This study details New York City's Depression-era street music ban and concurrent noise abatement campaign to reveal the relationship of changing definitions of work with sound. New York had issued street music licenses for a fee, but Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia put an end to the practice. While some have assumed LaGuardia banned street music to combat Italian stereotypes associated with organ grinders, this essay demonstrates that efforts to reconcile changing social policy with the work ethic motivated both LaGuardia's ban and public resistance to it. Street musicians occupied an ambiguous space between begging and self-employment and, as relief programs provoked public concern over economic individualism, confusion between honest unemployment and willful dependency was a political liability for the Mayor. Yet, while the Mayor condemned busking as begging, citizens sprang to street music's defense, arguing the ban would force practitioners onto the relief rolls; while municipal policy proclaimed street music was no longer work, some New Yorkers suddenly believed the opposite. Simultaneously, LaGuardia launched an antinoise campaign that evaluated sounds on the basis of economic necessity. Noises essential to work were moderated while “unnecessary” noises were silenced. Redefined as beggars under LaGuardia's ban, street musicians lost their claim to legitimacy and became vulnerable to noise ordinances. Citizens protesting that street music was necessary work, preferable to accepting relief, also insisted it was not noise. Consequently, this study argues that new commitments to the well-being of unemployed citizens prompted New Yorkers to reexamine definitions of work, reevaluate which noises were necessary, and hear street music differently.
In April, 1935, Sebastino Lupica stormed into New York's City Hall, took out his accordion, and launched into a performance of Italian Opera. Officials came and stood in the hallway, perplexed but listening attentively, and applauded loudly when he had finished. Under the impression that the city had refused to renew his street music license because of doubts about his musical ability, Lupica had come to lower Manhattan from his home in the Bronx to demonstrate his skills in the hope that Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia might intercede on his behalf. Agreeing that Lupica was a gifted musician, Police Captain Harten phoned the License Department to ask why permission had been refused only to discover that the Mayor himself had banned the licensing of street musicians; once current permits expired, street music would be illegal in New York City. Dejected and confused, Lupica left City Hall to join the burgeoning ranks of the unemployed, wondering aloud how he would earn a living now that the Mayor had criminalized his chosen profession.1 While Lupica had expected a license to be granted or refused based on the sonic quality of his work, Mayor LaGuardia had banned the practice in the belief that street music was an unnecessary noise that failed to qualify as work in the first place.
Though neglected by historians, LaGuardia's street music ban generated a great deal of comment in the 1930s, most of which centered on debates over the proper role of government and the merits of self-sufficiency. Unfolding against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the conflicts surrounding the ban dramatized the tension between the creation of a social safety net via New Deal relief policies and the value many citizens continued to place on economic individualism. Yet, scholars have barely noticed the ban, treating it as a footnote to a well-covered period in the city's history. Furthermore, what mention it has received has propagated two misconceptions: first, that LaGuardia's ban was specific to organ grinders and, second, that he initiated the policy to combat Italian stereotypes associated with that profession. In fact, as accordionist Sebastino Lupica's plight illustrates, the Mayor barred all forms of street music, thereby criminalizing an entire mode of musical labor, not just the low-skilled subset of organ grinders. The public's sentimental attitude toward organ grinders, however, led to the policy being referred to simply as an organ grinding ban and, in turn, left a misleading impression on the historical record. The notion that discomfort over stereotypes motivated LaGuardia—which relies on the assumption that the ban was limited to organ grinders in the first place—derived mainly from the Mayor's autobiography, in which he explained that the visit of an organ grinder to his childhood home prompted his young peers to mock his Italian heritage. Robert Caro's claim that Parks Commissioner Robert Moses slurred the Mayor by referring to him as “the little organ grinder” likely added to this interpretation. While LaGuardia's papers are silent as to who, if anyone, urged him to ban street music, his own statements are clear as to why he adopted the policy. LaGuardia always cited his objection to begging, together with the argument that street music was an anachronistic form of entertainment, as the prime motivation for the ban. And, in contrast to many public comments debating street music's work status, only a single letter to the Mayor expressed concern for the practice's reflection on people of Italian extraction.2 Clearly, the ban did not stem primarily from concern over ethnic stereotypes. Rather, as this essay demonstrates, efforts to reconcile changing social policy with adherence to the work ethic motivated both LaGuardia's ban and public resistance to its implementation.
