Cover “The Mascot,” November 15, 1890. Cartoon by F. Bildestein
My son Sam turned six today. We’ll make a big deal out of it in our family, reflecting on remarkable growth that began in trauma (four weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit) and dreaming about his future.
Next Friday will mark nine years since the floods in New Orleans caused by the levee breaches that followed Hurricane Katrina. I suspect some locals will celebrate or conduct solemn ceremonies, while others entirely ignore the date. I doubt much national media will pay attention. I know there will be a big wave of coverage (mine included) next year, when that particular trauma turns ten: We tend to reflect most around round numbers.
I’ve been ambivalent toward these anniversaries based on my experience. I recall during the first anniversary of the flood, one Lower Ninth Ward family stood by and watched as an anchorwoman held her microphone in front of their devastated home: “The producer said he doesn’t want us in the picture,” the father told me, holding his baby in his arms. Point being: Pay close attention to—don’t ignore—the lives represented by each house destroyed and rebuilt or not, every neighborhood that comes back or doesn’t. (For what it’s worth, here are my accounts of August 29 in New Orleans, from 2007 and 2010.)
The conversations—often battles—of nine years ago concerning what would get rebuilt and wouldn’t and who would return and wouldn’t has in large part now given way to debates—and, again, battles—over the shape and character of a “new” New Orleans.
Those of us who remember the green dots on maps issued in January 2006 by then-mayor C. Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission—targeting certain hard-hit areas of New Orleans as future park space—know that the future of New Orleans, and the city’s character, has a lot to do with how its spaces are zoned and used. Amid the panic and fury of alarmed residents whose neighborhoods had been overlaid with those green dots, and who expected to return and to rebuild, that 2006 map quickly met its demise. Yet many of its ominous implications have played out anyway through obstacles to rebuilding and land-grabs.
On August 26, three days before the anniversary of the 2005 disaster, the New Orleans City Planning Commission will begin a series of public hearings regarding a Draft Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance.
According to the Planning Commission’s website:
New Orleans’ zoning ordinance no longer meets the needs of the city today and is an obstacle to creating the city of the future. The 1970s zoning ordinance—unsuitable for a 21st-century city—has been amended so many times and overlaid with so many changes that it is extremely difficult to understand and riddled with inconsistencies.
The sky was blue, the sun bright and the temperature comfortably cool on a late-April Friday for the start of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
The prior day, the atmosphere within New Orleans city council chamber was overheated, the mood dark for the business at hand: a proposed revision to the city’s sound ordinance, the product of some five years of discussion and research, several recent months of impassioned activism and a last-minute flurry of behind-the scenes emails. If such a policy debate seemed far removed from jazzfest’s visceral pleasures, it likely had greater bearing on the practice of New Orleans jazz and cultural heritage.
At the Fair Grounds, the racetrack that becomes an outdoor music venue each Spring, the pleasant forecast held through jazzfest’s seven days of programming—good news for the performers and audiences at the event’s dozen stages and its many vendors of food and crafts.
Back at City Hall, the outlook for policy reforms remained cloudy at best once the city council deadlocked, 3-3, thus balking at a proposed ordinance revision.
The revisions would have dictated new methods of measurement and acceptable decibel levels for sound along a particularly loud section of the French Quarter’s Bourbon Street (based on an exhaustive study by acoustician David Woolworth, whose Oxford, Miss.-based firm was hired by the city council).
Perhaps more to the point for musicians and their supporters, the revised ordinance would have accomplished two citywide goals: decriminalizing violations to the sound ordinance (subjecting musicians and others to fines but not to potential arrest); and rescinding Section 66-205, which states: “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.”
Never mind that many tourists come to New Orleans with the specific expectation of happening upon musical instruments being played on street after 8pm. And never mind that City Attorney Sharonda Williams argued on that Thursday before the city council that the curfew—first enacted in 1956—was unconstitutional. Williams explained that the present law was inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent establishing music as protected speech in the first place, and that any restrictions on such need be “content neutral and narrowly tailored.” She said, “The concern here is that this is about musical instruments. It’s not even about music in general. It is not about recording music. It is not about sound. It’s about a particular class of people.”
