Take a look at the empty storefronts on K Street. Not the ones owned by the city, but the ones on the east end of K Street, that Moe Mohanna owns. You’ll see a number of big white posters crying “Hands Off My Business,” and bearing the name and address of a national anti-eminent domain organization.
Then there’s another sign, the handwritten one that says “Street musicians wanted,” and includes telephone number of one Moss Bittner, neighborhood activist and guerilla urban planner.
The 30-year-old Bittner has been operating a campaign for more culture on K Street, out of one of Mohanna’s empty storefronts at 8th and K.
Bittner started what he calls “micro-urban planning” earlier this year in an empty lot in Midtown, right next to the I Love Teriyaki restaurant at 21st and N streets. He fixed the lot up, put in a bench and a walking path, a low brick wall, and presto—instant urban park, no city bureaucracy needed.
Now he’s turned his attention to K Street and a project he calls “Downtown Sound,” paying street musicians to play music during peak hours, around lunchtime and after work.
One day it was a guitarist who just went by the name of Pro, rambling through covers of “House of the Rising Sun,” and other oldies. Another time it was Woody Boyd, local bluegrass musician and luthier (that’s a person who makes guitars). Another time it was saxophonist Eric Price, whose card reads “Better than Sax.”
If the music didn’t always electrify K Street, people were curious about it. Small crowds sometimes gathered and chatted. Bittner always took the opportunity to talk with passersby about the importance of street life and community.
“There’s this misconception about the ‘urban problem’ that there aren’t enough people downtown,” said Bittner. “But there really is a wide variety of people, and very diverse in terms of its social and economic class.”
The problem is, there’s not much happening in the neighborhood to get them to stop and interact with each other in a positive way, to be part of a community.
Oh, and then there’s the other, problem: It is illegal to play music on K Street.
Nearly every day that Bittner was out there with musicians, the police came by and told him that he had to stop, because he didn’t have a permit for street music. He was even threatened with arrest. And every time, Bittner told the cops he’d be happy to get a permit, if there only was such a thing.
The city manager’s office has this motto: “Get the customer to success.” That doesn’t seem to apply to guerilla music. Bittner said he applied for a permit, and he believes that, by law, the city had five days to respond, to accept or deny his application. That was almost a month ago, and since then he’s been handed from department to department, meeting to meeting, with no results. There is no street music permit.
“I don’t have a permit, but it’s not for lack of trying,” he said. “In fact, they haven’t refused me a permit yet.”
Sadly, the “Downtown Sound” experiment was put on indefinite hold since September 21, when a group of six police officers came to shut the music off. “I thought they were going to call out the SWAT team,” Bittner said of the spectacle. That was just one day after he met with representatives of the Police Department, Code Enforcement and the Downtown Partnership and was told that his request would be looked into.
It could be that Bittner is getting the run-around because of his association with Moe Mohanna. He’s using space that Mohanna owns, space that the city wanted emptied a long time ago to make way for an upscale shopping strip. Bittner also recently started working as an assistant to lawyer Kelly Smith, who’s been working for Mohanna on issues related to eminent domain.
“My impression was that it wouldn’t have mattered if it was just me by myself,” said Price, the saxophonist, who aside from being a professional musician was a minister for many years.
He was playing, accompanied by an MP3-player and battery-powered speaker, leading up to the final confrontation with police. “They seemed to have an agenda. I mean, they had an assistant chief of police down there.”
But even if Bittner’s on the wrong team, he says it shouldn’t matter. “There’s nothing wrong going on here. I’m not sure why the issue is an issue at all. It would be one thing if there was a legitimate complaint about it, if it imposed a burden on somebody else.”
All the fuss over illegal guitars and saxophones, he believes, just points to city’s top-down approach to K Street—ranging from expensive redevelopment schemes to suppressing unauthorized outbursts of street life.
“If K Street is going to come alive, things like this need to happen,” Bittner said. “If they are just going to play real estate games, and use public money to do it, they are going to get failure. That’s because they aren’t going to have their eye on the ball. The ball is public life.”