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  • Manny Crisostomo /

    Michael Hanson plays his ukelele along Front Street in Old Sacramento earlier this month. Many street performers have left the scene due to a city crackdown.

  • Manny Crisostomo /

    Some Old Sacramento business owners coexist amicably with street performers such as Michael Hanson, above, but others object. "We can't be a carnival, a free-for-all," says city official Liz Brenner.

City cracks down on street performers in Old Sacramento

Published: Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013 - 11:04 am

On a recent afternoon, Davey London was one of the few street performers out in Old Sacramento.

London, a 65-year-old singer-songwriter, said he has been busking around the tourist district for 20 years. These days, he sits outside Steamers on Front Street, crooning softly into a mike with an open guitar case stacked with CDs behind him.

He has a new song, and the lyrics go like this: "Don't ban me from the boardwalk. My songs all come from love."

Since May, the city of Sacramento has cracked down on street vendors and performers in Old Sacramento, eliciting discussion about performers' First Amendment rights and selective enforcement of city code in the tourist-driven district.

Technically, what London is doing is illegal.

"I never know if they're going to come and tell me to get out," he said.

London said he and other longtime street performers in Old Sacramento, including cartoonists and magicians, used to have permits. But the city revoked them.

On May 1, Liz Brenner, who oversees the Old Sacramento Historic District, made the cleanup official. After fielding complaints from business owners about unfair competition from vendors selling wares without paying rent or taxes and performers blocking access, Brenner met with the City Attorney's Office to try to discontinue the permit program.

As it turns out, Brenner said, she had no authority to have the program in the first place. Street vending is against city code. With some exceptions, the code bars people from selling anything on the sidewalk unless they are selling in front of their own fixed businesses.

Brenner said she had received complaints about people setting up illegal tables in Old Sacramento, selling knickknacks such as glow sticks and buttons. They have been removed.

Also according to city code, it is a crime to obstruct any sidewalk. Violators first get a warning, then citations that start at $100. This is where street performers get into trouble.

"They are occupying a piece of the boardwalk that isn't theirs," said Brenner, who manages Old Sacramento under the city's Department of Convention, Culture and Leisure. "It's a violation. We can't be a carnival, a free-for-all."

Christopher McSwain, executive director of the Old Sacramento Business Association, said he's happy the historic district has cleared out some of its "clutter."

"Old Sacramento is the city's No. 1 visitor destination. It shouldn't be a street bazaar," he said.

While many in Old Sacramento agree that getting rid of illegal street vendors has been a boon for the area, performers are frustrated that they've been pushed out along with them.

"They want to clean it up, but they're doing it the wrong way," said Kevin Powers, a balloon artist who still comes out on weekends. He dodges citations because he's on his feet. Brenner said the "obstruction" portion of the city code refers to stationary performers.

"San Francisco has great street performers," Powers said. "The difference is they're controlling them."

Powers said tourists expect to see magicians, musicians and cartoonists at destinations such as Old Sacramento and San Francisco's Pier 39. At the latter site, street performers go through an official audition and permit process.

"A guy came just the other day, drove all the way from Roseville because his son wanted a cartoon," he said. "But the cartoonist was gone."

Greg Sumbardo, who drew cartoons in the streets of Old Sacramento for 10 years, stopped his work in May after Brenner's first round of warnings. After seeing other street performers linger, however, he set up shop again in late July. Police told him to leave or face a citation.

Now Sumbardo is seeking legal advice. "I wouldn't mind a lawsuit," he said. "(Brenner) has taken away three months of my wages. I'm barely making it right now."

Sumbardo said he thinks he has a case because of the permit revocation and what he sees as arbitrary enforcement of city code. While he and several others have been approached by police, a couple of buskers, "Jesus Saves" sign-wielders and panhandlers have been spared.

Brenner acknowledged there is some confusion in the community about exactly who falls under the code, and said the First Amendment comes into play. People have a right to express themselves – and then put a hat out for possible compensation. That's different, she said, from actually selling a service, as one could argue Sumbardo was doing.

Bob Rose, manager of city code enforcement, said the city does not have the manpower to address every violation of the code. Instead, he said, his office tends to respond to complaints.

"We don't have enough staff to constantly patrol the city for encroachment violations," he said.

With the codes come exceptions. Permits are issued for street vendors and performers for special events, such as Second Saturday in midtown, but not for general areas, such as Old Sacramento.

Business owners in Old Sacramento who enjoy having street performers around find that unfortunate.

"A lot of them have been here for a long time, and many of them are the best ambassadors Old Sacramento has," said Janie Desmond Ison, owner of the Steamers cafe for 20 years. "A few people blatantly break the rules and bring everyone else down."

Still, Ison prefers the cleaned-up, quieter version of Old Sacramento to what it was a few months ago, when the streets were crowded with vendors. She would like to see a middle ground, in which selected performers were allowed to stay.

Her favorite performers are costumed in the spirit of the mid-1800s: a theater troupe out of Novato hired by the nonprofit Historic Old Sacramento Foundation to put on skits and tours during summer weekends. The troupe is legal under city code, permitted as one of the exceptions.

Old Sacramento's original street performers – including London, Powers and Sumbardo – said paying out-of-towners to entertain tourists while the folks who have been doing it for so many years are getting kicked out is unjust. But Brenner said it's about historical integrity.

"There's nowhere else in California like this," she said. "We need to respect it, take care of it and focus on what's important – the educational aspect."

Call The Bee's Janelle Bitker, (916) 321-1027. Follow her in Twitter @JanelleBitker.

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