretty pissed that the ruling went against them," Berger said. "But saying, 'I'll give you a permit' is the same as saying, 'I could not give you a permit.' You don't need a permit to express yourself in public."

In his April 22 decision, Judge Robart noted that the Seattle Center "sweeps too broadly by barring spontaneous, low-impact 'performances,' while permitting gatherings of as many as 99 people to speak their minds." Closer to my heart, the judge wrote, "No matter how persuasive the lyrical urgings of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas might be, there is no dancing in the street in the Seattle Center, at least not without permission."

The Seattle Center established the unconstitutional rules to prevent turf squabbles between performers. But a public-disclosure request by Berger's lawyer, Elena Garella, turned up fewer than 10 recorded disputes in over a decade. Besides the obvious constitutional issues, what really seems to be at stake is the image of the Seattle Center, which would like to be known as "Seattle's living room" but, barring occasional events like Bumbershoot, more closely resembles a cobwebbed drawing room.

"They're trying to clean up the park, to Disney-fy it, and make it attractive to tourists," Garella said. "But they're ignoring a heritage in the United States of public parks being a little rawer--centers of free exchange." Open discourse isn't pretty and personal liberty can be inconvenient for order-minded bureaucrats, but it's also a hell of a lot of fun. More to the point, the Seattle Center is a drab excuse for an urban center and in no position to discourage attractions of any kind. In fact, more spontaneous, unpredictable performance is exactly what the underused park needs. The recent Fankick!/Streetbeat dance-off, for example, was a buskers' battle that packed the Westlake Center.

"The Seattle Center management has no idea what's good for bringing people there," Berger said. "They're greedy pencil-pushers who don't have heart and don't have art."

Undoubtedly, some buskers are obnoxious, talent-free loons, but that's beside the point. Balloon animals and magic aren't going to turn the Center into a vibrant hub, but they couldn't possibly make it any duller.

brendan@thestranger.com

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