Massimo Scaramella has run the Vape Caffé on Capel Street for six months, and he decided not long ago that it needed a bit more life.
So he bought a piano for €150 and hauled it in a Centra trolley from a nearby charity shop down to the bottom of street.
At first the piano was tucked inside his café for anybody to tinkle with. But as the weather picked up, he thought it would be a good idea to put it outside at the weekends.
It went well at first, says Sinéad Rossiter, who runs Vape Caffé alongside Scaramella: “People would just jump on it, play and walk off. You didn’t have to buy a coffee to play.”
Later, though, some gardaí, then Dublin City Council officials, told Scaramella and Rossiter that the piano had to go back indoors. No more outdoor impromptu concerts.
All for It
As Rossiter sees it, the weekend piano playing created an atmosphere, and some people would stop by just for that on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
The footpath outside Vape Caffé is wide enough that it wasn’t an obstruction, she says. “It was getting loads of attention, not even for the business,” says Rossiter. “Some people might sit there for an hour. We got some really good talent.”
But it was a source of noise pollution. At least that’s what Rossiter and Scaramella say they were told by two gardaí a few weeks ago. They’d received a noise complaint, says Rossiter.
Then two Dublin City Council officials came by to see the piano. “They were all for it [being outside],” says Rossiter. “They liked the idea.”
The weekend piano playing continued until three weeks ago, when another council official came by singing a different tune, says Rossiter. “He said, ‘You better get that thing inside, you don’t have a licence for it,'” she says.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council Press Office says that there is only one way, at the moment, that the piano could remain outdoors.
“In order to do this, they had to apply for a street performance permit which allows the permit holder to play for two hours at one location,” they said. “A visitor’s permit was offered for a two week period at a cost of ten euro.”
But it’s just a piano and it livened up the street, says Rossiter. Isn’t that something the council should be encouraging?
Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe says it is something that should be encouraged.
“Capel Street is a mixed-use street,” says Cuffe, who represents the area. “There’s a lot of people living on Capel Street and a piano is great if it’s being played well.”
Rossiter and Scaramella say they only lugged the piano out onto the footpath on weekends, and only in the morning and afternoon.
There are plenty of ideas in the council’s public-realm strategy about things such as trees and planting, seating and, says Cuffe, space for performance. But “we don’t have that much money to make these things happen,” he says.
Still, where outdoor pianos are concerned, Dublin could become a more playful city, he says.
A Playful City
How to do that is a discussion that is starting.
A Playful City is a curated series of events exploring the need for inclusive and creative spaces within Dublin.
The purpose of these city-wide interventions and projects is to bring together people from all walks of life, and shape the city to fit its citizens, says Marisa Dencker from Connect the Dots, which works with diverse groups of people to put together events and discussions with them.
One project involves working with a group of inner-city teenagers to design one of the consultations this summer, most likely some kind of play street on Sheriff Street.
This requires a joined-up approach, says Dencker. That involves bringing together people that might not always interact: architects and NGOs, policymakers and designers, businesses, academics, human rights advocates and city planners.
“It’s a diverse perspective,” says Dencker. “By bringing all those brains together you can make something really amazing. Something that’s more fit-to-purpose, I guess, rather than just one person doing a top-down initiative.”
“We’ll be closing down streets and going into parks and actually involving the local community and local businesses … to see what their idea for an intervention might be,” she says. “It’s a way to show people what the city could be like.”
These are the kinds of things the city needs more of, says Rossiter of Vape Caffé. “I mean, this area’s a bit run down,” she says. “But when people saw the piano … It was lovely on a sunny day. Everybody was coming down.”
Rossiter says she is waiting to hear back from Dublin City Council about the future of their piano, whether it will be allowed back on the footpath for the public or not.
Scaramella seems bemused by the whole affair. “I’m from Italy so I’m not familiar with how it works in Ireland,” he says, with a laugh.
The Dublin City Council spokesperson said: “There is no licence to allow members of the public to play piano in the public domain as a street performance permit is issued to an individual.”
If it’s multiple people playing the instrument, then, it doesn’t count. “The licensing section will not be issuing a street performance permit as this activity does not fall under the street performance bye-laws,” they said.
Labour Councillor Rebecca Moynihan, who is chair of the council’s arts committee, says it also comes down to space.
“You have situations then where businesses [could] take over half the street,” she says. “It’s a public pathway.”
It’s not a wide footpath on Capel Street, and it’s not a pedestrianised area, she says. “They’re not small instruments, and it is a small street (…). What happens when somebody else decides to put a grand piano outside?”