Although LaGuardia and his ban's detractors shared a belief in the value of work, their respective understandings of what constituted work shifted in opposite directions in response to economic crisis and government intervention. Faced with defending the relief system and deflecting charges of radicalism, LaGuardia redefined the work of street musicians as begging in order to clarify distinctions between willing workers and willful dependents. Almost simultaneously, buskers became vulnerable to the Mayor's noise abatement campaign, which made work a basis for distinguishing necessary noise from unnecessary clamor. Yet, even as LaGuardia reversed the municipal government's established practice of licensing street music, concern over joblessness and the cost of relief spurred a populace that had long complained about noisy musical “beggars” to change its tune and reconsider the work status of street musicians.3 Consequently, this study argues that new commitments to the well-being of unemployed citizens prompted New Yorkers to reexamine their definitions of work, reevaluate which noises were necessary, and, indeed, to hear street music a bit differently. On these shifting perceptions turned the political viability of progressive policy, the sonic organization of the city's public space, and the very livelihood of its itinerant performers.
While LaGuardia's street music ban and concurrent noise abatement campaign were separate policies, both bore the marks of efforts to apply government management to the formalization of work, the maintenance of orderly public space, and the goal of modernization. The busking ban favored clear streets and an aesthetic of economic modernity by seeking to channel itinerant performers into other occupations or the relief system. The antinoise campaign extended similar ideals explicitly into the sonic sphere. Seeking to foster an orderly urban soundscape without compromising trade and industry, the campaign judged noises on their perceived “necessity,” a subjective criterion previously used elsewhere.4 In the context of the Depression, however, this concept had a more intensely economic ring to it. Consequently, the discourse on noise, carried on under the rubric of “necessity,” overlapped the discourse on work, though the two were seldom seamlessly unified. New Yorkers confused issues of work and noise as they applied disparate ideological perspectives to their interpretations of sound, a phenomenon that was especially pronounced with respect to street music. While the ban addressed the question of whether buskers were working or begging, and actually narrowly preceded the antinoise campaign, some clearly believed noise concerns motivated the policy. Indeed, citizens' contradictory reactions to the ban, expressed in letters to the Mayor, alternately grounded their arguments in beliefs about work, in definitions of noise, or both. Given the history of the city's approaches to street music, however, this was not terribly surprising. Nor was it coincidental that the issue gained new prominence in the context of the New Deal.
In debating street music, New Yorkers' concerns over work and noise had grown up together. As historian Dave Russell has noted, the ranks of street musicians have included, alongside accomplished professionals, “sad figures for whom possession of a musical instrument was merely a thin veil for mendicancy”; consequently, complaints about the noise street musicians generated often appeared in conjunction with confusion over their ambiguous work status.5 Even before the 1898 consolidation of the boroughs, New Yorkers were condemning the tolerance afforded to musical “beggars” and complaining that noisy itinerants were “an intolerable nuisance” that the public “must endure […] with a mere mockery of redress.”6 By the turn of the century, the Board of Aldermen considered ordinances against music in the streets, heard counterintuitive demands that the plague of unlicensed musicians be met by eradicating licensing, and evidenced developing trends in the evaluation of sound when an alderman asserted that “the organ grinder is not a necessity and should go.”7 The new century brought stricter enforcement of noise ordinances. New Yorkers' complaints about being disturbed even resulted in a law granting citizens who “don't like the noise” the right to banish organ grinders to a distance of 250 feet.8 Yet, despite objections, the city continued to license buskers and added to the municipal coffers by auctioning off the right to perform on the Staten Island ferries.9 Street musicians' treatment under antibegging laws was similarly confused. Though New York took mendicancy seriously—indeed, night courts were largely occupied with the prosecution of vagrancy and disorderly conduct—it was unclear whether street musicians fell within statutory language criminalizing anyone who “places himself in the streets, highways, passages, or other public places, to beg or receive alms.”10 Though some appeared before magistrates on charges of begging, decisions were inconclusive and tended to muddle rather than clarify buskers' occupation of an ambiguous legal status between vagrancy and self employment.11 With the advent of the New Deal, however, such ambiguities ceased to be a luxury that the city government could afford.
