Buskers get stamp of approval as outdoor music in Squirrel Hill takes off

Buskers get stamp of approval as outdoor music in Squirrel Hill takes off

PJ Roduta, a busker, drums at the new street stage in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
PJ Roduta, a busker, drums at the new street stage in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Squirrel Hill has a new music scene — the street.

For years, buskers (those who perform on the street or in subways for money or other gratuities) have popped up in the neighborhood. At points there was a trombone player on Forbes Avenue; during other periods a violinist could be heard on the upper part of Murray Avenue.  But while musicians like these occasionally stationed themselves throughout Squirrel Hill, there was a randomness to where live music was played outside.  

Through the efforts of two City councilmen representing the East End, Dan Gilman and Corey O’Connor, and representatives from NextGen:Pgh and Shift Collaborative, buskers now have a designated home in Squirrel Hill. Outside the doors of the Squirrel Hill Branch of the Carnegie Library, near the corner of Murray and Forbes avenues, is the new busker zone.   

Marking the area is a street stamp that reads “Street Stages Perform.”

Gilman and local residents hope that the stamp, which functions as the buskers’ stage, adds to the heavily Jewish neighborhood’s character.  

“Squirrel Hill’s Street Stage is a wonderful way to showcase Pittsburgh’s talent and help attract people to our neighborhood’s local businesses,” said Gilman.

Alec Rieger, founder and executive director of NextGen: Pgh, came up with the idea of the street stage about a year ago when he moved back to his hometown of Pittsburgh, and noticed “What a perfect spot the intersection of Forbes and Murray would be for a performance space,” he said.

Rita Rosenthal, a Squirrel Hill resident, welcomed the street stage and its effect on the neighborhood.  

“I think it would be nice if there is music playing and other things going on,” she said.

“Other areas seem to be making the most of their streets and sidewalks, and we don’t seem to be doing that.  It’s disappointing.”  

Gilman and fellow organizers recognized the value of Squirrel Hill’s public spaces.

“Street performers add vibrancy to our neighborhoods and business districts, helping to create a ‘third place’ between work and home where friends can gather and neighbors can meet one another on the street,” said Gilman.

“By bringing Street Stage to the neighborhood, we are creating a public asset that will draw visitors and talents from around the city. Spaces like these are important for the health of our communities. Not only are we bringing people together, but we are also going to see countless economic and cultural benefits in Squirrel Hill,” echoed O’Connor.

For now, whether the public stage will mean increased business for local businesses remains to be seen. “I don’t think in and of itself it’s drawing much traffic,” said Dan Iddings, owner of Classic Lines, a bookstore on Forbes. “But give it some time and maybe it will.”

Paul Kenney, owner of Kidz and Company, a children’s clothing store on Forbes, agreed.

“I don’t think it’s going to help business in terms of driving sales, but I think it’s still a nice thing to have.  It’s good for the neighborhood.”  

In a letter to Eric Sloss of Shift Collaborative, Mayor Bill Peduto praised buskers and their communal effect.  

“Buskers can add a degree of excitement, livability and activity to business districts that help to make them desirable locations for patrons and community members. We must pursue these opportunities if we truly want to build better neighborhoods and stronger communities in our city,” wrote Peduto.  

During a recent busker performance at the street stage in Squirrel Hill, Dario Miceli, a promoter who collaborated with NextGen:Pgh to book talent, explained the significance of bringing buskers to the new street stage.  

Previously, Squirrel Hill buskers “weren’t the highest quality or in good spots,” said Miceli.

“It’s nothing against buskers, but they could be bothersome for people.”

Miceli elaborated by expressing annoyance with going to outdoor restaurants and being interrupted by “someone out of tune or playing the trombone and dropping their spit.”

“You can’t really ask them to move,” said Miceli.   

However, with the inclusion of the street stamp in Squirrel Hill, the entire experience changes, he said.

“Even having this little thing on the ground, it gives accountability and legitimizes what the guys do.”

According to Miceli, the street stamp will bring in higher-quality musicians.  

“These aren’t normal buskers.”  

Rieger, who is responsible for bringing a weekly summer farmer’s market to Squirrel Hill, sees the street stage concept as expanding beyond weekend buskers. He envisions the space to ultimately provide a platform for  performances several nights a week, and to showcase some of the “legacy music institutions” of Pittsburgh, including members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Rieger will be meeting with representatives of the PSO later this summer, he said, to discuss bringing a taste of its musical offerings to the busy Squirrel Hill intersection.

“Busking is a worthy idea,” Rieger said, “but it is even more beneficial from a civic perspective to help these legacy assets become more vibrant and to attract younger audiences.

“At the end of the day, it’s still music at the corner of Forbes and Murray.”

For now, street stage busker performances are limited to Squirrel Hill on Friday and Saturday evenings between 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. through the end of September. However, organizers are considering bringing the experience to other neighborhoods.  

The cost of a street stamp is $400.  Included are installation of the stamp and promotional support. Neighbor-

hoods interested in Street Stages should contact sayhello@whateveryouupto.org for more information.

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.

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