You’re walking down Frenchmen Street on a Friday night. The street is silent and empty of vendors. You go to a night club, but don’t hear the music until you open the door and see three musicians playing quietly. As you leave, you knot your tie and decide that one drink, tonight, is enough.
Does this sound terribly wrong to anyone else?
It is, technically, what the Frenchmen experience should be like, according to the letter of the Frenchmen Street Arts and Cultural Overlay zoning law. Closed doors and windows. No street musicians after 8 p.m. A noise threshold of 75 decibels, the equivalent of a loud vacuum cleaner. That’s not happening these days, because—well, maybe Christopher Starnes, one of the muses at Three Muses, puts it best.
“The great thing about this city is people taking advantage of rules that aren’t being enforced,” he says, smiling.
In fact, much of what happens on Frenchmen is contrary to the overlay. Many of the venues are licensed as restaurants; so much of their income is to come from food sales. Their owners know what they’re doing is against the overlay, but they aren’t too worried about it.
“Sure, it’s always in the backs of our minds,” says Brian Grenier, the owner of Maison. “But that law is ridiculous; it needs to be fixed. When we came on the street we abided by it, and then we noticed nobody abides by it. Why is that law good?”
It could be time to get worried. In the last month, Mojito’s had its live music shut down for a night and ordered inside. Vaso was ordered to shut its doors, and employees say business has suffered as a result.
This isn’t simply a case of music-haters targeting a couple of clubs, though. There’s a web of grievances here. Some residents have a problem with clubs’ noise. Club owners have a problem with the street musicians drowning out their own music. Street musicians don’t want to get hassled by the NOPD, and as for the cop ordered to enforce the code—“He told me he’s asking to be reassigned,” says a laughing Bruce Coury, the owner of Mojito’s.
The venue owners are in favor of more enforcement. They say the real problem isn’t their bands, but the noise out on the street, which sometimes drowns out their own music.
“When you have a 10-piece brass band wailing on the corner, and the gutterpunk guys, where’s the balance?” said one club owner who prefers to go unnamed. “Because it affects my bottom line, it affects the musicians’ bottom line.”
Dan Esses of Three Muses agrees that the loud street music is hurting business. “The loudest thing we have is clarinet,” he says. “Or Glen David Andrews himself.”
Many of the club owners have addressed their complaints to Councilmember Kristin Gisleson-Palmer, who is struggling to find a compromise that will make all parties happy.
“Our office has received complaints and requests for her to advocate for enforcement from businesses and residents since she came into office,” says Nicole Webre, Palmer’s legislative director. “All complain about the lack of enforcement by the NOPD, Safety and Permits, and the Revenue Department.”
So if the wealth of complaints are directed at problems out on the street, why are the venues targeted?
“Stuart Smith is the crusader,” says Jesse Paige of Blue Nile. He’s referring to a lawyer whose firm is involved in a suit against the Balcony Music Club, and many venue owners join Paige in placing the blame on his shoulders. “He protects the interests of a very few, very wealthy people,” Paige says. “He will drop sick money to make sure his interests are protected.”
Smith claims he is only trying to protect his home. He says he’s seen the way the entertainment industry has changed the Quarter over the years and doesn’t want the same thing to happen to Frenchmen. “If you walked down Royal Street when I was a kid, people lived on Royal Street. If you walk down there now, it’s a ghost town. People have been driven out.” He says fewer residents have led to more crime and the neglect of historical properties, and he doesn’t want to see that near Esplanade. As for accusations that he’s trying to shut down music—“I love music. I’m at Jazz Fest every day. I understand the importance of musical culture in the city. I also think people being able to live peaceably in their homes is important.” He’s not a crusader, he says. “I’m just doing my job.”
So far, the music still plays in venues and on the street, but musicians, patrons and club owners agree that before this overlay’s zoning law can be enforced, it needs to be changed.
As Grenier puts it, “The noise has always been there.” As of right now, at least, it still is.