In a small park downtown we gathered every Sunday this summer to play music together. All in all, that’s all it was. Granted, the likes of us weren’t going to get booked for a real venue, so there’s that, but there was also a stage. An unused, lonely stage. In the sun, downtown, adjacent to shade, separated from a monument by bushes, there were two picnic tables, and conveniently, electricity.
We’d start around six and play till we were too tired or too drunk, sometimes going past midnight and other times packing up by 9. Though I was concerned and highly mindful of police at first, and even with my assurances some of the players were too, we had not one confrontation with police, though they passed frequently. With open containers and mind opening drugs, our rag tag group, as many as 20 at times, played with amplifiers and a drum kit, singing at the top of our lungs in the center of downtown Rochester with no permit. We were proud.
It was called it Soapbox Sunday, though it went through many names and phases of people. It was Church at first, or Had-To-Be-There Theater up until July. Early on it was more of a sing along sort of jam with hippie vibes and early hesitations and set backs. We had an unequal distribution of amps and guitars to Soapboxers as it was, and our Sunday gathering gained the attention of folks who would have been drinking in the park, music or not. To call them homeless is an overstatement, but they didn’t have a guitar. They’d borrow one and play better than us; I believe there was some jealousy in that.
It wasn’t terribly long that we ran into issues. Due to some malarkey of a lost kapo, a member no longer brought his equipment so I began to bring mine. I carried it about a mile with my drum set on a skateboard and a guitar on my back. The event was too inspiring and too young to let go. Everyday it seemed that one person was over taken by the power of music. You’d see it after we broke down. They would be still be singing out loud long after we’d closed up, or they’d talk about every song they’d go learn for next week. These were the successes of Soapbox, and shockingly, that’s about it.
We actually didn’t see much, in the scheme of a grand outdoor weekly music session. The moderate flow of traffic that crisscrossed downtown consistently was not off put nor turned on by our presence and “performance.” They passed as if we weren’t even there. Even the skateboarders grinding the ledge behind us were uninterested in our gathering. Granted again, we were terrible more times than we were any good, our jams really coming together after the sun went down and our calamity prior. However, the engagement by the public was staggeringly low and surprising, even in our best times, passerbies didn’t seem to care.
I even played completely alone, once or twice in off weeks vying to keep the spirit alive. I would play drums with an amp and guitar sitting next to me, invitingly. Still the same response, or lack there of.
It’s a foreign thought to me that I think as I write this article, the stage sits empty and there are more in the same. Highland Bowl, Manhattan Square, Cornerstone Park, Orange Park, all these musical infrastructures go under like our abandoned buildings. Rochesterians seem to look at them as if they were broken, corroded and out of date, yet an amphitheater is timeless. What more is needed than raised or lowered seating and electricity? Additionally, where are the art openings and street theater across them and others like them, the likes of which other cities see now as an expectation?
What we learned from Soapbox was to use the Washington Square Stage like one would use a playground. It was made for the people to enjoy, a governmental investment for happy people in a happy city. We recommend everyone do the same come next spring.