Before the Depression, belief in economic individualism was widespread. National ideology proclaimed that adherence to the work ethic yielded financial reward, independence, and personal worth, while its neglect brought failure and stigma. In the wake of economic collapse, however, with unemployment nearing 25%, the rewards of hard work appeared less reliable and failure became a poor indicator of which individuals had not applied themselves.12 With the Emergency Relief and Construction Act (1932), the Unemployment Relief/Public Works Act (1933), and the Federal Emergency Relief Act (1933), legislators created a governmental responsibility to provide work and aid the unemployed. Similarly, after the creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act (1935), the Federal Music Project (FMP) provided work for unemployed musicians, funding symphony orchestras that performed free outdoor concerts for the public. Yet, as New York City became a laboratory for nascent New Deal policy, public confidence in the economy was so low that some New Yorkers applied for assistance in advance of job losses they believed were sure to come. As relief expenses increased and tax revenues fell, social welfare programs brought with them a greater urgency in distinguishing men who had failed through no fault of their own from those seeking to subsist off others.13
The public's concern over differentiating social parasites from “real” unemployed workers had a significant political impact. In the FMP, this distinction was mirrored by director Nicolai Sokoloff's preference for musically-literate classical musicians over popular performers who played by ear, as well as his firing of anyone who might expose the project to scrutiny for harboring radicals—a constant worry for New Dealers.14 LaGuardia, who broke with fellow Republicans to support the Roosevelt administration and had joined the Socialist Party when the G.O.P. denied him support in the 1924 congressional elections, faced similar pressures. With the fear of dependency on the rise, the Mayor became a prime target of critics who accused New Deal liberals of advocating collectivism and undermining the work ethic.15 Hoping to deflect such accusations and avoid alienating the city's staunchly anti-Communist Catholic voters, LaGuardia took pains to demonstrate that relief funds reached honest unemployed workers rather than professional loafers.16 As determining who deserved relief became a pressing concern, any confusion of willing workers with disruptive dependents became a political liability—and few practices complicated that distinction more than street music.
Taking office in 1934, Mayor LaGuardia's objectives included the establishment of an effective relief system and the remaking of New York into a metropolis that was efficient and aesthetically modern.17 A proponent of the work ethic, LaGuardia reconciled relief programs with economic individualism by drawing a sharp moral distinction between government assistance, which he characterized as an entitlement of citizenship, and begging.18 Unemployed citizens could, from LaGuardia's perspective, dissociate themselves from willful dependency by passing through a bureaucracy charged with weeding out those who refused work. Thus, relief would function as a safety net for the work ethic, not a way around it. As Mayor, he incorporated this distinction into his policies, championing New Deal programs while seeking to rid the city of unmanaged, marginal laborers—such as street musicians, day porters, and pushcart vendors—whose presence might call the city's handling of economic crisis into question.19 Like pushcarts, street musicians were consistent neither with the administration's urban aesthetics nor its goal of combating street congestion to facilitate the flow of commercial traffic. And, like street peddlers, buskers were subjects of complaints by those who argued that more staid forms of work were hampered by informal laborers. Yet, even compared to pushcart peddlers, street musicians endured a unique fate. While the administration contained pushcarts spatially, sequestering them within enclosed markets, street music suffered a complete ban as a result of its implications for relief.20 As irregular and antimodern as pushcart vending may have seemed, few observers perceived it as begging. Musicians performing on the street, on the other hand, blurred such distinctions. Were they trying to work, or trying to avoid work? The confusion simultaneously cast doubt upon the effectiveness of relief and, by evidencing unmanaged poverty and informal labor, compromised the city's facade of social modernization as well.
