What Busking Teaches Us About Building A Better Streetscape
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What Busking Teaches Us About Building A Better Streetscape

Council voted against banning them from Yonge and Dundas—and rightfully so.

Photo by Neil Ta from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by Neil Ta from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Imagine, for a minute, Yonge and Dundas without any buskers. No jazz bands playing Maroon 5 outside the Cineplex. No Spiderman jumping from one lamp pole to the next. No chalk drawings on the pavement. No gold statue mime standing still to hip hop music.

The streets would be less alive without this art, and one of Toronto’s busiest and most animated intersections would look and feel a whole lot more grey.

Buskers, in all of their weird, talented, and sometimes annoying glory, are a defining characteristic of any major urban centre, and provide an expression of the city’s character. Losing them would mean losing part of who we are as a city.

Yet, on April 28, Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) tried to make those entertainers disappear from her ward when she tabled a motion to implement a moratorium on busking at two corners of Yonge and Dundas. City Council rejected the proposal in a 15-15 tie.

The outcome was welcomed by many Torontonians. Busking doesn’t just enrich the urban landscape—it also provides a platform for the arts. Had Wong-Tam’s motion passed, street performers would lose a major source of income, as Yonge and Dundas is one of the busiest public spaces in the city.

The attempt to “clear [buskers] away from the two busiest subway and mall entrances in the entire country,” according to Wong-Tam’s explanation before the vote, caused discomfort with buskers who perform in the area.

The easy fix would be to implement a more selective permit-granting process, or to enforce existing standards with greater consistency.

The Sidewalk Artist/Busker Permit is available and immediately provided to any police officer or any person designated by the City upon request. A licence fee of $43.21 will give anyone in need access to the streets of the city, as long as they agree not to obstruct, endanger, or damage the public or public property.

But even this fix presents problems. A more selective permit-granting process means many could lose out on the opportunity to work a job that has provided them with some semblance of a steady income.

And if buskers were banned from Yonge and Dundas, where would they go? Would an informal busking district pop up at St. Lawrence Market, where BuskerFest used to take place? Would Bloor and Yonge, another of the city’s busiest intersections, provide a solution in spite of its smaller spaces, which are currently made more restrictive by construction projects? There are no perfect spaces, as vibrant streetscapes mean there are competing uses for the same site.

While there are accessibility concerns at Yonge and Dundas, the intersection also has a lot going for it. Tourists hop off their sightseeing bus tours and catch a glimpse at a human statue before scuttling off to the Eaton Centre. Rush hour sees hundreds marching across the intersection. Students from Ryerson University pass by every day as they exit the subway or streetcar. Steady foot traffic means more potential supporters for those who showcase their art and talents in a city that often overlooks them.

Surely to remove buskers is to lose a key piece of the city. But most importantly, it means that buskers will lose a key part of the financial stability they use to stay afloat. That Wong-Tam, long a proponent of Toronto’s arts, suggested such an imposition is unfortunate.

After all, part of the vitality of our city — and the financial viability of many artists — depends on embracing busy streets and the (sometimes off-key) performances that lend it life.