The Josh Bell Busking Backstory

If you’re not aware of the fascinating experiment conducted in January and published this week by the Washington Post, this story (and especially the videos) are really worth a look and a listen.

To convert this general-interest item into something relevant for this blog, I give you the backstory. From WaPo’s online chat with the author:

I set up an interview with Jack Requa, who was at the time Metro’s acting director. Requa listened to the proposal, agreed it was an appealing use of public space for a potentially revealing urban behavioral experiment, and that it would be a nice thing to do for the citizenry of Washington. Then he said:

“I don’t think we can do it, because it violates our rules.”

I said: “I know. That’s why we’re coming to you. We’d like you to loosen the rules, just this once, for 45 minutes, for a worthwhile reason.”

Requa said: “Well, also, it might look as though we are giving preference to one news organization over all others.”

I said: “Uh, well, The Washington Post would have no objection if you made the same concession to any other news organization that happens to be proposing placing a world-class violinist in one of your stations as a sociological experiment!”

Requa said he would investigate the possibilities. A day later he called to report it was looking problematic, and urged The Post to pursue other possibilities. But he said he wanted to discuss it with his security personnel. Days passed.

Finally, a verdict: No. The regulations were complicated, Requa said, but under one interpretation, busking in the Metro was not only against the rules but against the law, and he did not feel jurisdictionally empowered to authorize a breach of law. If Bell performed, Requa said, he would be arrested. Metro would do nothing to stop it.

Total time elapsed to get a “no” answer: Eight days, four hours.

Things were looking bad. Time was running out. I started traveling the Metro and getting off at every downtown stop, seeking adjoining indoor areas. Eventually, I hit L’Enfant Plaza, which was ideal. The indoor arcade was at the very top of the Metro escalator, and had three exit doors: Two to the outside, and one to a retail mall operated not by government, but by a private management firm called The JBG Companies. JBG managed the arcade area, too.

I laid out the proposal to Amanda B. Kearney, JBG’s senior property manager.

“Sure,” she said.

“No one can know anything about this in advance,” I cautioned. “No one other than you. A single breach in security and the whole experiment is compromised. “

Amanda said: “I won’t even tell my husband.”

Total elapsed time to get a “yes” answer: Six seconds.