Revisiting 1980s Street Performing at Washington Square Park: Interview Philippe Petit, Tony Vera, Charlie Barnett

Culture from other eras inform the park to this day, but is that spirit being increasingly sanitized?

Tony Vera “Fire Breather” Washington Sq Park

The New York Times T Magazine recently celebrated New York City “three extraordinary years” 1981-1983. In light of the recent arrest of a beloved street performer at Washington Square Park, it seems right to revisit its culture of street performing at the space, with a high point in the 1980s. It remains, yet in a somewhat diminished fashion – is at risk of diminishing further?

As things have gotten increasingly bland in New York City, how do we retain some semblance of what matters, of the spirit?

While it’s not as it was then at Washington Square Park now, how do we push back against the idea that “safe, clean and beautiful” matters most? A concept that is sanitizing to the very essence of the park itself – this oh-so-special downtown public space.

Interviewed in the round on A&E by Studs Terkel and Colin Tremlin, quintessential Washington Square Park performers, Philippe Petit, Charlie Barnett and Tony Vera, in this 1986 interview, offered a look into how it works performing in Washington Square Park:

Tony Vera: It’s like one big happy circus there. I’m by the Arch. Philippe’s on the other side of the park. Charlie’s in the fountain. It’s all spaced out.

Interviewer: A lot of the audience is spaced out in Washington Square Park.

[Everyone laughs.]

Philippe Petit: I am here as a street juggler. My other profession is high wire. As a street juggler, I only work on the streets.
..
Personally, I’ve been arrested over 500 times as a street performer. … Now there is no one place on earth you can say you can really perform. If what you mean by perform is you can express yourself fully; you might abide by certain guidelines – stay over there or not too late…

But if you want to express yourself, then everything is forbidden.
then that’s not even worth talking about
It’s like the rain, it will happen again and again

Turkel: You find the hassling still goes on?

Petit: In a way, that’s an interesting part of street performing.
Street performing I hope will never be legal.

If it’s legal, it will be dead in a sense.

that you’ll always be finding a spot…
that you’ll always be waiting for the rain to stop…
that you’re always hiding from the cop.

Turkel: How do you feel about Philippe’s comment?

Vera: It’s the best.

Turkel: The risks attract Phillippe…

Petit: Not the risks, the flavor of that unique theatre that is the street. Once you put a sign on it and a board on it with an hour [you will be performing], you don’t have that kind of theatre anymore.

Barnett: A lot of cops come to my show.
Once in awhile the sergeants come to the park.
The main thing that they don’t like is amplifiers, guys with guitars with big amps.

Pretty soon, the park is just a big amp with drums and stuff.
What I do, they don’t bother me, because I just talk…

I got that from Dale Carnegie.

Next thing I know… they put a dollar in my cap.

I try to stay on the good side of the cops. And whenever I see someone in the crowd drinking a beer, and they’re not supposed to, at least respect the cops: don’t drink in front of them.

* * *

2010 book

Worth reading:

Drawing a Circle in the Square, a great book, outlines 1980s “Street Performing in New York’s Washington Square Park.”

Worth watching:

Tony Vera published the A&E show discussed above to his YouTube, interspersed with his own commentary and footage of the A&E television interview with Petit and Barnett.

* * *

Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

King of the Park: Charlie Barnett | Performances at Washington Square In Jeopardy Again    April 11, 2013

Washington Square Park’s “Living Statue” Arrested for Performance on Arch April 16, 2018

Top Photo: Kenneth Nelson

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