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Thursday, December 12, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Anti-noise plan deserves a hearing

Harmonica player Rick Bocook plays harmonica on his usual corner near Macy's Tuesday, July 14, 2009.  Bocook has become a downtown fixture with his harmonicas and small amplifier, busking for change on most days. (Jesse Tinsley)
Harmonica player Rick Bocook plays harmonica on his usual corner near Macy's Tuesday, July 14, 2009. Bocook has become a downtown fixture with his harmonicas and small amplifier, busking for change on most days. (Jesse Tinsley)

How loud do you like your amplified blues harmonica?

That’s the real question underlying the proposal to change Spokane Municipal Code 10.08.020.

If you like it really loud, then things are probably just fine now. If, on the other hand, you like to hear yourself think – and you happen to be on certain blocks downtown at certain times when a certain top-hatted performer is blasting – you might be itching for a change.

“You can hear it inside your business with the doors closed,” said Curt Kinghorn, who owns the Runners Soul on North Wall Street. “It drives people away.”

A lot of downtown business owners are trying to get the city to adopt a new guideline for when street music crosses into public nuisance. A proposal that got a preliminary airing before the City Council on Thursday would replace the current decibel-level standard, which goes unenforced, with a simpler rule: a performer would be in violation of city code if you could hear them farther than 100 feet away and if there were other conditions, such as window vibration, amplification or a history of problems.

I don’t know that this is a magic bullet, but it sounds OK to me. That’s the way they do it in uber-cool, vibrant Portland, after all. And maybe we could apply it to the horrid soft rock River Park Square pumps out all day.

The truth is, though, that this particular issue is almost entirely about Rick Bocook, aka Harpman Hatter, and his long battle to either A) stick up for free speech and civil rights or B) poke a stick in the eye of certain people downtown.

Hatter has been in fights over street music before. Some of his victories are worthy ones – successfully challenging the requirement for a street music permit, for example, and helping to establish the decibel limits in the current law, along  with Gonzaga’s Legal Assistance Clinic.

He says the proposed change puts too much discretion in the hands of the police, and that certain instruments, such as a harmonica or saxophone, can be heard at 100 feet under almost any circumstances.

“For somebody to say I am too loud, that’s an opinion,” he said. “We do not want it to be a subjective standard.”

Terry Sawyer, who supervises students at the GU clinic, served on a citizens committee to reconsider the noise ordinance, and represented Bocook, said that “plainly audible” at 100 feet means as loud as whispered speech. He said it replaces a measurable, hard-and-fast rule with judgment calls.

The plan would mark a return to “nightstick enforcement,” he said. “It all comes down to whether you comply with what the officer tells you.”

The thing is, nobody’s using that hard-and-fast measurement now. Whether police ought to be outfitted with decibel meters or not, they aren’t. So the 10-decibel standard sits in the books like a pressed flower.

Meanwhile, the Harpman plays on. Sometimes he plays obnoxiously loud. When business owners ask him to turn it down, I’m told by several of them, he refuses. Claudia Kirkebo, the owner of Leland’s on Wall who’s complained to the city repeatedly about Bocook, said he has been intimidating and harassing businesses because they’ve asked him to quiet down.

“He only turns it down if the cops show up,” said Bill Ogle of Saad’s Shoe Repair. “When they leave he turns it right back up.”

Bocook denies he’s trying to pick a fight. In any case, complaints have been coming in at the Downtown Spokane Partnership, city code enforcement and police department on a steady basis for more than a year, said Andrew Rolwes, public policy and parking manager for the partnership.

In just one day the group collected 231 signatures on a petition supporting the change. I also spoke with a few people downtown who don’t mind the Harpman. And some see this as an effort to silence street musicians, which would be a bad thing. The heart of the city needs to be a place for all kinds of activity – not just commerce. Street music contributes to a good vibe. And I generally dislike anti-loitering and anti-panhandling campaigns, which strike me as efforts to cordon off the riff-raff from the genteel souls buying lemon zesters and cardigans to the soothing tones of Paul Anka.

It just ain’t that hard to tell someone no if they ask you for change.

But this is about volume, not speech. About neighborliness.

“We’ve got businesses down here,” said Marla Nunberg, vice president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership. “We’ve got residents down here. We’ve got visitors down here. We want an environment that works for all of them.”

This may not be the exact way to do it. It sounds reasonable to me, but I can’t say that 100 feet is the right distance or that decibels aren’t a better measure or that this isn’t a solution for one problem that would create another one.

But there has to be such a thing as too loud.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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