The Key West City Commission held off on implementing a new rule for street artists and a closed area to the artists and street vendors on Tuesday night, after hearing passionate pleas from both artists, residents and visitors.
The commission was set to approve two rules. Mayor Craig Cates proposed a rule that would create a "prohibition of art vendors to establish their wares on city sidewalks within 75 feet of storefronts selling like goods."
Cates withdrew his proposed rule and said he plans to sit down with the vendors and artists to come up with a solution.
"People love them, and we need to keep them," Cates told the artists and his fellow commissioners on Tuesday night.
Another rule discussed Tuesday night would prohibit artists and performers from performing or selling their wares on Duval Street sidewalks from South Street to the South Beach Pier. The rule was proposed by City Commissioner Clayton Lopez.
Last year, the city passed a law that prohibits street artists and performers from operating on Duval from Petronia Street to South Street.
"(Since then) performers and artists began to set up on those areas of sidewalk on Duval Street from South Street to the foot of Duval Street and more importantly, established themselves on the concrete pier extending into the Atlantic Ocean commonly called South Street Pier," Assistant City Attorney Ron Ramsingh wrote in a memo to city commissioners.
Street performers and vendors, and their possible customers, on the pier constitutes "a serious risk to the health, safety and welfare of individuals in the area," Ramsingh noted.
"Black Dog," a sidewalk vendor who has been selling handmade jewelry for 12 years, argued that he chose the spot because it was out of the way, so he does not compete with shop owners. He is not taking money out of anyone's pockets, he said.
"What in the hell did I do to you?" he asked the commissioners. "There is not one documented case of anyone getting hurt from me selling jewelry there. ... You are taking away from tourists."
Commissioner Mark Rossi lobbied to keep Black Dog on the pier.
Several artists attended Tuesday night's meeting and spoke of the importance of street art, saying the new rules would violate their First Amendment rights. Artist Lee Anne McCarthy joked that the new rules run contrary to a popular Monroe County program.
"You support Art in Public Places," she said. "We are art, and we are in a public place. This is important to us ... . We are parents and grandparents ... I don't want to go somewhere else and express my First Amendment rights."
The artists argued that over the past several years, the city has implemented a series of rules designed to push them out of town. Street artists and vendors now must register and pay annual fees.
"We don't mind the permit system," said street artist Alise Scott, a single mother and homeowner. "But you have made it harder for us to practice our First Amendment rights. You are squeezing all of the artists out little by little."
The city clerk read aloud emotional letters from tourists about the importance of street art and buskers to their visitor experience.
"I travel to Key West very often, and I think that part of the experience of Key West is the artists on the streets," wrote Marc Nason of Ohio. "It is one more thing about Key West that makes it so unique. By getting rid of the street artists on Duval Street just means you're taking away from the many people who have not been there and got to experience this one part of Key West that is an important part of the culture."
One letter writer, and Commissioner Tony Yaniz, argued that T-shirt shops' wares with crass sayings were a problem that needed more regulation, not street artists and vendors.
"The T-shirts in the shop windows. For God's sake. It's incredibly offensive," Veronica Flora wrote in her letter to the commission. "I would not take a child under 15 down to that part of town. It's absolutely appalling."
The town is becoming a "seedy, dirty, cultural sewer," because of the T-shirt shops, Flora said.
Lopez also postponed his proposed rule as well, also planning to meet with the vendors and artists.