By Andrea K. Hammer
In Market East Station, watching smiles spread across the faces of a growing crowd is a rarity. Most days, commuters glumly cross paths as they race for trains.
But one bongo-drum player, swaying to the beat of contagious music, had the power to stop some in their tracks recently. The free-spirited joy that he sparked around the station's newsstand area was palpable. A few men wearing suits and holding briefcases tapped their feet, while some children waved their hands above their heads and danced around their beaming mother.
In a back corner of the station near a plant shop, a xylophone player tapped out lilting island music. Visions of the Bahamas slowed the frenetic pace of people flying through doors and rushing down the steps; tense muscles seemed to relax visibly.
In Suburban Station, washboard players attracted another group of onlookers. Down the hallway going into the station, three young violinists played classical music; commuters dropped dollars into their open cases.
During the last few weeks, though, many of the musicians have disappeared. SEPTA announced a new regulation that will be enforced starting in early August, restricting musicians and other entertainers to four specified areas in Suburban and three in Market East, where they may perform for three hours a day with a monthly permit. Only one musician or a group of up to four may entertain in each section.
With electronic amplifiers already banned to lower the volume of competing acts, SEPTA announced the new rules after reported complaints from riders and merchants.
Although some have welcomed this change, others miss the liveliness. The stations, now muffled, had served as an open gathering place for the city's wide spectrum of musicians.
Beyond that, the barren corners of Philadelphia's transit stations are missed opportunities for taking culture to the people.
For example, the long underground hallway in Suburban Station, between 17th and 18th Streets, cries out for creative attention. Although oversized advertisements have taken up residence on the walls during the last year, isolated walkers would welcome some innovative use of the space as a narrow stage for single-file dancers or musicians.
At 30th Street Station, the upper passageways between the pillared windows would make a magnificent backdrop for a talented choreographer. Or perhaps a formal stage in the empty space behind the ticket office could be used to engage delayed and frequently bored travelers.
Understandably, public transit agencies consider travel their first concern. But with neglected space that is ripe for artistic presentations, cultural organizations and the city would benefit from more collaboration. At the very least, making barren walls and long tables available would allow arts organizations to market their events to a high volume of traffic each day.
Providing stages in safe, designated areas for performers and other artists would give commuters easy access and exposure to enriching cultural opportunities. These corner art "markets" would offer greater nourishment than a frosted cinnamon bun while waiting for a late train.