Glorious Noises and Inglorious Ordinances

I took this picture yesterday in New Orleans—not at night in a music club, but rather shortly past noon on Friday in the city council chamber. There were five sousaphones, six trombones and a good many saxophones, trumpets, drums and guitars, not to mention the guy with the harmonica. To say that these musicians and the roughly three hundred people following them stormed city hall would be incorrect. City officials opened the door and ushered them in. Yet those assembled marched purposefully, to take a stand.

“We’re here to bury the noise ordinance,” said Glen David Andrews, among the city’s most recognizable players, before raising his trombone and leading a dirge-like rendition of the hymn, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” which can be heard at nearly any jazz funeral before the body is “cut loose” and the spirit set free.

The body politic that had set Friday as the date for a Housing and Human Needs Committee meeting wasn’t present, save for one city council member and a few staffers. That meeting—expressly meant to invite public comment about a revision to the city’s noise ordinance that the council proposed right before Christmas, and around which has since grown a steady groundswell of concern and protest—was canceled Thursday evening. (A good primer on the background was provided by Richard A. Webster’s piece on Thursday for The Times-Picayune’s site.)

Andrews’ sentiment notwithstanding, the noise ordinance at issue isn’t dead and buried, just postponed and slated for further revision. The spirit of this next proposal remains an open question. Though the noon committee meeting didn’t happen, a rally scheduled for 11am at Duncan Plaza, just across from City Hall, did. When it was over, the musicians and participants headed over to City Hall, filling the meeting chamber. Soon the musicmaking gave way to individual testimonies. With local elections just weeks away, it was noteworthy that the only council member in chambers to listen, LaToya Cantrell, was also the only one running unopposed. The image of musicians, club owners, culture-loving locals and out-of-towners speaking before a panel of mostly empty chairs seemed a metaphor for a policymaking process that appears out of sync with, and often out of sight of, its constituency. Yet these comments were duly recorded, and they could, along with the sheer presence of hundreds in the chamber, enlighten the next legislative step.

I’d half-expected the council to cancel the meeting. But I didn’t expect a text informing me so just as was boarding a Thursday-night flight. I got on anyway because I’ve been following this particular issue for nearly four years—here’s one piece from back then—and because, for the past eight, I’ve tried to trace a larger context of New Orleans ordinances and enforcement strategies that, in a city whose calling card is live music and spontaneous cultural expression, have inhibited or even repressed that expression for a very long time—according to the timeline included in Freddi Williams Evans’ book, “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans,” roughly 200 years.

I needed to show up and stay on the story. And besides: Who gets off a plane that’s about to head to New Orleans?

Yet I don’t want to editorialize here, or cast anyone as hero or villain. It’s easy to frame a situation that pits city officials and a small but influential pocket of homeowners and businesspeople against scores of musicians, club owners and music lovers as a culture war: And to some extent there is one—maybe always has been one—going in in New Orleans. But like all exercises in policy as it affects people’s lives and livelihoods and most stories in general, the truth is more nuanced and complex than simply good against bad or right versus wrong.

I intend to write at greater length and with more depth and balance about this situation as it continues to play out. In the coming days, I plan to speak with the city council members and supporters of the original ordinance that I’d hoped to quote from the canceled meeting. According the a statement posted on the city council website Thursday evening, a new ordinance proposal will be put forth soon, with a meeting scheduled Jan. 27 for public comment. It’s unclear right now precisely who is working on this revision, when it will be made public and what it will say.

I will say this about the previous proposal. By and large, the musicians didn’t like it. Nor did many club owners. The acoustician hired by the city council to lend the hard science of decibel-level measurement and expertise in “sound management,” David Woolworth, felt it did not accurately reflect his findings and suggestions. Perhaps worse still, those in the city’s cultural community felt largely locked out of the process by which it was conceived. Still, if there is requisite political will, there is time and common ground enough for a meaningfully progressive compromise.

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.

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?

This stuff is coming to a city council near you if it hasn’t already. (A piece by Matthew Kassel in Friday’s New York Observer, in which I’m quoted, gets at some of that as related to New York City.) At Friday’s rally, blue T-shirts bearing the slogan “Listen to Your City” were distributed by members of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO), a group that has lent focus and civility to the organizing around this and related issues, and which is a good clearinghouse for information about it all.

Before I left the city council chamber, attorney Mary Howell—who has worked on these issues for decades, and who wore the bright-green cap emblazoned with “Legal Observer” that, regrettably, has come to be commonplace at certain New Orleans parades and street-culture events—recalled a similar outcry and much smaller rally 17 years ago. That one followed the arrest of a group of musicians, mostly in their teens or younger, including Troy Andrews, better known these days as Trombone Shorty. Back then it was mostly kids out on Duncan Plaza, she said, saying essentially just, “Stop this.” She thought about how much more focused and better informed, let alone larger, the crowd on hand was this time around. “The message here is,” she said, “‘We’re ready for our seat at the table, and we’re demanding it.'” And once we were inside City Hall, she pointed out to me that someone had affixed a sticker to the city council seal on the chamber lectern.

I’ll hold my pen still beyond this for now. And I’ll simply spill out these quotes from the rally, as spoken by Sue Mobley and Hannah Kreiger-Benson, on behalf of MaCCNO. What follows are their words. More of mine to come.

The city council thought they could push an ordinance through under the cover of Christmas and throw out years of community input and their own commissioned study. And they thought that because it’s always been true. New Orleans uses its musicians and culture-bearers, its venues and cultural workers. They use us to drive the economy, to draw new talent, to provide the soundtrack of political rallies and marketing campaigns. But they treat the people who make the culture like second-class citizens, and they’ve gotten away with it forever. They assume we aren’t paying attention, that a one-day rally is all were capable of. And sometimes, that has been true. But it’s not true anymore….

Throughout MaCCNO’s work, we have seen the issues around regulation framed in the press and in our opposition’s statements, as a conflict: Musicians versus residents. That framing works on the assumption that resident equals upstanding citizen, and musician equals rabble-rouser who disturbs the quality of life. And it raises the really fundamental question of who gets to judge what is “good” and “bad” in our shared urban landscape. We live here. We work here. We vote here. We are the residents….

We’re here today celebrating a victory, but pushing back against this noise ordinance is just the beginning. In New Orleans, music and culture need a seat at the table. And the city council is just going to have to find a bigger table.

Photos: Above: Larry Blumenfeld: below: William Archambeault