One of Pittsburgh’s busiest pedestrian intersections—the corner of Forbes and Murray in Squirrel Hill—is now home to Street Stage, a designated sidewalk performance space.
“One strength the city neighborhoods have relative to the suburbs are culture and lifestyle—and when nothing was going on in Squirrel Hill on Saturday nights, I saw opportunity,” says Alec Rieger, founder of NextGen:Pgh, a community development organization.
Rieger worked with Eric Sloss, creative strategist at Shift Collaborative and long-time advocate for buskers, who procured an Awesome Pittsburgh grant to fund the project. “Public performance enlivens city streets, makes urban areas safer because of the activity and provides an alternative venue to those who traditionally perform indoors,” says Sloss.
Some years ago, Sloss initiated a program called Busker Street Union, which promotes and supports the local busking community.
If you don’t know the word ‘busking,’ you are not alone. In a documentary about busking in Pittsburgh, the interviewer asks Pittsburghers to define the term. More often than not, people were stumped.
For the uninitiated, to busk is to perform in the streets for tips. Think: magicians, musicians, and cleverly costumed performers. Buskers are commonplace in European cities and in some American cities, including Portland, which is known for them.
“Buskers can add a degree of excitement, livability and activity to business districts that help to make them desirable locations for patrons and community members. We must pursue these opportunities if we truly want to build better neighborhoods and stronger communities in our city,” wrote Mayor Peduto in a letter to Sloss published on the Busker Street Union website.
At face value, Street Stage provides a safe space for buskers to perform, but on a broader level, creating this public performance space enhances our community.
“Street Stage gets people together and gets people talking,” says Rieger. “If we can do this in a business district, all the better.”
“When you step out into the street, you are confronted with humanity, and we need more of that in Pittsburgh,” he says.
Street Stage is not a physical stage, but a “semi-permanent adhesive surface that designates the space as separate from—but part of the street.”
This public art project is a new model of placemaking that can “radically change a public space,” says Sloss. “The fact that we can do all of this through the magic of creative self-expression and performance is incredibly gratifying,” adds Rieger.
This year, the stage will feature independent artists. But Rieger—who also started Squirrel Hill Farmers’ Market, now the city’s largest farmers’ market—sees the potential for Street Stage to be a space “for cultural institutions like the PSO and CLO to transcend their brick and mortar footprints and get programming out into the community.”
While the space is open to buskers to play any time, each Friday and Saturday night through September there will be scheduled performers from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.
By 2016, Rieger and Sloss hope to expand the stage to six other communities. If you would like a Street Stage stamp in your neighborhood, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
City Council members Dan Gilman and Corey O’Connor were also instrumental to Squirrel Hill’s Street Stage effort.