Andrew Johnston

Nearly every day, performers fill the Red Line’s station at Lake with smooth electric guitar riffs, or soulful a cappella, or improvised raps, or—as was the case on the afternoon of May 15—a voice nearly identical to Sam Smith’s.

Andrew Johnston, 26, who is being featured on this season of America’s Got Talent, was halfway through a song when a CTA employee who works the kiosk on the mezzanine approached him to say he needed to turn off his portable speaker and leave. “She started telling me to shut off. She said, ‘You can’t perform down here,'” he recalls. “I said, ‘No, that’s not correct.'”

This wasn’t Johnston’s first encounter with this particular employee, who has called police on him multiple times.

As I was waiting for a train that day, I observed what happened as the police arrived.

“This is really unfortunate,” he said, looking the employee in the eye. He then pulled up the text of the CTA’s ordinance governing performances on his phone, and tried to calmly argue to the officers that as a permitted performer, he was indeed allowed to sing at this location. They weren’t having it. Soon his speaker was off, his mike wrapped up, and he was on his way off the platform with a ticket for performing at a “nonperforming” CTA station and a date for an administrative court hearing.
Since 1991, the CTA has designated four stations where people who’ve paid the agency $10 for a subway performer’s license can showcase their talent—the Washington and Jackson stations on the Blue Line and the Washington and Jackson stations on the Red Line. The Washington Red Line station, however, has been shuttered since fall 2006, when the city launched a $400 million attempt to convert it into a “superstation” under Block 37 with express service to the airports. The plan never came to fruition and the Washington Red Line station never reopened, but the CTA’s ordinance wasn’t amended to take the ghost station off the list. Johnston and many other performers thus interpret the “Washington and State Streets” performance location in the ordinance as the Lake Street station, which now has entrances stretching all the way to Washington Street.

Apparently, many CTA employees share that interpretation of the ordinance, and so do administrative hearing judges tasked with handling the tickets issued to performers who break the CTA’s rules. Even though it’s officially not allowed, Johnston says he doesn’t always get told to leave when performing at the Lake station—which he’s been doing regularly since he got his performance license from the agency a year ago. He’s gotten four tickets for singing at Lake since November, he says. Every time he was issued a ticket, it was thrown out in court.

Though Johnston says he’s glad judges have agreed with his interpretation, it’s still a pain to have to go to court. “The more I go through this, the more adamant I get about the situation,” he says. Between the CTA’s staff, the agency’s K9 security contractors, and the Chicago Police Department, it seems to him that “nobody knows what’s going on. . . . Some days I’m fine and some days I’m not.”

CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said in a e-mail that the agency strives for “consistent enforcement of performer regulations. We realize that a more uniform application of rules is desirable and we will be working with our operations personnel to achieve that.” She added that the agency will be updating its website “to include detailed information about the performer’s program, including authorized performance locations.”

Still, updating the website doesn’t amount to changing the ordinance. Asked whether there were any plans to formally amend the rules to remove the defunct Washington Red Line station from the list, or to substitute it with a different location, Hosinski said there were “no immediate plans” to do so.

All of this begs the question: Why are the CTA’s authorized performance areas so limited in the first place? Compared to the nation’s other metropolitan areas, as the Tribune reported last year, Chicago’s subway performance policies are very restrictive. This leads to tense competition for the few available subway performance spaces and lots of “unauthorized” performances that get musicians like Johnston into unpleasant situations with the authorities. (The Trib feature includes video of an a cappella group singing at the Monroe Red Line stop—not an authorized performance location.)

Johnston recently captured this photo of a police officer listening to a band perform at the Lake Red Line station—an unauthorized performance location.
Johnston recently captured this photo of a police officer listening to a band perform at the Lake Red Line station—an unauthorized performance location.Credit: Andrew Johnston

The Chicago Transit Board’s archives shed some light on the roots of these policies. A transcript from a September 1991 meeting of the CTA’s governing body revealed that a push to restrict performances came from advocates for the blind and other disability rights groups. Performers’ equipment could make it difficult for people with mobility impairments to maneuver around the system’s narrow platforms, and the volume of the music sometimes disoriented blind people. Musicians, meanwhile, had been protesting the board over the idea of performance-area restrictions; they wanted to continue being able to play at high-traffic stations to earn a living.

