The street performer, or busker, is an integral part of the great culture of New York City, and, in fact, the world. For as long as streets have existed, there have been street performers. People entertained passersby for money in ancient Egypt and Greece, troubadours performed for aristocrats during the Middle Ages, and even Benjamin Franklin took to the Philly streets at age twelve and sang for strangers in colonial America!
These artists try to bring joy to others as they walk around the city or wait for the subway–everyone needs a little more entertainment in their life, after all. During the Great Depression, immigrants and New York locals alike famously performed songs and other acts to help people through the hard times. It was a small gesture, but it went a long way for some people.
Sadly enough, though, street performers in New York City have had their fair share of struggles over the years. Time for a quick history lesson! Authority figures began to think that the spontaneity and disorganization of the act of street performing was actually a threat to the order of the city. People’s fear about the rising population of street performers grew to the point that, in the 1930s, Mayor LaGuardia of New York made the act of performing on NYC streets illegal, calling all performers “beggars.”
Don’t you fret, though, this story has a happy ending. In the 1970s, under the instruction of Mayor Lindsey, the ban against street performers was lifted due to people’s extreme anger with the law. In fact, it was decided that the right to perform on the streets is protected by the First Amendment! Most New Yorkers love street performers, as they are part of a respected urban tradition and they make valuable contributions to the city. Street performers act for one simple goal (…besides obtaining money, of course): to encourage spontaneous expression and bring a sense of community to NYC–and they do.
Now buskers have the right to perform on the subways, sidewalks, and parks (without even needing to apply for a license), and they really do take advantage of this freedom. Any New Yorker or tourist knows that you can’t walk around NYC without encountering numerous incredible artists of all different types. It’s typical to see talented dancers, passionate musicians, unbelievable magicians and expressive mimes as you walk down the city streets. Actually, it’s probably even more likely that you’ll see people dressed up in odd costumes, such as robots, statues, or, a true New York City favorite, the Naked Cowboy.
Unfortunately, even though the ban on street performing was removed, these artists still struggle a lot to display their acts. Law enforcers often tell them that they can’t perform in subways or for money, which is not true. Actually, this happens so often that there are many groups dedicated to making sure that street performers know their rights and aren’t treated unfairly. Many recent court cases, too, have ruled in favor of this urban art form. Yes, these performers have faced a lot of adversity, but they keep on playin’ and you just gotta respect that.
Street performers boast that their profession is a great way for them to kill two birds with one stone, getting to practice what they love all day (and get better at it so they can hope for more future success off the streets), while also making some dough to pay the bills. They often can make up to just upwards of $100 a day! Many say that they couldn’t imagine having a better job–spending the day outside while making people happy through the expression of you favorite creative outlet sounds pretty good, no?
Too often, New Yorkers speed past these artists, in a rush to get to their destination and annoyed by the fact that someone is trying to engage with them…don’t they know that true New Yorkers don’t like to be bothered by strangers (especially those dressed in questionable costumes)?! Little do they know the incredible performance they could be missing out on. Many of these street artists are immensely talented, having worked on their crafts for many, many years, and we assure you that they are almost always worth stopping for. Undercover talent is often the best kind of talent, after all…and it’s free.
Now that you know more about the hidden gem that is the New York busker, we, of course, need to let you know where to find them. Even though, as we’ve said, they are all over the streets, parks, and subway stations, there are definitely some city hot spots where the best performers congregate. Check out Bethesda Terrace, Times Square (both on the streets and in the subway station), and Union Square Park to start. You never know what exactly you’ll find, whether it be a man with a cat on his head, or a group of congo drum players, but, no matter what the street performer’s craft is, you truly won’t be disappointed if you take a couple of minutes to forget your busy NYC schedule and stop.