For LaGuardia, the prescription that citizens adhere to the work ethic was not only a political and economic imperative, but an aesthetic standard. This correlation was particularly apparent in his efforts to manage the urban soundscape.21 Attempts to control noise in the urban centers of the United States and Europe focused primarily on the honking of automobile horns in the 1930s and New York was no exception. Indeed, LaGuardia's antinoise campaign produced the unfortunate slogan, “A noiseless auto is as pleasant as a speechless mother-in-law.”22 Yet, further examination reveals concern with work as a powerful undercurrent defining LaGuardia's endeavor and indicates that his noise abatement program further eroded the position of itinerant musicians. Explaining that “industry cannot go on without the production of some noise,” LaGuardia reassured city residents that a connection to work would be the criterion for distinguishing “necessary” noise from disruptive clamor; productivity would not be interrupted during economic crisis. Launched amid debate over the busking ban, LaGuardia's campaign relied on similarly narrow understandings of what counted as work to those that informed the decision to eliminate performance licenses. The city would suffer the “necessary” sounds of clinking garbage cans, clattering milk trucks, and roaring industrial machinery so long as laborers took reasonable steps to moderate their noise. Honking horns, blaring radios, music spilling out of dance halls, and the loud conversation of night workers, on the other hand, would not be tolerated.23 As this list indicates, the determination of which noises emanated from work was somewhat subjective; dance hall music, the speech of workers, and even the honking of horns might sometimes have resulted from labor. Yet, LaGuardia did make unprecedented efforts to bring as many occupations as possible into compliance. Consciously breaking with the class condescension and intellectual elitism of past campaigns, the city enlisted the aid of working citizens by circulating noise abatement pledge cards—particularly to cab drivers, whose licenses were conditional on signing—and altering the manner in which it communicated noise intensity to the public.24 While the decibel was becoming a familiar unit to New Yorkers, the city ranked its “noisiest” boroughs not on the basis of decibel levels but on the number of citations police gave for unnecessary noise.25 In contrast to measuring noise levels, counting incidences of unnecessary noise effectively quantified deviation from responsible industrious activity, suggesting that the administration saw the goal of a quieter city as inextricable from and secondary to the goal of a city that sounded busy. Work, conscientiously discharged, was an aesthetic guiding management of the urban soundscape. As Noise Commissioner Henry Curran explained to fellow urbanites, “The greatest indictment of our lazy good nature […] lies in the noises of New York.”26
If LaGuardia sought a municipality that sounded industrious, efficient, and modern, then street musicians impeded his city plan. The spatial goal of free-flowing commerce supporting modern work patterns, which led the administration to combat pushcarts, was simultaneously a sonic aim. Early twentieth century noise abators not only viewed noise as inefficient, but understood it as a byproduct of congested traffic squeezing through the streets, a perspective reflected in city officials' condemnation of pedestrians who prompted the honking of motorists by disobeying traffic signals.27 Street musicians, however, were doubly guilty of such disruptions; not only did they increase clamor by clogging the thoroughfares, but their very end was the production of sound. From the administration's perspective, the status of those sounds as industrious was highly suspect. While modern practices of scientific management included using music to promote worker efficiency and the government recognized musicians as workers by employing them under the FMP, these developments existed alongside established trends toward perceiving street musicians as impediments to work. Just as pushcarts hampered more staid forms of commerce by blocking traffic, so the production of street music disturbed supposedly weightier activities—particularly the intellectual labor of the middle classes.28 If street music was work, in the administration's view it was not of a sort conducive to commercial efficiency or the aesthetics of economic modernization.
The fate of street music was contingent not only on whether it was work, but on the distinction between noise abatement and an outright ban. While LaGuardia and his officials engaged in rhetoric condemning everything from “tooting horns” to “caterwauling street singers,” the campaign's goal was to reduce noise by silencing sounds when possible and reducing their volume when not, all under the governing concept of necessity. No sounds were truly banned, as such, though many were punished.29 Even in the antinoise ordinance, efforts to specify sonic activities the city deemed “unnecessary”—blasting car horns when not in motion, playing musical instruments, and discharging engine exhaust—included subjective qualifying language; only when these noises were “unreasonable,” “excessive,” “disturbing,” or, of course, “unnecessary” were they to be penalized.30 Had street music maintained the legal ambiguity it enjoyed in past decades, “necessity” might have extended to licensed practitioners. Like other laborers, they could have moderated their volume, limited work to certain hours, observed restricted areas of operation, or even signed pledges like those required of cab drivers. The Mayor's order, however, removed any grounds for interpretation; redefined as beggars under the ban, street musicians could not bring their sounds into compliance.
