Frank Lima almost didn’t leave his condo Sunday Feb. 16 to perform on Pacific Avenue, because he’d already enjoyed a nice afternoon busking the day before. It takes Lima, a 71-year-old mustached ex-stock broker, up to an hour to turn into the Great Morgani—an accordionist dressed head to toe in lycra, velvet and flamboyant colors.
But it was a sunny day, and Lima changed his mind. He was standing on a box with his back to the Verizon Wireless store in downtown Santa Cruz wearing a unitard he calls his “Gene Shalit costume,” one of his 150 outfits, with a big mustache and blue hair. He was playing his accordion, as he had been doing on Pacific Avenue for 17 years. A 2-year-old girl was dancing in a pink tutu.
Two police officers walked over to tell Lima he was standing too close to the building—less than the 14 feet required by city law. Lima had written permission from Verizon to play, but the officer explained private businesses don’t have authority over the sidewalks; if he didn’t move, he’d get a $300 ticket. If he didn’t sign the ticket, he’d go to jail—a high-stakes decision Lima contemplated for about a second. He picked up his box and drove home.
When Lima announced his retirement from street performing on Facebook, some of his supporters were indignant, others livid about the downtown ordinances restricting street performance on Pacific Avenue, which created a wave of controversy when they were updated with even tighter regulations last fall. “Once again the city council making the WRONG decisions for wrong reasons affecting the WRONG people,” one such commenter wrote. “Please people, purge the city council next election.”
And that, Lima says, is about when he realized he might become “a sacrificial lamb” in a debate over the unpopular ordinances, which critics say unfairly encroach on individual rights, and endanger the Santa Cruz tradition of street performance.
“I didn’t realize the scope of it, and the other window that it’s opened, as far as the ordinances,” Lima says.
Kate Wenzell, a Bay Area native, makes scarves and sells them on Pacific Avenue, and officers make her move her display every hour. Winzell, who dislikes the rules and sells scarves “to make a living,” sees a glimmer of hope in the stand Lima is taking and hopes he can accomplish something she couldn’t.
“I thought here’s a great person, an institution and figurehead for people to rally behind,” she says. “People say, ‘Scarf Lady can kick it, we don’t care.’”
The City Council’s most recent action on the ordinances last September reduced the amount of space artists could take up from 18 square feet to 12, and forbid vendors like Wenzell from laying down blankets. The September update also forces vendors and performers to keep 14 feet—previously 10 feet— from buildings, benches…and information and directory signs. Previously, there was a range of space restrictions anywhere from 10 to 14 feet, depending on the specific downtown feature. Officers have given out one citation for coming too close to protected such items since the fall, and another four for taking up too much space.
Lima says he wants City Council and staff to take another look at the ordinance, but he knows it’s complicated.
“It’s not an easy job. You can’t please everyone,” Lima says. “Are they going to have to go back and start all over on these ordinances? Can you amend one? Is it fair to give me the right to perform where I do, and not give others the option?”
To Lima, it’s an open question. He does want to play downtown again, but the Great Morgani isn’t your average street performer, and he knows it. Twelve years ago, when the council passed the first round of ordinances, he saw differences between talented street performers, and the grimier elements the council actually wanted to kick out. “We, the street performers are the dolphins caught in the tuna net of ordinances,” Lima said. Wenzell says officers have often asked street performers to move whenever they got within 14 feet of a building for more than an hour straight, adding Lima might have gotten special treatment for years because of his icon status.
“What they’re asking him to do is the tiniest, tiniest thing compared to what we’re getting dumped on, but I like him,” Wenzell says. “He’s a nice guy.”
Scott Collins, assistant to the city manager, doesn’t know when or if staff will revisit the ordinance.
“It’s absolutely possible,” Collins says. “At this time there hasn’t been a lot of interest in doing that, because we just went through that last year. Certainly the staff is always looking at this. Just because Morgani can’t perform in costumes where he wants to doesn’t mean we’re going to change everything we do, but we’ll certainly take another look at it if council wants us to.”
