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Street Fight in Old Town : Merchants Say Sidewalks Can't Accommodate the Performers and Crowds They Attract, but Some Entertainers Oppose Regulation


PASADENA — A light breeze carries the tropical beat of a steel drum and the strains of an old Beatles classic through bustling Old Pasadena, where throngs of people are out on the town on warm summer evenings. The large crowds and the street performers entertaining them are a testament to the success of Old Town, but some local business owners are beginning to wonder whether it might be too much of a good thing.

The problem, they say, is that the sidewalks are not big enough for the merchants, the crowds and the street performers.

A variety of remedies have been proposed, but there is growing support for plans to somehow regulate the musicians and magicians, artists and clowns sprinkled along Colorado Boulevard.

"We're kind of going through growing pains, and this is just one of them," said Jack Daniel Smith, president of the Old Pasadena Business Assn. "I don't think anyone planned on the area being as successful as it is."

Old Town blossomed into an entertainment mecca over the past few years. More than 15,000 visitors come to the area on Friday and Saturday nights, drawn by its selection of more than 60 restaurants and bars, several theaters and art galleries, and dozens of trendy stores.

But according to Smith and others, Old Pasadena is so popular that it might be unsafe. Too many pedestrians are forced to step off the sidewalk and walk in the street to get around a crowd surrounding a South American folk band or a crooner with a guitar, they said.

Street performers, business owners and city officials will get together Friday to discuss the situation and search for a solution. The Equator Cafe, on Mills Place, is host of the 4 p.m. public meeting.

Although talk of licensing performers is only preliminary, it already has some of Old Pasadena's regular acts worried.

"I just know it's going to happen, and it bothers me," said Tony Parker, a 36-year-old Pasadena songwriter performing in front of a closed antique store. "It detracts from the spirit of it. I don't like the feel of it at all. I don't like the idea of any kind of regulation that could cut my income off."

Parker, strumming a guitar and singing a James Taylor song into a microphone, said he is also afraid that officials will pull the plug on amplified speakers.

That is just one step that restaurateur Chipper Pastron and other business owners want the city to take.

Pastron, co-owner of the Market City Caffe, Rose City Diner and Jake's Billiards, also wants to audition would-be entertainers, charge them a small fee for licenses, designate specific spots where they may perform, and require them to display permits.

"We need enforceable guidelines that would create a hassle-free environment here," Pastron said. In addition to the sidewalk congestion, Pastron said the performers and their audiences often block store entrances and windows. Some make too much noise.

"Anybody can grab a guitar and just start screaming, and that doesn't add to the environment," said Pastron, who agrees that street performers are an important part of the Old Town atmosphere.

Most street performers acknowledge that large crowds are becoming a problem, but several also argue that licensing is not the answer.

"They've tried that in other cities, and it doesn't work. When you license a performer, that takes the creative function out of the performance," said Jamo Kali, a writer-actor who has been doing his "Robot Man" act on the streets more than four years. "That's just like saying you've got to get a license if you're homeless."

Jerome Bowman, a disheveled guitar player in a red felt hat and a dusty jacket, said he thinks officials are trying to get rid of performers who don't project the right image, and he takes it personally.

"They've been trying to chase me out of town for the last few years. They say I'm too obnoxious, too loud, too tall, too black," he said. "Face it. It's fascism, man. Pretty soon you won't be able to speak the way you want to speak or dress the way you want to dress."

Bowman, 40, said he grew up in Old Pasadena and has been performing for more than 15 years. His act these days consists of aggressively serenading passers-by while dancing in place. Sometimes they ignore him, but he usually gets a smile or a laugh and occasionally a quarter or two.

Down the street, another guitarist suggested that business owners have another hidden motive. "They want the people, they want the crowds. They just think the street performers are taking money out of their pockets," said R. A. Yancey, 35.

Yancey said he sees a double standard in Old Pasadena, where several restaurants rent sidewalk space from the city to set up outdoor tables. "I think it's too crowded because they put all their stuff out on the sidewalk," he said.

Yancey and some other street performers said they hope to be paid if they are not allowed to perform where and when they want. "This is no joke, no game. This is how I survive, this is my job," he said.

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