In her final meeting as council member before stepping down, following the recent election, Jackie Clarkson sought to get around that thorny issue by proposing an extension of the curfew restrictions, to read: “It shall be unlawful to operate or play any radio, television, phonograph, musical instrument, loudspeaker or sound emanating device….” Clarkson, who is white, seemed genuinely surprised when another council member, James Gray, who is black, commented that “there are many black men on the corner who won’t understand that city council passed a rule that tells a police officer that if anyone is on the corner with any sound emitting device they will be cited.”
This year wasn’t the first time the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival formed ironic contrast to the truth beyond the Fair Grounds, and pointed to New Orleans jazz and heritage in terms of protected forms of speech. In 2007, three days before members of the Nine Times Social Aid & Pleasure Club danced their way through Fair Grounds—in the festival’s mock second-line parade with a brass bands—its members were represented in federal court, fighting to protect that century-old tradition as it played out in real streets. A consortium of Social Aid & Pleasure clubs filed a lawsuit against the city, and defeated jacked-up permit fees for weekly second-line parades on First Amendment grounds. (The Nine Times club members were out in force during jazzfest’s first weekend.)
At the city council meeting the day before jazzfest’s start, attorney Ashlye Keaton gave some longview context to all of this, citing early 19th-century mayoral designation of Congo Square as a place for African drumming, and more recent history: the moment in June 2010 when quality-of-life officer Ronald Jones Jr. served notice on the TBC Brass Band (which stands for To Be Continued, as in a cultural tradition). The band had set up shop, just as they’d been doing most Tuesdays through Sundays since 2002, on the corner of Bourbon Street and Canal, in front of the Foot Locker store. At issue were two ordinances, including the above-mentioned Section 66-205. As NOPD spokesman Bob Young described it to me in 2010, “This is not enforcement per se. No one was cited. They were presented with a letter advising the musicians that they were in violation of the law.” Still, serving notice of these ordinances and requiring signed acknowledgment seemed tantamount to enforcement. At least the message was clear enough: Your next note is illegal.
At this year’s event, the TBC Brass Band played one of jazzfest’s sought-after stages, not coincidentally named for Congo Square. After the band’s well-received set, TBC trombonist Joe Maize, explained that the band no longer played on that Bourbon Street corner. “We were going to graduate from playing on that spot anyway,” he told me. “But we always think about the younger generation. If they can’t play on the street the way we did, they’re not going to have the chance to learn, like we did, how to reach an audience and how to control an audience. If we wouldn’t have played on that spot for a decade, we wouldn’t have been able to play here today.”
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who opened his second term with an impassioned inaugural speech on May 6 at a recently renovated Saenger Theater, was at the jazzfest press tent four days earlier, for an announcement that Shell will continue as the event’s presenting sponsor through 2019, when the festival celebrates its 50th anniversary. When I asked him about the city council’s failure to revise the sound ordinance, Landrieu said he was encouraged about the discussions to date, and that he hoped a reconstituted council (as of May) would find proper legislation. As for the curfew? “It has to go,” he said, “because it focuses on a narrow set of people, and not on a level of noise.”
More recently, Scott Hutcheson, Advisor to the Mayor for Cultural Economy, sent me the following comment via email regarding the curfew: “Upon advice of the City Attorney, the enforcement for the sound ordinance will concentrate on the issues of sound levels at certain times which are clearly outlined in Table 1 of the ordinance and which addresses these levels as they concern public rights of way. We will work on addressing the curfew specifically with the new Council and continue to stand by the City Attorney’s advice on the constitutionality issues raised by the curfew itself.”
It is easy to dismiss the legitimate concerns of residents and business owners regarding noise and nuisance, and fundamental right to privacy and peace. One also runs the risk of caricature when demonizing those, such as members of two groups, Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates and French Quarter Citizens, which have been especially active around these issues, as opponents of culture. And yet that’s how the battle lines have generally been drawn—well-heeled residents groups with easy access to power against musicians and supporters who feel embattled and too often shut out of the process. It is unreasonable to expect residents to accept any level of sound at any time in the name of culture. It is equally unreasonable to, for instance, expect a brass band member to know that a police officer has been instructed to ignore an ordinance outlawing his street performance, or to feel sanguine in that knowledge if he did. And, more to the point, it is hard to understand how a city that markets itself as “music city” would leave an unconstitutional ordinance on the books that specifically targets musicians, leaving revived enforcement as an option should political winds or neighborhood profiles change. As a matter of principle, the curfew is indefensible. As a practical matter, it’s just bad policy. As a symbol, it’s even worse. By removing it, and by creating clear and enforceable limits to sound based on time, place and scientific measurement, the city council can pursue legitimate policy rather than fuel ongoing conflict.