The ban stripped away street music's veneer of legitimacy in the spring of 1935. As the city refused licenses and existing registrations expired, itinerant musicians transitioned from self-employed performers to unemployed vagrants. Rather than announcing the policy, LaGuardia ordered the ban covertly via communication with License Commissioner Paul Moss, probably to avoid publicity that might prompt public outcry.31 The administration disguised the ban as an act of compassion by transferring the application process from the License Office to the Department of Welfare and allowing musicians to receive permits free, provided they could “pass certain requirements”—a murky process that may have led to Sebastino Lupica's expectation that his skills would be evaluated, as was the practice in other cities.32 But the precipitous decrease in licenses attracted attention, prompting The New York Times to inquire, “Has the demand for permits actually declined or is it a new municipal policy?”33 As word spread, LaGuardia began receiving petitions asking him “not to abolish hurdy gurdies from the streets of New York.”34 By the time Lupica protested at City Hall in April, the Mayor had been answering letters of dissent for a month in correspondences that made the question of whether or not street musicians were beggars their central issue. Letter after letter echoed the sentiments of Janette Heslin, who insisted, “Hurdy-gurdy players are not beggars, not any more than any person who holds a job is a beggar. They work and are paid for it by donations of an enjoying public.”35 Protesters grounded their objections in the economic circumstances of the day, writing that they could not imagine “how the organ grinders will find other employment.”36 Yet, LaGuardia stood firm. Writing in his stock response, the Mayor explained that street musicians blocked traffic, lured children into the streets, and were an outmoded form of entertainment in a modern world blessed with radio, the phonograph, and free concerts like those provided by the FMP. Advances in social policy, then, as well as technology, were among those LaGuardia saw as rendering street music obsolete. Finally, however, his most vehement objection was to the idea “that a city like New York should license or give permission to any individual for public begging.”37 As the last licenses expired, several organ grinders went on NBC radio to plead that the Mayor reconsider; however, LaGuardia preempted their appeal, reiterating in a press conference that “the organ grinder no longer fills a needed want” and stating firmly “I'm not going to license begging.”38
Street musicians had their defenders, including the press, sentimental citizens, and even former Metropolitan Opera singer Mary Lewis; however, LaGuardia was not the only one who heard street music as indicative of begging.39 The extent to which issues of noise and self-sufficiency were confused in the minds of the public is evident in the words of Harry Weisburg, Chairman of the Noise Abatement Committee Nottingham Association, who telegrammed from Brooklyn with the following message of support for the Mayor:
For Weisburg, the annoyance caused by loud noises was apparently equaled only by the sound of indigents asking for money—at any volume. Yet, his association of the ban's campaign against alleged beggars with LaGuardia's larger project of controlling urban noise points to an important consequence of the latter effort: making economic necessity the gauge of noises' acceptability required authorities to differentiate between sounds that signaled an industrious working class and those that emanated from disruptive or dependent elements, a determination that depended on who was listening. Just as vagrancy laws facilitated the control of labor by granting police the power to subjectively determine who lacked “visible means of support,” noise abatement gave officers great latitude in determining who sounded busy, hardworking, and law-abiding.41 Indeed, members of the Young Communist League complained that police used noise abatement as an excuse to target their rallies and wrote to the Mayor to “protest the sectarianism of [the] Anti-Noise Campaign” which, they claimed with apparently unintentional irony, “smacks loudly of incipient fascism.”42 The Young Communists' complaint—resonant with objections from the left over treatment of the unemployed and the use of preventive arrests to curtail public protests—speaks to the city's effort to rid public space of sounds as well as sights that might call economic liberalism into further question by raising the specter of the redistribution of wealth.43 To be sure, the performances of street musicians had little in common with leftist rallies; however, as relief rolls swelled and buckled under the strain of meeting demand with limited federal allocations, some New Yorkers heard the slogans of radical activists and the pleas of the unemployed for assistance very much as Harry Weisburg heard the solicitations of hurdy-gurdy men: just more dependents asking for a handout.44
CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR DECISION REGARDING STREET ORGANS WITH THE HOPE THAT 1936 WILL SEE THE FINISH OF ALL MENDICANT MINSTRELS OF THE SIDEWALKS[,] SUBWAY SOLICITATIONS OF ALLEGED VETERANS AND PERSISTENT PESTERINGS OF PANHANDLERS AND HONKING OF DIE-HARD MOTORISTS WHOSE BELIEF IN BLASTING IS HARD TO BLAST.40
The public's reservations about dependency and government relief were a constant concern for LaGuardia. Although he defended the rights of the unemployed to protest, when his street music policy became public knowledge he was unwavering in his assertion that itinerant musicians were beggars.45 His public advocacy of the ban may well have been an effort to turn the story to his advantage. If he crafted his responses with an ear toward distinguishing welfare from begging or insulating the administration against charges of sanctioning dependency, then they certainly came at an opportune time. In early 1936, as LaGuardia began to publicly describe street music as begging, the federal government slashed relief allocations. The cuts sparked protests and rioting by the unemployed, which city welfare officials attributed to Communist agitators.46 William Randolph Hearst's New York American blamed the Mayor for the unrest, headed its editorial page with the provocative question “New York Under the Red Flag?” and asserted that relief offices were infested with radicals who paid Communist Party dues out of public money. Dominating the page was a cartoon depicting LaGuardia as Napoleon, hand tucked in his coat, and surrounded by rioters carrying signs reading “Red Relief Workers,” “Hurrah for Red Russia,” and “Down With Capital.”47 Pressure only increased over the next few years as the Roosevelt Recession kept demands for relief high and political opponents charged LaGuardia's administration with radicalism, even suggesting his appointee to the Municipal Civil Service Commission, Paul Kern, was a member of the Soviet Secret Police.48 Struggling to support relief programs without appearing to subsidize those who shunned employment, LaGuardia had clear motive to use his refusal to tolerate the “begging” of street musicians as a demonstration of his advocacy of the work ethic. The New Deal might be revising the relationship between the citizen and the state, but from LaGuardia's perspective it was street music and similar panhandling, not relief programs, that trumpeted a lapse in self-sufficiency.