Don Lane and Micah Posner, the two councilmembers who cast dissenting votes against the ordinance update in September, are both interested in revisiting the rules. But Lane says he doesn’t know how changes would look.
“I have to say I don’t know exactly what the right answer is. I’m looking for ideas and taking to a lot different people, and it’s a challenge to find consensus,” Lane says. “One thing that makes it really tricky is a lot of people say, ‘Why don’t you just do something good for Morgani? Why can’t you give him a pass?’ Unfortunately, the city can’t make rules that way. We have to make a system of rules that work for him and work for everyone.”
Mayor Lynn Robinson, David Terrazas and Cynthia Mathews—the three city councilmembers who wrote the most recent changes—did not respond for comment.
By standing close to buildings, Lima has long been breaking rules that have been on the books for over a decade, but when the council passed the new rules, Lane says it sent a strong message to the community.
“A lot of rules that were older were not being enforced regularly. When they got updated, it was like a refresh,” Lane says. “It was like council was saying to enforcement and downtown hosts, ‘We’re tightening up, so we want to you to be more diligent.’”
Collins knows the Great Morgani does bring life to downtown. “Everyone loves him—tourists, merchants,” Collins says. “He’s family-friendly.”
Collins says he would be happy to show Lima the “50-plus spots” he can play downtown, where Collins says staff wants to keep “a balance” of performers and pedestrians. He says the city doesn’t have a map of performance spots downtown, but a Santa Cruz Weekly reporter walked Pacific Avenue and neighboring streets with a tape measure and found there would be enough room for 28 spots on Pacific and neighboring streets, assuming artists spaced themselves well. Some of those locations were at far ends of the mall and wouldn’t get much foot traffic. Three were in front of vacant lots.
Back to the Wall
Lima says he wants everything to be resolved “calmly and respectfully.” But, he adds, he’s only interested in performing in front of Verizon Wireless, Dell Williams Jewelers, the Hat Company and Bunny’s Shoe’s—he has written permission from each—with his back to the buildings. He doesn’t like standing in front of the street. He also believes shops are better off with him standing in front of stores, so people can see what’s for sale in the windows. When he stands in front of the sidewalk, music blares into open doors, and crowds block the entrances.
Last month, Alexander Raymond, of the Alex Raymond Band, was playing music with his upright bassist and drummer on the corner of Walnut and Pacific in front of Super Silver. They had played a few songs, and were about to start another when “a cop came up to us said, ‘All right, I’m tired of this. Everyone get your IDs out, you’re all getting tickets,’” Raymond says.
The officer’s decision to hand out a ticket, according to Raymond’s account, would seem to violate the ordinance itself—which requires an artist to have “first been notified by a police officer, public officer or downtown host that he or she is in violation of the prohibition in this section,” and to still continue playing.
Raymond, bassist David Preston and drummer Elijah Stoll all received $300 tickets. Their setup was taking up more than 12 square feet, and they were within 14 feet of a trash can, a building and a crosswalk. Raymond was upset, but is planning a tour this summer to towns across the United States—some that he hopes will let them play the streets.
“When we got the tickets, for a few days there, I was mad at Santa Cruz and at the cops. But being mad doesn’t do you any good when you’re trying to fight a city,” Raymond says. “I came back to rationality.”
Santa Cruz isn’t the only place that’s tightening up its street ordinances, as Wenzell discovered. When she sells her scarves downtown, she has to move her table every hour, and not come back within 100 feet of that spot for 24 hours. That makes it virtually impossible for her to sell for two days straight. After Santa Cruz tightened up enforcement last year, she tried moving to Venice Beach but found out she wasn’t allowed to sell clothing along Southern California’s famous bohemian waterfront stretch. Before here, she lived in Ashland, Ore., which forbids street vendors entirely.
“A couple people in Ashland said you can still sell in Santa Cruz,” Wenzell says, “and technically it’s true.”