Our digital-age Santa Monica Mirror has a great new web page video feature called the Santa Monica Beat, and it will be refreshed every Monday morning. Maybe mentioning that constitutes product placement in my column, but the new video presentation is so well done and upbeat that you owe it to yourself to check it out if only for the great local sports roundup by Spencer Lee. Get there soon enough and you’ll be able to catch Episode 2 (Somebody is a Star Wars fan…) and view a thought-provoking piece on the “misconception” that many may have about the Third Street Promenade.
Misconception? As reported by the Beat’s Erin Storm, it seems that “for years” Downtown Santa Monica Inc., the merchants association that represents the downtown business district, has been hearing from residents regarding what happens on the Promenade. Specifically, local Promenade visitors are irked by “religious speakers, panhandlers, and solicitors” who approach people “uninvited.” The “misconception” seems to arise from a sense that the Promenade is a kind of mall or retail zone that ought be able to control or rein-in that kind of street-y activity. You know, “Do something about it!”
At the root of things is the fact that the Promenade is a public street. And rights of expression exist on a street.
Downtown Santa Monica Inc. CEO Kathleen Rawson clearly articulates the situation in the Beat video: “I do think a lot of people think of downtown Santa Monica run as more private, similar to a shopping center-kind of environment. And really that’s not what it is at all. Third Street Promenade is a true downtown. This is a public street; people have their ability to express themselves here, market or promote themselves or their music in this case… really it’s an eclectic, real, not manufactured, experience. Downtown Santa Monica is in fact the heart of the community. It’s where people gather, it’s where you see your neighbors, and it’s really where people go for social interaction and fun.”
Ms. Storm buttons her report on the possibly misperceived Promenade by concluding that “with the restaurants, shopping, and street performers, there’s no place quite like it.”
Well, for those who might have the “misconception,” yeah, there is no place quite like it. One can start out seeking an afternoon of shopping and interaction with their family and in a matter of moments be confronted by an earnest young person representing an organization that “helps kids.” So you spend a moment politely explaining why you don’t just hand over money to every person that approaches you. Then you re-explain to your own kids why you didn’t just give that nice girl a buck. Or give another one to that homeless guy with the “Need food for my dog” sign, or drop a tip into the bucket for that man who was balancing a chair on his head or the guy with the guitar who was reminding all of us how much we miss John Denver.
One can rationally equate the Promenade to any other “real” downtown street, but by now we should be over any denial that what we’ve created there is a high-traffic area that constitutes a serious jackpot location for many of those I just described above. I’m sure that downtown merchants have a keen sense of the fact that being hit on for money is a major part of the eclectic experience on Third Street. So then, what to do about “misconceptions” that all that activity could and even should somehow be tamed or channeled or – staying with the notion of expression – censored.
When major airports accepted they were constitutionally obligated to allow solicitation of travelers, they responded with repeat PA system announcements delineating the lack of a connection between the airport facility and the people looking for money. But it’s possible that what lies in the future for the Promenade is not less connection to those seeking funds, but more. Perhaps creating something like “Help Non Profits Monday”– a kind of “Farmers Market” for good causes with booths allowing for a better level of engagement with the public – would reduce some of the energy-draining guerilla stealth solicitation where a ‘mark’ has to stand there listening until a plea for funds occurs.
It’s important to recognize that by mere dint of the number of visitors each year, the Promenade is one of the most successful remodels of a retail zone in America. Cities everywhere would love to emulate what’s been done here in their own downtowns. Another area in which we lead is engagement with and support for the homeless. Yet, with our tourist traffic and comfortable population we’ll never see an end to requests for spare change.
I think that leaves us recognizing that regardless of how some would like to somehow compartmentalize street solicitations of all sorts, we won’t solve the larger problem of need by making the Promenade any less “real.” Of late, the street performers on the Promenade appear to be getting more polished, but regardless of ability, you can’t deny that singing and playing a guitar in cold weather is work. The Promenade allows them to work. And it allows us to have social interaction with a simple reality: People need help, and at some point they’re going to ask you for it.