If LaGuardia's ability to insulate himself against charges of radicalism could be measured by ire on the left, his approaches to street music and government assistance appeared to enjoy some success: the liberal publication The Nation condemned the ban as a blot on the Mayor's progressive record, a petitioner accused him of “going capitalist” by “turning down the hurdy gurdy men,” and The Daily Worker opposed his policies on labor and unemployment as ardently as the Hearst papers did.49 Yet, as relief programs faced budget shortfalls and the unrest of the unemployed cast government efforts in an unflattering light, the public's letters of complaint show that New Yorkers were beginning to hear street music differently. While the Mayor repeatedly insisted that New York would not condone begging, many were less concerned about the city tolerating street musicians than about the possibility that public money might support them once their licenses expired. One man wrote to the Mayor that putting street musicians “out of business” would “simply […] increase the unemployment situation.”50 A few weeks later, a letter signed “A CITIZEN” followed this line of thinking to its predictable conclusion, observing “I've never seen an organ grinder accepting pennies as though he thought they were his due and that is in the spirit of the thing.” “If the owner of the hurdy-gurdy were forced onto the relief roll,” the letter continued, “[…] that pleasant principle would be violated. Everyone would contribute to his support [emphasis added].”51 The “pleasant principle” which A CITIZEN invoked—that charity is voluntary and the indigent must not expect financial support as a right—found expression in many letters, especially as the relief crisis stoked fears of Communism in early 1936. Writing against the ban, one man complained “I do not know what good this action does other than to enable President Roosevelt to put more people on relief […].”52 In a letter to the New York Times, another protested that “the Mayor is not well informed as to the meaning of the word ‘begging.’” “There are worse forms of begging in New York,” he continued, “of which no notice is taken. The organ grinder pays a tax, but all in all, and after all, the Mayor is a liberal.”53 Apparently, the writer believed the Mayor and other New Dealers were the real beggars. Similarly, a letter signed “Justice,” wondered why the mayor had “deprived these very few organ grinders this way to earn a simple living. Lord knows, they in a way earn it, and the money is given them voluntarily, while your COMMUNITY CHEST robs people, literally, and allowed to.”54 An evangelist even identified organ grinders as a force against atheism and radicalism, writing that, while he had once been “a God-hating, Christ-rejecting individual and an enemy to socity [sic] through my political activities,” an organ grinder had converted him “from infidelity and anarchism to faith in Jesus Christ.”55 Certainly, some objections were nonsensical; however, as New Deal programs increased the likelihood that public money would go to support New York's newly unemployed buskers, city residents had increased incentive to believe that street music sounded more like legitimate labor than like begging. As Edith Gates asked LaGuardia, “Why put them on Relief? They are doing honest work.”56
LaGuardia's antinoise campaign, too, drew significant public input and expanded the forum on street music. In early 1936, with licenses expired and concerns rising over the ban's ramifications for strained relief rolls, city residents weighed in on the place of street music in the thunderous urban soundscape in a manner that often failed to accord with the Mayor's terms for defining noise. While sympathetic listeners like Elsie Simrock pleaded that organ grinders “never made much noise” and hard line noise abators like Harry Weisburg cheered their demise, there were some who refused to accept a definition of noise based solely on a given activity's volume or perceived economic necessity.57 Indeed, many letters defended street music on different aesthetic grounds, describing organ grinders as pleasant harbingers of spring, entertainers of children, and comforters of the poor, elderly, and infirm.58 One anonymous citizen, who claimed to live on the city's “noisiest corner” as a result of all the motorized traffic, even characterized street musicians as “the one musical note in the whole clang of N.Y. City.” Echoing the tendency of working people to ridicule elite noise abators as effeminate, the complainant told the Mayor “I had hoped you were a man and not a sissy.”59 Yet, despite these citizens' preference for a program of sonic beautification over one of muted efficiency, economic necessity remained the organizing principle of the campaign. Street music may have been “the one musical note” punctuating the throaty roar of the metropolis's race toward recovery, but from the Mayor's perspective it was neither a desirable nor an industrious tune.
