Much Noise About Sound: New Orleans Reforms (Maybe) Its Ordinances

A January protest over sound ordinances inside New Orleans city council chambers.

I’ve seen New Orleans jazz culture through fresh eyes this past week, those of my five-year-old son Sam: Sunday afternoon, perched atop my shoulders, looking down as the TBC Brass Band sounded off while members of the Pigeon Town Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Club, one by one, came out the door of Silkey’s Lounge to begin their annual second-line parade; and Monday evening, sitting cross-legged on a front-row cushion at Preservation Hall, looking up as trumpeter Leroy Jones led a sextet through “St. James Infirmary.”

I’m also seeing it through eyes that have grown jaundiced—my own—by the tensions surrounding a culture that defines and uplifts New Orleans and yet seems always embattled. Such was my feeling as I sat on Monday morning at City Hall for a meeting of the city council’s Housing and Human Needs Committee and listened to public discussion of a proposed revision to the city’s sound ordinance. This particular matter, which has great relevance to the daily lives of brass-band musicians and other culture bearers as well as to property owners and club owners, has been the source of much controversy for nearly five years.
Sam and his mom are headed back to New York City. I’m staying put for another couple weeks. Before I head to the Fair Grounds this weekend for the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, I’ll be back at city council chambers tomorrow for what may or may not be a decisive moment regarding the city’s sound ordinance and its approach to cultural policy.
There’s a rich and urgent story concerning a constellation of ordinances that have long inhibited New Orleans jazz culture and a new groundswell of activism surrounding them, in a city still redefining its identity.
The current skirmish was sparked in part by an incident in 2010, when the TBC band was served notice by police shortly after setting up shop, just as they’ve been doing most Tuesdays through Sundays since 2002, on the corner of Bourbon Street and Canal, in front of the Foot Locker store. The band had run afoul of Section 66-205, which says, “It shall be unlawful for any person to play musical instruments on public rights-of-way between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m.”
Yet most of the lobbying and legislating in recent months have centered around setting acceptable decibel-level limits to sound—a laudable goal that has given rise to some fascinating science (chiefly from David Woolworth, whose Oxford, Miss.-based firm was hired to consult) and some serious local infighting.
Richard Rainey summarized the details of the current moment well in his piece at The Times-Picayune website

After a broader, citywide overhaul of the noise ordinance put forward by Councilwoman Stacy Head in January collapsed, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration organized five weeks of talks on this latest rewrite, which targets the bars and clubs of Bourbon Street rather than the city at large. The council’s Health and Human Needs Committee picked it up Monday after its public introduction April 10.
Focused on Bourbon Street and immediately adjacent blocks, the new proposal would set lower limits for decibel levels outside bars and clubs; eliminate the longstanding curfew for musicians performing on public streets and decriminalize noise violations, among other changes. It also would roll enforcement of the new regulations into the responsibilities of the Health Department, which has a budget to hire four noise ordinance officers this year.

For more background on that moment in January Rainey mentions, see my earlier post.
There was an odd but telling moment during Monday’s city council committee public comment by Arline L. Bronzaft, who as advised four different New York City administrations on noise issues and was present at the request of two groups, Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates and French Quarter Citizens, which have been especially active around the issues at hand, and who see the reforms proposed by city council as too permissive.
On Monday, Bronzaft seized upon the move away from the word “noise” and toward “sound” in describing the issue and even naming the new ordinance:

“Mr. Woolworth deemed ‘sound’ to be a more respectable word than ‘noise’ because sounds can be both pleasant and unpleasant whereas noise is definitely deemed to be unpleasant to the listener. Mr. Woolworth even calls noise complaints ‘sound complaints’ in his second report. Apparently, ‘sound’ is a more acceptable word.”

In his piece, Rainey split the difference, using the term “loud-noise laws.” This may seem like semantics, but I believe it gets at something deeper.
So does David Freedman, general manager of WWOZ-FM, which is by any estimation the flagship station for New Orleans culture. In hi public comment, Freedman took issue with this linguistic analysis.

To treat New Orleans music performance as just another unwanted, uncontrollable and unpredictable noise—is to totally not get the centrality of this special joyful noise to the identity of our culture and economy.

And he questioned the appropriateness of its source:

Now, after five years of discussion among those of us most passionate about this issue, and five weeks of intense activity among those of us most affected by excessive sound, comes in our midst people from out of town who presume to tell us what is good for us in New Orleans.

I agree with Freedman’s attitude: That the identity and economy of New Orleans are, as he put it, “dependent on the tourist experience driven by their expectations of engaging in our local music culture in the clubs and on the streets” in ways that defy any meaningful correlation to New York City.
As I wrote in my January post:

For those who live in New Orleans, those who travel there regularly in real life or just in their minds and hearts and those who treasure its culture from afar, this story demands attention. At a moment when an as-yet-undefined “new” New Orleans rubs up against whatever is left of the old one, the present issue speaks volumes regarding what is exceptional about New Orleans, and how the city might best support and nurture (as opposed to simply promote) that.

And yet I followed with this:

I think this story also highlights one way in which New Orleans is not particularly exceptional. In New York, and in nearly every city with a distinctive cultural history (which is to say most cities), the process of cultural policy inevitably confronts a question: What happens when those who spark redevelopment in a city build upon the cachet of culture but don’t want that culture next door?

So Freedman is correct in stating that New Orleans need consider sound—especially that of culture as it plays out in the streets—in a special context. Also, citizens’ groups have a valid point about noise pollution on Bourbon Street, a street that by now has little real connection with anything called New Orleans culture. Yet the larger implications of these policy debates as it affects that culture beyond Bourbon Street is of national concern because the culture is of great national value. And the manner in which these decisions are made warrants close watch.
Ask a trombonist, a drummer or anyone in the committed community that keeps culture at the core of everyday New Orleans life—musicians, club owners, second-line paraders, Mardi Gras Indians, and the hundreds mobilized through the nonprofit Music and Culture Coalition in New Orleans—and they’ll tell you the “calls for change” regard two things: Policies that nurture and protect a still-vital indigenous culture (not the stuff blared on Bourbon Street); and seats for culture-bearers at the policymaking table. The former highlights what has always been exceptional about New Orleans. The latter is what any American city, including New York, needs if it values culture on a par with commerce.
Decibel levels aside—and that’s not to diminish at all the crucial nature of those specifications—there are two significant, even landmark, changes that are right now on the table for city council approval on Thursday, and these merit highlighting:
• The striking of Sec. 66-205, which has been on the books since 1956, and which states: “Persons playing musical instruments on public rights-of-way.
It shall be unlawful for any person to play musical instruments on public rights-of-way between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m.” (“We decided there were constitutional concerns with that provision,” Assistant City Attorney Theresa Becher said during Monday’s committee meeting. “It does not discuss sound, it discusses a type of person making a sound.”)
• The decriminalization of violations, which will mean the end of musicians being arrested for making music or the threat of such.
Stay tuned.

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