Buskers still thriving on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall after 45 years despite pandemic

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Forty-five years after the Pearl Street Mall opened and two years after the start of a global pandemic, Pearl Street is buzzing with activity. Although the events of the past few years have shaken Boulder, the downtown area has nevertheless retained its vibrancy and character.

And even amidst the uncertainty and change wrought by these events, the famed street performers of Pearl Street remain a centerpiece of downtown Boulder life. Many buskers who were here before the pandemic began are still here now, surprising and delighting passers-by with their acts.

For many Boulder residents and visitors, street performers aren’t just a peripheral curiosity — they’re an integral part of the mall experience.

“Pearl Street is like a theater, and the performers are the performers,” said Peter Waszeciak, a Longmont resident and artist who frequently visits Pearl Street with his wife. “You need both.”

Joe Villalobos plays music at Pearl Street Mall with his dog, Wyola. He’s trying to get enough money to go back to Alabama. (Cliff Grassmick/staff photographer)

Pearl Street Artists: A Brief History

Since Boulder’s founding in 1859, Pearl Street had been a main commercial line running through the heart of Boulder. Historian and columnist Silvia Pettem has written that the street remained a bustling center of activity into the 1950s, with clothing stores, supermarkets, banks, cinemas and other businesses occupying the town centre.

But as the city’s population grew and suburban sprawl began to spread, a new commercial area was built away from downtown in 1963, forcing many businesses off Pearl Street. The Pearl Street Mall, a four-block stretch of road that has been repaved and closed to vehicular traffic, opened on August 6, 1977 as part of an effort to revitalize the downtown area.

When the mall first opened, the neighborhood was no stranger to street performers. Pettem noted that trapeze artists and live monkeys performed at Boulder’s first fireworks display on Pearl Street on July 4, 1906. But since the mall opened, street performances downtown have taken a clean life. Chip, CEO of the Downtown Boulder Partnership, said artists help create a vibrant social atmosphere in the area.

“(The street performance) really adds to the culture and identity of what Pearl Street is,” said Chip, who doesn’t have a last name. “Busking musicians have always been a big part of the mall and a big part of downtown culture. (The Mall was) designed to provide a space for people to perform and have an independent, yet supportive, street life, business community and visitors.

Richard Foy, a Manhattan-born Boulder architect who helped design the Pearl Street Mall, said one of his main sources of inspiration was a 1945 French film called “Les Enfants du Paradis”, which contained idyllic scenes of Paris and bustling streets. filled with pedestrians, buskers and all sorts of other characters.

“We go to a place and understand its context, and we design an environment that recognizes it,” Foy said. “We had to do something honest with Boulder.”

Renah Elmi, center, waves her hand at the cards as street artist Kenny Lightfoot, right, instructs the public at Pearl Street Mall on July 30.  (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Renah Elmi, center, waves her hand at the cards as street artist Kenny Lightfoot, right, instructs the public at Pearl Street Mall on July 30. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

The Life of a Pearl Street Artist

Today, thanks in part to the vision of Foy and his team, street performers – magicians, fire jugglers, tightrope walkers, contortionists and everything in between – are a central feature of Pearl Street Mall. Many of them put on impressive shows, performing daring feats and unusual tricks that people in the mall can’t help but watch.

Sven Jorgensen, a self-proclaimed “solo circus” who has performed on Pearl Street for nearly 30 years, said the jaw-dropping factor was intentional and necessary to draw a crowd, but it’s also one of his favorite parts of the street performance. because it engages the audience in a unique way and compels the performer to be present.

“When you see someone do something amazing, it’s a memory that will last a lifetime. That’s the power of street theatre,” said Jorgensen, whose shows frequently included juggling all kinds of objects, balance and tightrope walking.” It’s not a completely scripted circumstance. You don’t know what’s going to happen. So much of our life is so controlled and so predictable that experiencing entertainment that isn’t completely controlled…it makes it gripping.You don’t really know if the performer is going to pull it off.

But Jorgensen said the unscripted factor of the street performance also makes it one of the most challenging types of performance. He said the streets are “raw” environments where artists must compete for public attention.

After the performers have finished their shows, many of them gather at the sides of the field, where they will compare notes on how their show went. And then they go out and do it again the next day. For many of them, it’s a way of life they don’t want to give up.

Some Boulder street performers stay year-round, as Jorgensen once did, while others are seasonal, only staying in town for the summer and traveling elsewhere during the colder months. Many artists only pass through Boulder for a few days and then head to their next destinations.

Many performers have come and gone from Pearl Street over the years, but some longtime performers who have stayed, like Ibashi-I, a contortionist from St. Kitts, have imprinted themselves on the hearts of locals. And they stay because they love what they do.

“You gotta do the things you love that get you ahead in life,” said Ibashi-I, whose first name is Mitford Brown. “I like to inspire others.”

Ibashi-I is a popular street performer from Pearl Street Mall.  (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Ibashi-I, a popular street performer from Pearl Street Mall, says he continues to perform because he likes to inspire people. (Cliff Grassmick/staff photographer)

Recent years in Boulder

When the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020, Pearl Street went silent for a few months. Several long-standing businesses have been forced to shut down since the start of the pandemic.

Richard Polk, owner of Pedestrian Shops on Pearl Street for more than 50 years, said his shoe stores had felt the effects of the pandemic but the business was starting to rebound.

“It was really tough for everyone – for us, for the people who worked for us, for our clients,” Polk said. “Artists struggled because people on the street kind of huddled together in the mall to survive. It was a difficult period. But as soon as the vaccine came, you know, the bravest souls started coming out. And this is now — the last few months business has been very good.

Jorgensen, who stopped performing on Pearl Street in 2017 but still performs at corporate events, said nearly every artist he knew from Pearl Street had to take a break during the lockdown, but they have since returned to the stage.

“I don’t know anyone who has stopped playing because of COVID,” Jorgensen said. “I know other people who don’t perform on the street but have been more focused on corporate events…a lot of them have done their best to do Zoom performances. Some really used this to their advantage as they were able to transition quite quickly. This opened up new possibilities. But I don’t know anyone who, as a solo performer, has decided to retire because of the pandemic.

For Jorgensen, those two months were the longest he had ever gone without performing. He said it was hard to keep his skills sharp, like street performers have to.

“Some of us try our best to perform all year round. So that was a real challenge,” Jorgensen said. “As things started to open up again, for the first time in my career , there was a niggling little question mark of ‘Do I even know how to play anymore?’ It was a very different experience than I had ever had before.

Walking along the mall now, however, one would hardly guess there had been a pandemic or a lockdown. The street is teeming with life and artists are more ubiquitous than ever. The mall officially turned 45 on August 6, but its anniversary celebration took place a few days earlier, on August 3.

Through all the ups and downs that the years have brought, it seems that at 45, Pearl Street is still alive and well.

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