Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Blue Box Initiative - Michael Sloan.

On February 1, I picked up Micihael Sloan from his home and brought him to the Blue Box on Lake Dot on Colonial Drive one block West of the I-4 overpass. It was tricky finding his place so we ended up running about a half hour late. As a quick recap in case you are a new reader, Orlando passed an ordinance back in the 1990s making it illegal to panhandle in Downtown Orlando. 27 blue boxes were painted on the sidewalks as free speech zones. From sunrise to sunset it is legal to panhandle in these blue boxes.

On our drive too to  the  blue  box site,  Micihael explained that he used to perform downtown about 15 years ago and he was told that he must move to a blue. In Orlando performers seem  too be considered panhandlers with talent. I've been told to move along by police while sketching downtown but I was never instructed to go to a box. Anyway, I decided to ask performers to come out to each of the 27 boxes so that I can sketch performers at each of the sites. The plan is to do one sketch a week, usually on Mondays. The Blue Box Initiative group page was set up to organize and schedule performances.

As we were setting up, a man in a red shirt who introduced himself as Juju joked around with Micihael. He sat down in the shade and shouted to us, "Hey, come over here in the shade, I want to hear the music." Micihael shouted back, "We can't, I have to stay in the blue box."  It was brutally hot. I realized that I need to bring sunscreen to these blue box sketch outings. The several days of col weather are already a though of the past. Micihael kept his guitar case open, but no one ever dropped any bills inside. It was hard to hear the music over the constant rush of car traffic. I could pick out that he was making up lyrics on the fly about being put in blue boxes. He was singing the blue box blues. Besides singing, Micihael did some Tai Chi which made it look like he was channeling the automotive dissonance. He also had just enough room in the box to do several cart wheels. Cars honked their approval, a loud automotive standing ovation.

There was some foot traffic. Perhaps 20 people wandered by during the performance. A young woman in a black dress walked by with a luggage cart. She reminded me of drug sales reps I have seen in doctors offices. She was actually Jenna Smith, a UCF journalism student who wanted to report on the Blue Box Initiative. She unpacked a tripod and sizable TV news camera. She was the reporter and camera woman all rolled into one. The black dress was a mistake because the sun was unrelenting. She never filmed herself asking the questions, perhaps she did that later.

Juju became infatuated with what I was doing. He stood behind me the whole time doing a play by play announcement of every item I put on the page. I'm usually oblivious to on lookers, but he was hard to ignore. A bicyclist with dreads and a wicker basket stopped for the longest time to listen. He spoke with Jenna about the social divides created by capitalism. Around 1pm a car stopped in front of the box, and a woman asked if we wanted sandwiches. My hands were busy with the sketch so I didn't accept. Juju however accepted for us all. He gave Micihael some fruit and he offer me a cookie. I tried to refuse but he insisted, so I accepted his offering and put it in my bag. It was from the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and I ate it on the drive home. It was delicious.

Jenna stayed with us right until the sketch was complete. She then interviewed us with beautiful Lake Dot as the back drop. She plans to interview City Commissioners, so she is doing some in depth reporting on the issue. I bumped into City Commissioner Patty Sheehan that night and she was amazed by Winter Parks ordinance that bans artists. She asked me, "Orlando doesn't do that do they?" It seemed odd that she was asking me. I mentioned the blue boxes which is an ordinance she helped spearhead.  I don't think she realized the the blue boxes hurt the Orlando arts scene. "Well, if you need anything from me, let me know." she said as she left.

Cole Nesmith organized a huge one night event called "The Creative City Project." He got performing arts groups to come together downtown for a solid evening of performances outside on Orange Avenue downtown. I was told that in the beginning, Cole was instructed that the performances would have to be in the Blue Boxes which make for rather small stages. Cole worked closely with politicians to create an amazing event that took over Orange Avenue for five blocks.  But that was for one night only. If Orlando truly embraced creativity downtown then every evening the city streets could come alive. For now outdoor creativity is shoved aside into isolated blue boxes.

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