As the Mayor's war on noise grew teeth, the inability of street musicians to lay claim to work status made them doubly vulnerable. In April of 1936, when the city stopped issuing warnings and adopted Alderman Murray Stand's anti-noise ordinance, street performers who already risked arrest for begging faced fines and imprisonment for noise violations as well.60 Within a month of the law's passage, the conflation of legal understandings of noise and dependency with respect to street music became evident when police arrested the sibling organ grinding team of Rocco and Bassanio Pico—one for soliciting alms and the other for violating the antinoise ordinance. Fortunately for the two brothers, the presiding Magistrate refused to fine them; while police were apparently diligent in apprehending buskers per LaGuardia's policy, the courts were sometimes less willing to mete out punishment. Nonetheless, the best Magistrate Abeles could do was hand down a suspended sentence, for, as he had explained to the four-piece band he freed the week before, “the law is against you.”61 Conversely, those who complained about street musicians were increasingly certain that both the law and the prevailing definition of work were in their corner. When Percy Magnus, President of the New York Board of Trade, wrote to object about street musicians in the business district, he made industry central to his grievance. Magnus griped that “a saxophone, accordion and a guitar” were disrupting business in “literally hundreds of offices” and situated his plea in the context of economic recovery by allusively reminding the Mayor “These are days when we cannot afford to be disturbed.” Yet the Depression also presented a problem for addressing the situation. As he explained to LaGuardia, Magnus did not relish the narrative likely to arise from policemen swooping down upon destitute musicians with the Board of Trade as complainant. Nonetheless, he asked the Mayor to do something about these individuals “who are obviously violating the Anti Noise Ordinance, who are really soliciting alms, and let the peace and quiet of the office be only broken by the usual City noises.” With his complaint, Magnus joined a long-established trend in bourgeois attitudes toward street music; portraying it as outside the bounds of work, he also characterized it as an impediment to the real work essential to dragging the city out of the economic doldrums. LaGuardia replied to Magnus the next day, writing “You are absolutely justified in complaining” and lamenting that his administration “had been making very fine progress until the magistrates indulged in judicial outbursts to encourage these itinerant musicians.” Yet, LaGuardia agreed that the appearance of the Board of Trade as an official complainant would be ill advised; rather, he suggested Magnus counter the “noise nuisance” of street musicians with a “quiet telephone call” to the police, on whose discretion he implied Magnus might rely.62
LaGuardia had good reason to avoid such potentially volatile incidents. Assessments of what noises were necessary were not only subjective but mediated by class divisions; as federal cutbacks sparked first more relief demonstrations and then the Roosevelt Recession, negative publicity for LaGuardia's street music policy had the potential to antagonize both advocates for the poor and opponents of government relief by prompting the question necessary from whose perspective?63 Indeed, Adelaide Weinstock sought to appeal to LaGuardia's progressive temperament by pleading that street musicians' “hold on life is in any case, financially tenuous.” Convinced street performance was necessary to the survival of marginal individuals, she was also certain in her assessment that “It's not noise.”64 Similarly, citizens angered by the cost of relief had their opinion that street music was necessary revalidated with each reported arrest, as when organ grinder Joseph Costinori strayed too close to the Mayor's residence and was apprehended on LaGuardia's personal order. “Came Mayor LaGuardia and the antinoise ordinance and Joe's music was banned,” The New York Times reported, and went on to relate that the former street musician was now eligible for “$13 weekly relief.”65 Concern over poverty and joblessness remained a pressing issue as the federal government's 1937 Unemployment Census found New York City was home to over 500,000 unemployed citizens while nearly 200,000 depended on emergency relief jobs. Likewise, estimates that city relief funds for 1938 would fall more than $21,000,000 short of demand meant objections over the cost were unlikely to subside anytime soon.66 Clearly, there was ample fuel to keep the fires burning in both camps of citizens opposing LaGuardia's ban.
