Turning down the volume in Salem

KEN YUSZKUS/File photo

Pre-Halloween crowds fill the Essex Street pedestrian mall in Salem last year.

While city officials are weighing options to deal with recurring noise complaints on Essex Street, they are thinking it may be a good opportunity to rethink how the pedestrian way is laid out for Halloween fun.

Ward 2 Councilor Heather Famico, who lives on Essex Street and represents that area, is looking at the Port of San Francisco for inspiration in establishing set areas for entertainment. 

The Fisherman’s Wharf Street Performer Program has been in place since 2007. The local port commission manages time, place and type of use for different live performance areas in the port.

Famico believes individual locations, instead of everyone milling together along the pedestrian mall on Essex Street, would help prevent the typical cacophony of sound, improve overall sound quality and reduce some of people’s concerns.

Those concerns revolve mainly around street preachers and other religious groups that descend on Salem along with thousands of tourists during Halloween season.

Police regularly receive complaints about street preachers with bullhorns and loudspeakers exhorting tourists and street performers to repent and turn from their wicked ways.

Last fall City Council instituted a temporary ban on all amplification devices during certain October weekend hours on the mall. Councilors met last week to review the merits and pitfalls of that ban. They were cautious to repeatedly state they weren’t trying to step on anyone’s constitutional rights to free speech.

The written policy in San Francisco clearly notes a public agency can only set the time, place and manner of use of public property, but can’t require people to obtain licenses in order to use their First Amendment rights.

In Salem, street performers and musicians must apply for licenses or badges from the Licensing Board each year, but street preachers do not. It’s their constitutional right to talk about religion on the public way.

According several performers, musicians and business owners who spoke with councilors last week, the ban didn’t accomplish much other than close down a popular performance sound stage erected at the East India Square fountain by Phil Wyman of The Gathering church. The ban on amplification also meant tour guides had to shout to communicate with their groups. 

As a way to soften the blow to musicians last year who normally use the stage, sound walls or shells were installed in a couple of places to help musicians with acoustic instruments. But most of those who spoke last week said the shells didn’t make up for the loss of the stage.

“They [street preachers] work around whatever rules are put in front of them,” said resident Lauren Ayube. “Any time they come across opposition, they like to aim the bullhorn at their opposition and raise the level as high as they’re allowed to and preach at them.”

Ayube and others said the ban meant the preachers would just shout loudly instead, often getting in people’s faces. 

“I noticed that it upset people more when they were shouting because people felt compelled to come over and shout back,” she said, noting that included “threats of physical violence” against a pastor’s teenage son.

City Solicitor Beth Rennard told Ward 4 Councilor David Eppley that the San Francisco policy requires performers to book slots on a stage. It also includes specific decibel ranges that are monitored. She said a similar policy has been discussed for Salem before, but never acted upon.

Famico would like to establish performance areas, not just for Halloween, but year-round and also include non-musical performers who may normally use a loudspeaker or amplifier. She also wonders if one way to accommodate tour guides is to look into purchasing personal headsets for groups with more than 10 people.

“This is just the beginning of this year’s discussion,” Famico said. “Salem’s creative economy is growing and needs to be embraced, but at the same time we need to ensure that everything that takes place pieces together well.”

A suggestion put forward by Police Chief Mary Butler is to possibly restrict use of amplifiers to no more than one hour in one spot. After 60 minutes, the performer or preacher would have to move down the street. Butler also says there are existing ordinances that deal with unruly behavior and noise complaints.

Another measure under consideration is banning high volume bullhorns and other speaker systems that are designed for emergency alerts.

Eppley hasn’t made up his mind yet on whether the best course of action would be to institute a permanent ordinance of some kind or pursue other measures. His goal is to have any action by the council, if any, in place by July in order to give enough time to Wyman to book bands for the stage.

“Obviously some things worked, some didn’t,” said Ward 5 Councilor Josh Turiel. “We’ll get better, we’ll get it right,” he said.

You can reach John Castelluccio at 978-338-2527, jcastelluccio@salemnews.com or via Twitter at @SNjcastelluccio.

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