Henry Young busking on the platform at 14th Street Union Square subway station

Getting to Know the NYC Busking Community

Crafting Healthy Engagement with Design Thinking

For the past four months, I have been working on my Masters in Social Journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. In this program, my classmates and I each chose a different community to work with for the duration of the year. I decided to focus on street and subway performers in New York City, also known as “buskers”.

As a Social Journalist, my priority is to help communities meet their needs, achieve their goals, and find solutions to the struggles they face. In order to do this effectively, I approached the NYC busking community with a method that encourages solution-based thinking: Design Thinking!

1. Empathize
2. Define
3. Ideate
4. Prototype
5. Test

Applying Design Thinking to the NYC Busking Community

Diving into the NYC busking community was not particularly easy. For one, I have never busked in my life. I can barely play the ukulele so I did not have the skills (or courage) to even think about trying it. “How can I relate to this community if I am not a part of it?” I kept asking myself. As an outsider looking in, I knew that I needed to engage buskers in a productive and healthy way. Here’s how I did it:

Empathize!

Although I was not a busker myself, I knew that I could still empathize with the community. So, I started approaching people I saw performing in stations and on trains; mostly singers, dancers, and musicians. The remarkable thing I noticed about this community is how diverse it is. There are people from all walks of life! New York City is amazing because the buskers here vary in age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and beliefs.

Throughout the empathizing process, I have learned so much about the busking community in New York. I have also uncovered and dissected some preconceived notions that I had about busking.

Empathy is arguably the most important phase in Design Thinking. Being friendly and open-minded while really listening to subway performers went a long way. They felt comfortable enough to share some of their personal busking stories with me and it was through their experiences that I was able to define some needs of the NYC busking community. Taking the time to truly empathize with communities will always lead you to the second phase of Design Thinking…

Define!

I tried using an online tool called Hearken to gather questions from the NYC busking community online, but I ended up collecting their questions in person. By talking with them, I learned that performers face a number of obstacles while busking underground like…

  • Interferences with police officers
  • Finding appropriate locations and spaces to perform
  • Competing with other buskers
  • Negative audience interactions
  • Inspiring audiences to tip
  • Lacking the knowledge of busking rules and laws
  • Becoming affiliated with MTA’s Music Under New York (MUNY) program

Ideate!

With those community needs in mind, I moved onto the third phase of Design Thinking: “Ideate”, a.k.a. brainstorm possible solutions to the community’s needs.

I decided to focus on the issue of finding appropriate locations and spaces to perform. Depending on a performer’s level of experience with busking, it can be a challenge for them to find the perfect spot; they have to be flexible because the spots are first come, first served. There are a number of questions they ask when determining the best location: Is it legal? Is there enough space? Are there good acoustics on the platform? Do many people pass by?

Prototype!

I set off to design an online tool that answered those questions by providing specific information about ideal busking locations in New York City. I was lucky enough to connect with Candy Chan, an architect who created Project Subway NYC. For her project, Candy mapped out ten popular subway stations in New York and created a three-dimensional illustration for each one. She allowed me to use one of her illustrations as the foundation for my prototype. Thanks to Candy, I was able to create an interactive map of the 14th Street Union Square subway station. Check it out:

At the moment, my prototype is mainly highlighting buskers who perform at the station. Its current form has the potential to benefit NYC buskers in a few ways:

  1. It informs the community of possible busking locations by viewing photos and videos.
  2. It provides subway performers with free publicity and advertising of themselves.
  3. It gives buskers access to important information regarding the MTA’s busking rules.

Some future ideas:

  • Incorporate 360 degree views of busking locations.
  • Include peak and down times (When is the station most crowded? Most empty?)
  • Share interviews with other buskers about the pros and cons of specific locations.
  • Provide more links to outside information and articles that could benefit the community (busking advice, news, blogs, etc.)

Test!

The final phase of Design Thinking is extremely important to the entire process because it’s when the prototype goes into the hands of people it was meant for! As I gather feedback from members of the busking community, I will be able to tweak my prototype to be more and more effective at meeting their needs. This testing phase will require me to really listen to what the community has to say and putting myself in their shoes. I’m excited to continue updating my design and making it the best that it can be.

What do you think of my prototype? Let me know!