Dear Rittenhouse neighbors, please quit over-policing musicians in a public park

SnackTime, a Philadelphia 10-man brass band playing in Rittenhouse Park. (Photo Courtesy of SnackTime)

SnackTime, a Philadelphia 10-man brass band playing in Rittenhouse Park. (Photo Courtesy of SnackTime)

In October, I was out on a date with my partner in Rittenhouse Square. We were walking until we heard the warm sound of a trumpet. Soon enough, drums, a saxophone, and even a sousaphone — we had stumbled across one of Philadelphia’s hidden gems: Snacktime.

A 10-man brass band that performs across Philadelphia, Snacktime performs covers of hit pop songs, timeless classics and their own original works. After spending close to one year in isolation and coping with the events of a tumultuous presidential election, it was magical to hear live music again.

The audience was dancing; people walking by stopped to listen; patrons at the premiere restaurants nearby smiled. My partner and I stopped to enjoy the unexpected alfresco performance.

“We’re all going through the same thing together. That’s one of the main reasons why we love to do what we do, is because of the people, because of that human interaction,” saxophonist Ben Stocker said in a recent interview.

Months later, I was deeply saddened when I heard Rittenhouse businesses and residents were organizing to stop Snacktime from playing in the park.

According to the band’s lawyer, the coalition that opposes the band includes Friends of Rittenhouse, Center City Residents Association and representatives from some of the surrounding restaurants such as Parc. After the group reached out to the local police precinct, Philadelphia Police 9th District Community Relations Officer, Jesse O’Shea, pressured Snacktime to stop playing music earlier than they are allowed to play under City Code, according to the lawyer.

Ninth District officers have issued a warning to Snacktime and elaborated that they may issue individual $300 fines to band members under the guise of “sidewalk violations,” according to the band.

The organizations complaining about Snacktime are using their influence to allocate already constrained public safety resources to police a band with the mission to make people happy — and the 9th District is obliging their services.

Selective enforcement

Snacktime has met with Officer O’Shea, Center City Residents Association and a Friends of Rittenhouse to discuss the complaints the resident groups say they have received about the live music. As a resolution, the police precinct and the association asked Snacktime to play elsewhere and to stop playing after 8 p.m. on weeknights, and 9 p.m. on weekends, despite city ordinance allowing for live music to continue until 10 p.m.

Despite this ongoing conversation, the band says the police have threatened citations for violating the city’s musicians ordinance, noise on sidewalks ordinance, and disorderly conduct — a criminal offense.

But Snacktime members aren’t the only ones contributing to noise. The band’s lawyer argued that the musicians’ alleged “noise violations” pale in comparison to the noise from the surrounding restaurants — which according to the band, exceed the background noise of the park by around 20 decibels. Additionally, Snacktime claims that there are other recurring nuisance violations in Rittenhouse that come with the territory of living in a city, but are not being enforced.

This is selective enforcement of the law and it is hurting our community.

Due to COVID-19, musicians and venues are struggling. In 2020, Warmdaddy’s, a jazz lounge and eatery, closed. The Boot and Saddle, an indie-rock venue, also closed. This issue also comes at a time when the city itself is considering expanding provisions that would allow for sidewalk cafes to have outdoor entertainment. Not to mention, there have been other accounts on social media of Philadelphia musicians being cited by the police for performing outdoors near Rittenhouse and other areas in Center City.

By limiting Snacktime, the city is sending a message to all musicians and also limiting another venue for Philadelphia musicians.

We live in a time where the pandemic has devastated the live performance industry. Not only is performing live music some of the members’ means of living, but it also brings life to the city. Philadelphia is a proud musical city — we must embrace that element of our culture. With the winter thawing, the weather breaking, the last thing we need is to curb or confine creativity, expression, joy, and happiness in this time of crisis.

Snacktime continues to play music across the city — and discussions with their lawyer, the police and local groups are ongoing.

Jonathan Koehler is a paralegal, Philadelphia resident, and jazz and big band enthusiast. Koehler has attended multiple performances hosted by Snacktime.

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