Advocates: Cops cracking down on subway musicians
AMNY EXCLUSIVE -- Are the strings attached to subway strumming getting tighter?
Veteran transit musicians say police harassment has grown to disturbing levels in recent months, leading some to fear that independent performers could be driven out of the subways.
“It’s a game to drive you crazy,” said Mark “Shakerleg” Nicosia, 34, a subway drummer who has been ticketed repeatedly this year.
The musicians, also known as buskers, report they have been banned from certain areas of the platforms and have been ushered out of the subways even before setting up their equipment. While anyone can legally play in the subway, artists suspect police are targeting musicians who have not been officially sanctioned by the MTA under its Music Under New York program.
“It’s a blitz. I’ve been written up in so many ways,” said Ron Wingate, 43, a guitarist who has performed in the subways for eight years.
Playing in the subways was illegal for decades, but a judge reversed the ban in 1985. NYC Transit allows performers to play acoustic on subway platforms and with amps on mezzanines. Volumes can’t be “excessive” and artists must not block pedestrians or play near construction, according to transit rules.
A NYPD spokesman said they are not “going after” musicians, and tickets are issued only when individuals are causing excessive noise, upsetting crowds and obstructing pedestrians.
According to several musicians, the NYPD issued a memo last year that instructed officers to ticket any artist not affiliated with Music Under New York, which provides designated subways spots for 100 participating artists.
“It’s become very obvious they are trying to kick us out. And there’s no arguing,” said Theo Eastwind, 34, a subway musician for 15 years, who said he was shown the memo.
The NYPD denied the memo existed. The MTA declined to comment on any possible crackdown.
Musicians say police periodically conduct sweeps, but the ticketing and harassment started escalating last year. They say the crackdown appears to be especially noticeable at the stations in Times Square and Union Square.
A survey of musicians by City Lore, a busker advocacy group, found widespread harassment, including one performer whose instrument was nearly impounded, according to Steve Zeitlin, the group’s executive director.
“Even Kora players and mimes complained of being harassed,” Zeitlin said. “It’s a matter of confusing street performers with other quality-of-life enhancements.”
Tickets cost between $25 and $100. Judges nearly always dismiss them for insufficient evidence, performers said. Officials would not release the number of tickets issued to performers.
A panel of judges holds auditions annually for Music Under New York, but competition can be fierce and even longstanding subway performers have been rejected, Eastwind said.
Musicians said they understand that performers can be irritating, but wished officers would stop sapping some of the charm out of the subways.
“Character made the city what it is,” Nicosia said. “This is just one part of the city losing its personality.”
Busking in the subway
Musicians started playing in the subways in its infancy; banjo players took to the platforms during the Great Depression.
Street performance was banned in 1930, but Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger still played guitar in the subways in the 1940s
- Men sang doo-wop inside trains during the 1950s and ’60s
Source: City Lore
Theo Eastwind performs at the Bedford Ave. stop in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Marie Claire Andrea)