Rebecca Pomerantz ’24 is exploring this very question through her Emerson project, “Underground Musicians.” Pomerantz has spent the past few weeks in New York City, observing and interviewing street performers in an attempt to “figure out their role in city life and understand the dynamic between police officers stationed in the subway and subway musicians,” she said.
This interest springs from the simple fact that these performers “manage to thrive in an environment that was not built for them,” Pomerantz explained. “Subway stations are hot, crowded, and filled with busy people who don’t always know what train they’re taking or where they’re going.” On top of this, there are no bathrooms or other amenities, meaning that performers must leave to meet their basic needs — and pay a fare once more to resume playing.
In many ways, she said, these musicians blend into the background for most city dwellers. When someone engages with them, as she did during her research, it is viewed as unusual. “Even when I sit with my notebook to take field notes, I noticed people staring, because it’s out of the ordinary,” Pomerantz recalled.
Though her project mostly focuses on performers in subway stations, Pomerantz has also taken time to observe and speak with musicians in public parks. She noticed a difference in how they are typically received in comparison to their underground counterparts — in part because many are in groups, rather than individuals. “But also, I think people are in a different headspace when they’re in the subway, compared to when they’re strolling through Central Park with their kids,” Pomerantz added.
For underground musicians, attracting attention can be a double-edged sword. Playing in subway stations increases the risk of negative encounters with police, making venues like public parks more desirable. Sometimes, Pomerantz said, social profiling plays into these encounters: one tap dancer she interviewed said that “there’s a common misconception that subway performers are homeless, which deters a lot of people from doing it.”
But despite the many challenges subway musicians may face, Pomerantz underscored their meaningful role in urban communities. “When you’re kind of stressed out, going about your day, and not expecting it, I think arts are much more valuable,” she said. “Some people will watch a performer until the second their train leaves — and then wave goodbye as they’re riding away.”
After several weeks of interviews, Pomerantz said she “has enough transcripts to write a whole book.” For now, though, she plans to present her research in the fall and potentially write an article spotlighting a few individual stories. After all, any written account of the project would need to reflect the idiosyncrasies of Pomerantz’s many interviewees. “People have such different experiences,” she said. “I got such varied answers to the same questions.”