Under Madison’s Streatery program, restaurants and bars on State Street and elsewhere in downtown Madison can open up seating and dining onto nearby sidewalks, streets, and parking lots. The program was set up last year in response to the pandemic, and the resulting limits on indoor dining.
Despite plans to end public health orders on June 2, city leaders are doubling down on the initiative — with a new expansion that allows for live and amplified music at the Streateries.
At its meeting on Tuesday night, Madison’s common council unanimously approved a resolution allowing amplified music at city Streateries. The resolution’s approval paves the way for live music performances downtown.
Alder Brian Benford, who represents parts of Madison’s downtown and near east side, points to the need to weigh business interests with resident needs in an isthmus crowded by both.
“Once again, there’s that duality of wanting to support businesses, and I certainly understand the need to give them every opportunity to succeed. But music right in people’s backyards is somewhat problematic,” Benford says.
The city already allows amplified sounds downtown from noon to 1:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Under the expanded Streatery program, amplified sound will now also be allowed at street cafes from 3:00 to 8:00 PM on Thursdays and until 9:00 PM on Fridays and Saturdays. The resolution also extends the program to include musical venues.
Matt Mikolajewski, the city’s Economic Development Director, says the program could grow even further in the future.
“We, generally speaking, we’re looking ahead to the future — to what Streateries might look like in Summers ahead,” he says. “It’s important to note that the changes that we’re proposing for this summer may not necessarily be the proposals maintained going forward.”
Josh Cohen is a bassist and street musician. Last year he took the city to court over its policy on amplification. He argued that when the city restricted his right to perform in public spaces, it also infringed on his first amendment right to free speech.
Cohen’s lawsuit was eventually dismissed — although it did cause a few changes
First, the judge in the case struck down an amplified noise exemption for religious services. Second, Cohen says the suit dissuaded the Madison Police Department from issuing citations to street performers.
Cohen says he supports the city expanding the Streatery program, even though the amplified noise resolution only applies to musicians performing at the street cafes. He points out that restaurants aren’t the only operators impacted by the pandemic — as closed music venues have also put Madison’s musicians out of work.
“There’s a lot of musicians that are hurting for gigs. A lot of us switched gears, I know I started teaching a lot and playing a little bit less,” he tells WORT. “My only hope is that, if someone is also street performing on State Street, that they can do it reasonably.”
To further aid city musicians, Cohen says that he’d like to see State Street transition into a part-time pedestrian mall, fully closed to traffic.
“And then they encourage street performers to come out, and it becomes an attraction. Anything we can do in Madison to bring people from the surrounding towns and cities to come here — not just for the football games, but also for the art — I think that’s a good thing.”
A proposal to turn State Street into a pedestrian mall has been repeatedly floated by the Wisconsin State Journal and a few city leaders. Critics of that proposal say it would disrupt bus riders, and potentially bus schedules, throughout all of Madison.
The expanded Streatery program is slated to continue through April 2022.
The music for this piece is from a 2019 performance Cohen gave on WORT’s Back Porch Serenade. You can find that full performance, and a conversation about his work, here.
PHOTO: Caught In Joy / Unsplash