At the meeting, Bill Mooney, then the CTA’s manager of transportation administration, explained the compromise that was reached: “We went through a complete survey of our downtown properties, which was the locations the street musicians were interested in playing. We identified four locations, which are four of our heavier stations downtown, as being locations where we could set aside space for street musicians to play.” He added that performers would be required to turn down their music “if any member of the blind community or any representative of CTA requested . . . to allow audio cues or announcements to be heard.”

As the board passed the new ordinance, member James Charlton noted that this was a “complex and controversial” issue. The new rules were “not going to be designed where everybody is happy. We’ve struck some middle ground,” he said.

Chicago Lighthouse, a social service organization that advocates for the visually impaired, was one of the groups that lobbied for the restrictions on performers back in 1991. Today, the organization no longer has an official position on the matter but Greg Polman, the group’s senior vice president for public policy, says subway performers’ volume continues to complicate navigation for the visually impaired. “Some of the musicians are very good but what bothers me is when they turn the amplifiers up and they’re so loud that you can’t hear what’s going on,” says Polman, who is himself blind. “Some of the music is so loud that it’s difficult to hear when the train comes in.”

The performers, meanwhile, have for years argued that the CTA should expand the number of stations where performances are allowed. These calls intensified last year when downtown alderman Brendan Reilly pushed to limit the volume at which street performers are allowed to play (or preach), and the times and locations at which they can set up shop. Though Reilly’s proposal died in the City Council, Johnston—who’s also a licensed street performer—says enforcement of existing rules above ground can also be inconsistent and unfair.

For example, on May 19, as he was completing a set in front of the Wrigley Building, Johnston was approached by police and told his “amplified sound is too loud.” City law prohibits sound “that is louder than average conversational level at a distance of 100 feet or more, measured vertically or horizontally, from the source.” This applies to licensed performers, too, and Johnston says that he has no problem with turning his amplifier down when asked.

In a video he made of the May 19 encounter, Johnston can be heard quietly arguing with the officers about whether or not amplified sound is a violation of the city’s street performance ordinance and whether or not the officers who approached him could hear him from 100 feet away. Johnston explains that he needs to leave anyway, and refuses to give the officers the ID hanging around his neck to be issued a ticket. The video cuts off with Johnston saying “stop” and backing away.

What happened next was captured on video by a passerby. Johnston was handcuffed and wrestled facedown to the ground.

Police said in a statement that Johnston was arrested after they received “a call of a music disturbance. Officers attempted to issued a citation to a male who was using amplified sound in violation of the city ordinance. When the violator failed to provide evidence of identity and refused to sign the citation he was placed in custody.”

Johnston spent most of the rest of the day at the 18th District lockup, cited for a violation of the noise ordinance, and charged with two misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest.

“They confiscated my equipment—speaker, two car batteries, my amplifier, microphone—and then they decided to hold that as part of investigation,” he says. He came back to sing at the same location with a spare set of gear the following weekend, and was issued yet another ticket.

All of this has seriously dampened Johnston’s enthusiasm for performing on the streets or in the subway—or for crediting the CTA’s performance program when he gives interviews about how he got his start in singing. The ticket he was issued at Lake Street on May 15 isn’t going to court because the CTA isn’t pursuing the matter. But he decided not to bother renewing his subway performer’s license when it expired on June 8.

Johnston has been using his lunch breaks from a job at a calling center to look for an attorney to help him disentangle from the criminal charges from the arrest on Michigan Avenue. He’s got no prior record and he thinks the videos of his arrest make it clear there was an “abuse of authority.”

Despite Johnston’s frustrations performing on the street and in the subway he has been featured on both local and national television programs. He’s even gotten words of encouragement via Twitter from singer Sam Smith, who saw a video of Johnston.

Johnston recently traveled to LA to film an appearance for the current season of America’s Got Talent, which could air as soon as Tuesday night.

The appearance, he says, is a step toward stardom, but he currently can’t travel out of state for future auditions or other opportunities because of conditions placed on his bond. He says the city should do more to support and encourage rather than police its talent.

“The exposure that street performing has given me has allowed me to move on to shows like Windy City Live and Steve Harvey,” he says. “But there comes a point where it’s not worth it. And it’s unfortunate because irrespective of the pushback I get from police and K9 [security guards] in the subway, the passengers on the CTA and people shopping on the street enjoy it. I notice.”