If you follow local news, you've already seen pictures of cellist Austin Fitzhenry sitting in front of the Dock Street Theatre with a chain and padlock hung around his neck. After three years of performing for tips in front of the venue during the Spoleto Festival, Fitzhenry was told by a police officer last Friday to move along or face a nearly $1,100 fine.
Fitzhenry says that up until Police Sgt. Heath King told him he couldn't play there, passersby and even other officers were friendly and appreciative. "One officer joked about threatening to arrest a drunk person who stumbled over my instrument and didn't tip me," Fitzhenry says.
So what's the difference between this year and the last three years when Fitzhenry delighted crowds without running afoul of the law? Sgt. King wasn't overstepping his authority. City Council, without much fanfare or press coverage, passed new ordinances in March that restrict the places where street musicians can play. A map of places where you're allowed to busk in downtown Charleston is becoming increasingly Swiss-cheese-like, rivaled in byzantine complexity only by the map of places where you're allowed to skateboard.
In one sense, the new ordinances make it easier to play for tips. Previously, buskers were required to apply for a peddler's license from the city, a process that took weeks, cost more than $30 plus annual renewal fees, and involved a background check by state law enforcement. But under the new ordinances, buskers are considered "solicitors" and not "peddlers" (since they are not peddling a physical product), so they no longer have to apply for the license.
But in another sense, buskers' livelihood has gotten a little less lively. Soliciting is now prohibited within a 50-foot perimeter of the following places: ATMs, church grounds (while in session), school grounds (while in session), libraries, hospitals, funeral homes, banks, hotels, outdoor dining areas, special events, and — as in Fitzhenry's case — entrances or exits of performance venues.
The new rules are even more stringent for peddlers and charitable solicitors, who must obey the same 50-foot perimeter bans and are also now banned from the Market district, South of Broad, Waterfront Park, the Aquarium District, Marion Square, and much of King Street.
Fitzhenry isn't the only person to run into trouble with the new ordinances in place. Around midday on Sat. May 31, Shai Rivers, Desmond Lewis, and Kyrin Gamble were caught standing in the entrance to an alley on South Market Street trying to sell palmetto roses, the iconic handicrafts made from palmetto fronds that have traditionally been sold by children on the Market. According to a police incident report, all three of them had been warned about the new ban on selling in the Market district, but they came back anyway. All three received tickets for peddling in a prohibited zone, in addition to tickets for selling palmetto roses without a permit.
And then there's the case of Ernest Iracks. On the afternoon of Sun. June 1, police saw him singing for tips near the water fountain in Marion Square at King and Calhoun. When no one put money in his cup, he started asking people if they'd like to buy a hat he had for sale. That's when an officer moved in and handed Iracks a criminal summons for peddling in a prohibited zone and peddling without a permit.
The Holy City has a history of being less than hospitable to street performers and peddlers.
Police banned buskers from the Market district altogether in the fall of 2012. One street guitarist, Glenn Orange, staged a protest by continuing to play music on the Market, but with crime scene tape wrapped around the guitar case he'd normally use to collect tips.
The American Civil Liberties Union took an interest in the buskers' cause, taking up the case of a traveling musician who'd received a court summons for peddling in a restricted zone (under the city's old definition of "peddling," which included busking). A judge eventually dropped the charges, and in March 2013 the city lifted its ban on street performers in the Market district.
As for Fitzhenry, he's up against a new set of rules that remains murky for some street performers. Now a third-year biology student at the College of Charleston, the Charleston native says he has been playing for tips around the city for 10 years without incident. He says the new ordinance eliminates many of the best performance spots.
"That basically takes out any place you would want to be as a musician," Fitzhenry says.
Over the course of a few hours in front of the Dock Street Theatre at midday, Fitzhenry says he collected 151 signatures from people — many of them Spoleto attendees — who want him back in action. He took the petition to Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.'s office Tuesday afternoon, and while Fitzhenry is still barred from playing Bach cello suites outside the theater, he says Riley promised to bring his concerns before City Council.
Fitzhenry and other buskers will also attend the City Council meeting on June 17 to share their opinions during the public comment session. He encourages concerned residents to contact their council members in advance about the issue.
One signer of Fitzhenry's petition was Paige Wisotzki, a Spoleto usher who has been working at the festival for 30 years. She says she misses the days when the sidewalks rang out with music all over town during the festival.
"They used to have all kinds of things on Marion Square, jugglers and all kinds of strange things that were for children," Wisotzki says. "My daughter is in her 30s, and we used to come around downtown just to see the musicians. And that's what we did. Those were the days when a lot of the Piccolo things were free."