Let’s Talk (and Talk and Talk) about Noise

At last night’s New Orleans Neighborhood Policing Anti-Crime Council meeting in the French Quarter’s Maison Dupuy, approximately 50 people gathered to talk about the noise ordinance and music curfew. Eighth District Quality of Life Officer Roger Jones led the meeting, which included French Quarter home and business owners and street musicians, including members of the TBC Brass Band. Since the noise ordinance is up for review, the police are not enforcing it, but they are letting street musicians know what the relevant ordinances are and that they’re in violation of them.

The news to emerge from the meeting is that District C councilperson Kristin Gisleson Palmer and Mayor Mitch Landrieu are putting together a “working group” to consider changes to the relevant ordinances. That working group isn’t working yet, though. Palmer arrived at the meeting an hour late and conceded that it hadn’t been formed.

The noise ordinances that are the source of the controversy date back to 1956. One prohibits live music on Bourbon Street between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.; another prohibits live music on the streets of New Orleans from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m., though that ordinance also provides for exceptions for musicians who get permits that Jones said the city doesn’t issue anymore. Quarter residents and street musicians come together in their hostility to the volume of recorded music on Bourbon Street, but the ordinance governing it is based on decibels, not hours, and a club violates the ordinance when it is 10 dB above the ambient decibel level. Since clubs contribute to the ambient level, it’s rare that they are out of compliance, but enforcement is further hampered by the fact that the Eighth District only has one decibel-reading meter, and only Jones has the training to use it.

Most of the meeting was dominated by the various constituencies sounding off, and there were a few noteworthy moments and themes to emerge:

– The home and business owners like to sound open-minded, but their language suggests otherwise. One started a sentence, “The noise, the music …” suggesting what she really thought of the music. Another thought the 100 block of Bourbon Street was as good a place as any for live music, but he hated to “condemn” any block.

– Residents don’t seem to have much of an understanding of the musicians or Bourbon Street business. One woman thought this was a wonderful opportunity for a Bourbon Street club owner to hire brass bands—as if someone wanted to pay seven or eight musicians who play music people might or might not like when they can pay one DJ to spin tried-and-true hits. Others suggested that louder bands could play by the river, seemingly unaware that street musicians need to be in high foot traffic areas to make money, and they’re out and playing for their income.

– The street musician community isn’t united. A Royal Street guitar player supported a restrictive ordinance and had problems with the way louder bands drowned him out. Dulcimer Guy was more understanding of brass bands, but he too was concerned about others’ volume. The only thing that brings them together is the sense that they’re being picked on while the worst offenders—the Bourbon Street clubs—go unpunished.

– There’s more going on in StreetMusicianville than is obvious. Dulcimer Guy talked about how street musicians make streets safer because they guarantee walking traffic. The guy who plays water glasses wasn’t having any of the ordinance, but not out of philosophical reasons. Like those who want to play when there are people on the streets, he plays late because he has to. “I have skin cancer,” he said. He also pointed out that the complaints against street musicians are well publicized, but the compliments aren’t. Another resident said street musicians are often the only way families with underage kids experience New Orleans music unless they’re prepared to stand in line for 45 minutes to get into an un-air conditioned Preservation Hall.

– There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s going on at a number of levels. Officer Jones encouraged musicians to be respectful and considerate, and a woman thought that we should all live by “the Golden Rule.” If people did, there wouldn’t be an issue and we wouldn’t need laws. If people just agreed to be reasonable, we wouldn’t have problems. This situation is about what happens when people have differing notions of what is respectful and considerate, and what happens when people are intolerant or inconsiderate. It’s about what happens when people have conflicting interests, and at least one group is going to be unhappy when the working group finishes working. It would be reassuring if the working group and city council came out in support of the music that gives the city its identity in a neighborhood that has been a tourist and late-night center for decades if not longer. It would hardly be surprising if they made the all-American choice, though, and came out in favor of supporting property values.