Mayor Landrieu appears to understand that. At jazzfest, he told me, “There is a way to organize culture without killing it.” However one feels about attempts to organize culture in principle, that’s the job of coherent policymaking.
The process itself is revealing. There was an odd but telling moment during the city council committee public comment by Arline Bronzaft, who as advised four different New York City administrations on noise issues and was present at the request of 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.” David Freedman, general manager of listener-supported WWOZ-FM (by any estimation the flagship station for New Orleans culture) offered a rebuttal of sorts with his public comment: “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.”
Freedman questioned the appropriateness of Bronzaft’s opinion: “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 one aspect of Freedman’s attitude—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. 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.
Ask a trombonist like Joe Maize or another musician, or anyone in the committed community that keeps culture at the core of everyday New Orleans life—second-line paraders, Mardi Gras Indians, club owners, lawyers and the hundreds mobilized through the nonprofit Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO)—and they’ll tell you that current calls for change regard two things more so than any specific decibel levels: Policies that nurture and protect a still-vital indigenous 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.
In that way, 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?
Bronzaft’s testimony notwithstanding, it isn’t hard to connect what’s going on in New Orleans with, say, New York City, in many respects. I was struck by what Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, had to say at a recent panel discussion titled “Jazz and New York: A Fragile Economy,” hosted by the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. When asked by critic Gary Giddins about the vitality of Manhattan’s so-called “jazz loft scene” during the 1970s and ’80s, Campbell said, “It’s a real paradox. The poverty of the city during that time, in an ironic way, worked to the advantage of artists. Now, as neighborhoods have grown more attractive, the very artists who pioneered have to find somewhere else to live and work. We need to completely rethink what kind of investment we want to make in culture before it’s too late.”
Not long before I left New Orleans, I sat on the front porch of clarinetist Evan Christopher, who arrived in New Orleans 20 years ago in search of what he calls “a specific clarinet language.” Christopher now part of the city’s distinctive cultural landscape, though in contexts far removed from the streets (in between jazzfest weekends, among the best live-music offerings was a performance by Christopher’s Django à la Créole, at a venue he developed for himself, within a MidCity’s wine bar). Still, his perspective speaks well to this moment.
“For me, the battle is not about our right to do something,” he told me. “The battle is to keep neighborhoods vibrant. The battle is about framing our culture in a way where it’s connected to a sense of how people live here. And how visitors engage the notion of living here.”
The next day, having reveled in both jazzfest’s offerings and the wealth of great gigs in between the Fair Grounds events, I stood on North Robertson Street, just off St. Philip, in Tremé, for another now-annual celebration, Tuba Fats Tuesday. It’s named for Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, who died in 2004 and who was a mentor to many of the musicians who now define New Orleans brass-band tradition. In the lot next to the Candlelight Lounge, where the Treme Brass Band still holds court weekly, near the spot where a musical procession for another deceased tuba player was notably shut down by police in 2007, stirring up much controversy, the TBC Brass Band played, and then gave way to a yet younger band. Two boys, no more than 8 or 9, danced with two men who looked to be in their seventies or eighties. Tremé, long a hothouse for New Orleans indigenous culture, is fast changing, gentrifying during the past several years more rapidly then any such transformation I’ve seen in New York. I couldn’t tell if what was going on that Tuesday was a last glimmer of something soon gone or a fresh spark.
The answer lies as much in the actions and attitudes, the ordinances and intentions of city council as much as in the notes issued from trumpets and trombones, and the beats to which the faithful dance. Images: flag, Douglas Mason; Trombone Shorty, Zack Smith, both courtesy of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival