These crime fighters aren’t in uniform and don’t carry weapons or badges. They wield guitars, Hula-Hoops, washboards, paintbrushes, and will hopefully have the ability to draw a crowd.
Last week, Seattle parks began paying street performers -- mostly musicians, but also a few visual artists and some vaudevillians -- to entertain in five downtown parks in hopes that with more people around, a park will be less hospitable to illegal activity.
Mayor Greg Nickels organized a special city task force in 2005 to study the problems of urban public spaces and parks. The group’s report, released last year, hailed these areas as “potentially great assets” to downtown, but concluded that “the parks don’t feel safe or welcoming, and ... there are few reasons for people to visit them.”
Four of the five parks -- Westlake, Hing Hay, Pioneer Square and Freeway -- are in the city’s urban core. The fifth park, Waterfront, is on a pier next to the city’s newly remodeled aquarium and near the cruise ship terminal.
The most common problems in the parks are drug-dealing and prostitution.
“It’s an experiment,” said Victoria Schoenburg, one of the principal organizers of the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department program.
She said that a concert may draw people to a park once, but the presence of performers everyday at lunchtime would more likely draw return visitors.
“We’ve been trying all kinds of things in the parks over the past few years -- free concerts, basic ambient improvements. We’ve discovered that low-cost, simple grass-roots ideas are the most effective,” Schoenburg said .
Judd Wasserman, 28 and Rachel Jacobson-Larson, 25, who perform as the Forget Me Nots, had an audience of five late in the lunch hour in Freeway Park on Wednesday, but said their experience had been positive.
“People have been coming up, asking us what we’re doing, and saying how much they like the music,” said Jacobson-Larson, who plays the violin. Wasserman plays a steel acoustic guitar and both musicians sing.
Freeway Park abuts Interstate 5. It’s loud and the long benches often serve as sleeping spots for homeless people. But it is also next to several high-rise office buildings, and the parks department has provided lunch tables for office workers.
The parks are not always ideal performance spaces, but Schoenburg said the parks department would ask the performers for feedback.
“We’re checking in on the buskers while they are performing, trying to get the kinks out,” she said.
News about the program has gotten around the busker community by word of mouth and e-mail.
Emery Carl, 29, who also performs in Pike Place Market, will take his first turn in Pioneer Square Park next week. Carl, who has been busking for six years, plays the guitar and uses Hula-Hoops in his act. He likes to get the audience involved -- both singing and trying out the hoops.
Carl has no doubt that street performers can change the atmosphere of a place and even defuse volatile situations.
“I was performing on the sidewalk, outside a bar near Pioneer Square a while back,” he said. “Six guys suddenly spilled out of the bar, with all this bad energy -- you could tell they were about to fight. I had four people trying out the Hula-Hoops, I was playing the guitar and hooping -- you just can’t fight around that. Some of the guys from the bar even started to laugh.”
The city’s program has sparked some controversy within the busker community.
Kristen Anderberg, 46, has been a street performer in Seattle for 28 years. She plays a washboard in her act and said she derived a lot of material from classic vaudeville.
“Some people are boycotting” the program, Anderberg said. “They think the city is using us, trying to control us, and not paying enough. But I think it is great -- a positive step for the busking community. As long as they don’t tell me what to do, and not to do, and they are going pay me to perform, instead of trying to make me pay for a permit to perform, I’m all for it.”
So far, the city has signed up 20 street performers to work from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The city is paying the performers $30 for each lunchtime set. Tips are still accepted. The program is scheduled to continue through mid-September.
Schoenburg said that if successful, more parks might be included next year.
“The bottom line is we want to do whatever it takes to improve the atmosphere in our parks, make them available to everyone and into spaces where women and children can feel safe,” she said.