As the economic crisis dragged on and the Mayor faced increasing criticism of the number of recipients on the rolls, he continually tried to answer his detractors by distinguishing government aid from dependency. On at least one occasion, he invoked the figure of the mendicant musician to bolster his argument. In 1939, the Mayor praised relief supervisors' efforts to deal sympathetically with the New Yorker who “through no fault of his own is without work” and took the opportunity to reassure the public that the government was diligent in separating the truly needy from lazy loafers. LaGuardia conceded that some tried to game the system, but insisted “we are doing everything possible to keep a check on recipients. Those on relief who turn down work offered to them constitute a very small percentage […]. Where suitable employment is offered, the family goes off the rolls.” Recalling the case of a street musician arrested for begging, LaGuardia complained, “Every time one of these cases gets into the papers I get from 20 to 150 letters, mostly abusive.” “I asked for a report on this case and it showed that […] the man had been offered employment above the prevailing rates; that he had refused it, and that the family had been put off relief.”67 The Mayor's criticism of the street musician demonstrated his refusal to sanction begging and defended the integrity of the relief system; however, that same month the State Supreme Court heard the case of four Brooklyn musicians who argued (unsuccessfully) that denying them permits “prevented them from making a living and would force them on relief [emphasis added].”68 A political cartoon from the era dramatized the situation in similar terms, depicting LaGuardia listening from the window of City Hall as an organ grinder plays “The Curse of an Aching Heart.” Spouting the lyric “You made me what I am today, I hope you're satisfied,” the street organ blames the Mayor for transforming self-sufficient men into beggars. Headed with the words “HURDY GURDY GRINDERS IN PLEA FOR AID [emphasis added],” the cartoon hints that street musicians will now rely on government assistance.69 New York's itinerant musicians were figures who threatened to call New Deal policy and the effectiveness of the municipal government into question. As LaGuardia's frustration over the constant letters of protest indicates, the refusal of some citizens to hear street music as he did was an impediment to his goals of efficient relief and a modern, busy-sounding metropolis.
Prompted by concerns over joblessness and government aid, New Yorkers' objections to the street music ban presented efforts to manage government relief and noise abatement with the same challenge of balancing participatory democracy and scientific planning which defined attempts to guide the city's spatial development.70 In many respects, LaGuardia's policies on street music were enactments of the values of a society which, as Michel de Certeau wrote, “cleans out of its streets […] everything that is parasitic on the rationality of work.”71 In a context where what counted as work in the first place was in question, however, the Mayor's idealized urban soundscape and approach to unemployment were hardly embraced by everyone. Oddly, the conflict surrounding street music prompted citizens who condemned social programs in the name of economic individualism to join with advocates for the poor in defending marginal workers from a Mayor renowned for progressivism. City residents had previously thought of street musicians as beggars and noisy nuisances. But, as the Depression lingered and the New Deal introduced unprecedented reforms, some New Yorkers heard street music as an indictment of the failed economic system or a last bastion against municipal debt and the redistribution of wealth. Of course, no polls tracked perceptions of itinerant musicians and a lack of repeated commentary from the same citizens makes it impossible to know whether there were changes in the way specific individuals heard street music. Additionally, the greater tendency of constituents to write elected officials in regard to policies with which they disagree suggests that resistance to the ban may be somewhat overrepresented in LaGuardia's papers and was, in any case, insufficient to reverse his decision. Nonetheless, the volume and consistent content of the letters, together with copious coverage in the press, speaks powerfully to developing trends toward perceiving street music as an embodiment either of struggle in the face of economic collapse or of a waning commitment to self-sufficiency brought on by government intervention. The changing socioeconomic relationships among citizens that accompanied the New Deal also altered understandings of what counted as work. Though Mayor LaGuardia acknowledged that “industry cannot go on without the production of some noise,” questions as to which noises were industrious and necessary made street musicians defining features in competing visions of the urban soundscape, even as they became physically scarce. “Organ grinders are a symbol,” wrote Adelaide Weinstock to the Mayor, “they represent something more eternal than their thin jangle of tunes.”72 Exactly what that “something” was, however, depended on who was listening.