A teenage sidewalk poet on Park Avenue isn’t going quietly after Winter Park passed an ordinance that bans street performers along downtown sidewalks.
The ordinance passed by Winter Park City Commissioners on Dec. 14 bans street performers from the sidewalks of Park Avenue, New England Avenue, the Winter Park Farmers Market and the SunRail station. Winter Park created the ban after complaints from restaurants about performers blocking sidewalks and driving away customers.
Performers — including painters, musicians, dancers or anyone expressing a creative medium — are instead restricted to designated performance zones, which include Central Park, the lawn outside City Hall, a corner lot adjacent to the Farmers Market and a small park at the corner of Park and Whipple avenues.
Enter 19-year-old Orlando resident Paul Felker.
The recent Winter Park High School graduate has been writing poetry along Park Avenue since Valentine’s Day 2015. Felker finds a nice spot and sets up a table and chair along the sidewalk with a sign that reads “Poems! Pick a topic and get a poem!” Curious locals choose a theme for their poem and Felker immediately goes to work on a Remington typewriter, tapping out words as a flurry of small type hammers hit a blank page with fresh black ink.
Felker said he’ll often spend an entire day sitting at his table, writing anywhere from 20 to 50 short poems for passersby during an afternoon.
But last month the Park Avenue poet was the first performer asked to move into the park off the sidewalk after the passing of the recent street performer ordinance.
Felker has taken issue with the new law, saying it infringes on his right to free speech.
“I think it impedes on the First Amendment, my right to freedom of speech and my right to peacefully assemble,” Felker said. “Performing is a language. Under the Constitution, it’s a form of expression. If Winter Park said you could only speak Spanish in a designated area, everybody would be up in arms. Since [performing] is a more liquid form of expression, communication or language, it’s not treated the same – event though the Constitution treats them equally.”
“You’re saying to a group of people, you cannot speak in these areas. That’s unconstitutional.”
Felker said he plans to start a petition to overturn the ordinance. If that doesn’t work, the young poet plans to keep writing poems along the Park Avenue sidewalks until he gets fined. He’ll then take the city to court, he said.
But Jim White, Winter Park’s code compliance director and fire chief, said that Felker has violated more than simply the city’s street performer ordinance. Felker, who also runs a business writing speeches for weddings and functions, is soliciting and advertising himself and his talent on public property outside of businesses, even though he’s giving away the poems for free, White said.
“He still can’t solicit,” said White, adding that Felker promotes his Paul’s Poems Instagram account while on Park Avenue. “He still can’t do that in the park. He can perform, but he can’t solicit for funds.”
Felker had hardly sat down for 30 seconds on a Tuesday afternoon in Central Park before Oviedo residents Alyce Quandt and Zavia Menning approached him and asked for a poem.
The topic: a summation of art.
“Love the art around yourself while you still walk across this land,” Felker types. “And love the very things art will help you understand….”
Quandt said that street performers like Felker should be allowed if they’re not blocking sidewalks.
“If art on a poster is allowed outside a store, why is a guy sitting at a table not allowed outside a store, especially if he’s not blocking a sidewalk,” Quandt said. “If it’s not blocking anything, then it’s just art, and art is allowed outside.”
Felker said that even though the city has given him a place to write his poetry, sequestering performers and artists to Central Park is still restricting free speech and artistic expression.
“It’s a very nice cage,” Felker said, “but it’s still a cage.”
Felker said he’s now looking to take his poetry talents to a local business, with hopes that a merchant along Park Avenue will use his talent to attract customers.