Ban prompts serious grass-roots attempt to unseat mayor of St. Augustine
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. Jane Cole can’t do business on the street the police might be watching.
When she does conduct a transaction, she walks 50 feet down a side street or to a nearby park to keep from getting busted.
The retired schoolteacher isn’t doing anything unsavory, like peddling heroin or crack cocaine. She’s just trying to sell her cute little art prints of lighthouses and landscapes.
“One of my customers likened it to a drug deal, but the police are so busy cracking down on artists and musicians, they don’t have time to chase drug dealers,” Mrs. Cole said.
She and numerous other artists, musicians, magicians, preachers and a newspaperman have been banned from performing or selling their art in trendy tourist areas here, particularly on historic St. George Street.
City commissioners put the ban in effect last month after shop owners complained the artists and vendors were an annoyance, a safety hazard, and were not paying taxes with the money or tips they received. Shop owners, who pay high-priced rent for space in the bustling tourist areas, felt the performers were unjustified in using the sidewalk space for free.
“It’s turned into a carnival, and it’s sickening,” said St. Augustine resident Tom Wright.
The artists and vendors are pursuing judicial means to recall the ban. Many are novices when it comes to politics, but they say this issue has forced them to get politically involved. They say they will campaign heavily against Mayor Len Weeks because of the ban.
No opponent has yet stepped forward to challenge Mr. Weeks, but Mrs. Cole said they are hoping to persuade Susan Burke, the only city commissioner to vote against the ban, to run against Mr. Weeks in November’s election.
“She’s really fair, and she sees there are some problems like loud noise, but that could be corrected with laws we already have on the books like sound ordinances,” Mrs. Cole said.
Given that the ban is the talk of the town, it may well play a large role in determining Mr. Weeks’ chances.
All along St. George Street, tourists meander from shop to shop, visit the oldest wooden schoolhouse in America, and wander the Spanish Quarter Village where guides and crafts people dress in period clothing.
The once-bustling streets have been much quieter since the ban took effect March 24. The performers are banned, but some of the artists who can paint or draw but are restricted from selling their wares have gradually started to return. This time, however, they are being more circumspect.
Mrs. Cole was recently taken to task by a police officer who overheard her telling a patron the price of her artwork. He gave her a $50 ticket.
The officer told her that by giving the price of her work she was effectively selling it, and that she must walk 50 feet off St. George Street to do so.
So now, when asked the price of a piece of artwork, Mrs. Cole looks up from her painting and points to a menu of food she wrote on a poster, speaking in Mafia-like code to reveal the forbidden information.
When asked how much a small print costs, she points to the menu and says, “A soup and sandwich will cost you $10.” For a medium print, she points to the “steak and salad,” which is $15. If you want a large print, that would be the “deluxe dinner” for $20.
Since March 24, police have arrested four artists and vendors and issued 44 warnings to those who have defied the ban.
City Attorney Jim Wilson said the commissioner’s intent was not to infringe on anyone’s constitutional rights, “but making a living anywhere you want to” is not a constitutional right, he said.
As long as the city allows the patrons and artists to perform and sell their wares in other parts of the city, they are well within their legal purview, Mr. Wilson said.
“It’s a legitimate government interest to regulate sales on the streets and prohibit it in areas you do not want it,” Mr. Wilson said.
“We are not against artists, we are not against musicians, but we have problems,” Mayor Weeks said of the street noise and traffic.
Mark Jesse, a Christian musician who for the past year has sung hymns on the street and handed out free Bibles, said he never saw the problems described by ban supporters but admitted it sometimes gets loud.
“I’m leading ministry efforts and I have brought 30 teens to the Lord in the past year,” said Mr. Jesse, a member of the Lord’s Creek Baptist Church.
“I have followed every ordinance. I just give out Bibles and talk to people about the Lord. I’ve never accepted a dime for anything,” Mr. Jesse said. His Bibles lay on a table, and under the ban, tables that block street traffic are forbidden. Mr. Jesse has not been seen on the street since the ban.
Complaints about the performers have been ongoing for at least five years, say proponents and opponents of the ban. Police first tried issuing citations, and prior to the ban put some artists and performers in jail.
Artist Scott Raimondao used to sell paintings on St. George Street, mostly landscapes. When police tried to shut his stand down, he resisted and was arrested for disturbing the peace. The ban on vendors had not yet been enacted.
“They want their own private little street to look like Disney,” Mr. Raimondao said.
Warren Celli said police cited city vendor regulations to shut down his graphic arts stand. He said police told him he couldn’t sell his graphic art on the street unless it was in a newspaper.
So Mr. Celli started his own newspaper.
Within an hour after the paper, the Saint Aug Dog, first hit the streets. copies were confiscated by police and Mr. Celli’s stand was shut down.
The banner headline on the inaugural issue announced, “Tyranny reigns in St. Augustine! Free Speech banned!”
“Millions have died for this forum, and these guys should be ashamed of themselves,” Mr. Celli said. “It’s a chilling of free speech.”
Mr. Celli said artists are in the process of collecting signatures for a referendum to put the question on the ballot of whether street performers should be allowed free movement.
The St. Augustine Record is running a poll of the issue on its Web site and so far the ban is receiving unfavorable reviews. Last week the poll showed 48 percent saying they would not go to St. George Street, while 36 percent said they were more likely to go because the performers had been removed.
Opponents and supporters of the ban packed the city commissioners’ chambers during a March 13 hearing. The commissioners later voted 4-1 to put two bans in effect one against performers and the other against vendors.
Supporters of the ban say they want “gross commercialization” off the streets.
“We must preserve and maintain our heritage for our children and future generations,” said business owner James Pennington.
“If we have to pass a resolution that displaces an artist, then I’m sorry. We have to do this; there is no compromise,” Mr. Pennington said.
One supporter of the ban at the hearing said large crowds gathering around street performers are dangerous and create a “mecca for pickpockets.”
Fire-eaters were disconcerting to restaurant owners, who said it may upset their patrons’ appetites.
“It’s about ambiance. People come here for history, not bands … and we rob them of something,” said resident Jim Dyer.
City resident Grover Rice said the “argument is not about freedom of speech but about money, and real estate, and vendors and artists want the best location with no overhead and not paying taxes.”
Mr. Rice said the artists were creating diversions by saying it was an assault on their First Amendment rights to protect their street business.
“I can get a grill and set it up and tell you I’m an artist, a creative cheeseburger cook and that my selling burgers is freedom of speech,” Mr. Rice said. “We’ve got to do something.”
St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States. First discovered by Ponce de Leon, the North American Peninsula was colonized in 1565 for King Philip II of Spain.
The city prides itself on its history and historical sites, including the famed Fountain of Youth and the massive Castillo se San Marcos, a fort constructed in the late 17th century to defend the city at its ocean entrance.
The city was controlled by Union soldiers during the Civil War, and today tourists are treated to re-enactments sometimes they become part of it.
“What’s the matter, ain’t you never seen a Yankee before?” yelled one re-enactor to a gawking tourist.
These days, St. Augustine sees lots of Yankees. About 3 million tourists flock to North Florida every year to escape cold weather and contribute about $400 million to the local economy.
One supporter of the ban had a suggestion about how to increase the tourist industry even more.
“If the entertainers want to help,” he said, “let them dress in period clothing.”