The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

From Sidewalks to Subways: The Hardships Behind Street Performance

graphic art of an origami figure playing guitar

“Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other.”

—Walter Elliot

Wearing a delicate wool hat and a neatly pressed coat, a figure hunches over as he walks through Harvard station, pulling a handheld suitcase behind him. Selecting the perfect corner spot, he settles down, removes his hat, and carefully places the suitcase on the ground to unpack it.

Inside the case lies an array of silver harmonicas, each gleaming and shining bright. Tom Hanraty, 75, spends a good half hour meticulously wiping and polishing them, treating each one as if it were a treasured heirloom.

“E, D, A, B, B5, C, F, G,” he sings the tone to introduce the harmonicas, each denoting a distinct musical key. When he performs, he seamlessly switches between them during the brief pauses in the music, demonstrating his mastery. In just one song, he not only plays the melody and sings but also intersperses instrumental solos, frequently changing harmonicas. It’s like watching a one-man band and a variety show all at once.

However, frigid weather poses a challenge to his artistry.

“If it’s too cold, my face numbs, and I can’t hit the right notes,” Hanraty says. Under normal circumstances, his tunes fill the air of Harvard Square, captivating passersby. There, with higher foot traffic and more people willing to stop and listen, he can earn between $10-$50 an hour. 

As soon as the weather turns harsh and temperatures plunge below 40°F, he migrates to the warmth of the Red Line subway station. Although he could play more comfortably here, people are less inclined to pause for a performance in the biting wind, causing his earnings to drop to $7-$20 an hour. To make ends meet, he now works a full-time job as a security guard in a downtown Boston office building.

The transition of Hanraty from above ground to the subway station is emblematic of a broader struggle faced by street performers across the city. His move, driven by the need for warmth and shelter, underscores the issue in the life of street performers: the scarcity of viable performance space during harsh weather conditions. 

Winter transforms the landscape of street performance in cities like Boston. The once bustling streets and squares, alive with the melodies of musicians and the fancy movements of dancers, become quiet. Few indoor public spaces are available for performers, with the subway system operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) being one of the few options. Obtaining a performance permit is extremely competitive—only 34 were issued by the MBTA last year.

The challenge is further compounded by the city’s infrastructure. While Boston boasts three major commuter lines—Red, Orange, and Green—half of the Green Line’s stations are above ground, offering little to no shelter. The remaining underground stations, which could provide refuge, have been subject to construction and intermittent closures, rendering this option unreliable during the winter months.

In contrast, sitting comfortably in front of a camera, Sarah Lightman, an independent singer, shared her experiences via Zoom from her studio in Nashville. Bathed in purple light, with a guitar adorning the wall and Monstera plants in the corner, she discussed her decision to move to one of the biggest music cities in the States. After performing on streets across the East and West Coasts, Lightman settled in Nashville to be closer to major music companies and to advance her career.

With nine years of street performing under her belt, Lightman has weathered all types of adverse conditions—from the suffocating grey fog of the West Coast’s fire season to battling strong winds and performing in teeth-chattering 30-degree weather. “Weather affects our income because it not only impacts our performances but also deters people from venturing outdoors,” she explains. 

During unfavorable weather, Lightman proactively seeks indoor gigs at restaurants, clubs, and campuses to maintain a steady flow of performances. This strategic approach, coupled with her initiative to connect with her audience through a YouTube channel where she shares practice sessions, conversations, and tips for street performers, has allowed her to navigate through the winter months effectively.

Musicians, who can often perform with minimal equipment and space, find it easier to migrate in search of warmer climates or more favorable conditions. Stephen Baird, founder of the Street Arts and Buskers Advocates, notes that some artists head south for the winter, seeking warmth in destinations like Key West, Florida, New Orleans, or the West Coast. However, for dancers and acrobatic performers, the options for indoor spaces are significantly limited.

Executing four consecutive backflips and nailing a perfect landing, Snap Boogie, 31, whose real name is Cjaiilon Andrade, surprised the audience in an open square beside Quincy Market. As a dancer and acrobat, he chooses to brave the cold and perform outdoors, as confined spaces cannot suit his dynamic routines.

Known for his acrobatic moves, Andrade often wows audiences with backflips, boogie moves, and daring leaps through the air. Interaction with the audience is a crucial element of his show. “Connecting with them is a good way to keep them engaged,” he says.

Usually, Andrade performs at Faneuil Hall and Newbury Street. However, the winter poses a unique challenge, as his dynamic moves require more space than subway stations can provide. Despite the cold, he continues to dance outdoors, relying on his body’s warmth to keep him going. While he can still deliver high-quality performances, certain delicate movements, like intricate finger work, become more difficult in the cold.

During the coldest months, December to February, his performance income can drop by as much as 50% compared to warmer days. “I have no passive income now. My only source of income is by performing,” he says. To offset the seasonal dip in earnings and establish a passive income stream, he is engaging in a personal project: starting an NFT business. He is creating a set of NFTs featuring his signature dance moves, which can be utilized by gamers in video games. As he puts it, this is all in effort to “create something sustainable for myself.”

Beginning his journey at 13, Andrade has dedicated nearly two decades to honing his craft. Now, he is pivoting from street performance to focus on this new endeavor, while Hanraty supplements his income with security work in downtown Boston. Despite their dreams—Hanraty’s aspiration to play in blues clubs and Andrade’s desire to share his dance with the world—they confront the stark realities of making a living. Pursuing their dreams is akin to running a marathon with no defined endpoint: success and fulfillment lie in persistence and the journey itself.

Amber Tai is a student at Boston University studying journalism.

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