Speakers at last week's Tom Dent Congo Square Symposium suggested that that might be the wrong question.
"Our job tonight it to turn down the heat," announced Scott Aiges, Director of Programs, Marketing & Communications for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. He spoke Thursday night to a full-ish house gathered at the Old U.S. Mint for this year's Tom Dent Congo Square Symposium on the theme of "Culture and Regulation," a timely talk considering the recent penalties handed down to St. Roch Tavern. Aiges clearly hoped to avoid the rhetoric that the supposed "war on live music" engenders each time it comes up, and he was largely successful, if only because his scheduled presentations went far longer than planned, leaving only eight minutes for questions and comments from the audience.
One theme that came up throughout the night was the gap between regulation and enforcement. Regulations have existed for years, but inconsistent - often non-existent - enforcement has left people cynical toward the whole effort and prompts apocalyptic anxiety it actually happens. Aiges raised it and others echoed it throughout their talks. Councilperson Kristen Gisleson Palmer focused more on how successful she and City Council had been in dealing with zoning and permit-related issues when she counted off Bacchanal, The Mother-in-Law Lounge, Siberia, the New Orleans Healing Center, Backyard Ballroom and The House of Blues, but it was easy to hear a list that long as a cause for concern. Equally unsettling was her explanation that The House of Blues' request for a zoning change was seen as an opportunity to leverage the club into making changes deemed in the best interest of the neighborhood. If City Council and its commissions see each meeting as a chance to further restrict and control how venues do business, they create a disincentive for cooperation at the same time that City Hall has rolled out its zoning and permitting one-stop that is supposed to make compliance easier from the start.
Speakers including Tulane geographer Richard Campanella regularly spoke guardedly about the phrase "quality of life," pointing out that it means very different things to different people. The peace and quiet some crave sounds like hell to others. He provided valuable historical perspective by tracking the development of Bourbon Street into what it has become, and he added an important thought to the dialogue. Culture and regulation form an ongoing interplay, Campanella explained, and that it's not a problem - it's a condition. Later in the symposium, Oxford Acoustics' Dave Woolworth got laughs when he showed a slide of a diarama of toy kittens at tea and wondered, "Can't we all just get along?" The desire on all sides - particularly city government's - for peaceful unanimity is unreal because the parties' interests are at odds, and prioritizing it is likely counterproductive. Efforts to reach a balanced tension are more probable and valuable.
Jim Butler, Manager of Creative Industries Development for the city of Austin, Texas showed possible ways forward for a better funded city. Austin has created an involved network of check-ups to get as clear a picture as possible of the noise impact of live music venues on their neighborhoods, including regular visits by city staffers to Austin's many open-air venues. This sort of enforcement would take much of the neighborhood-based rancor out of New Orleans' music-vs.-its-surroundings debates, but it's hard to see this sort of hands-on approach becoming a financial priority here.
Butler also picked up a thought espoused by Councilperson Palmer - that many of the questions are technology questions. He specifically raised the example of Cedar Street, a narrow open-air venue wedged between three large, brick-sided buildings. It's in compliance with Austin's noise ordinance but still gets complaints. It is just one place where the city has advocated technological solutions to diminish the sound's ability to travel, and it's a thought that other speakers touched on. When Maurice Cox, Director of Tulane City Center, spoke of the rehabilitation of the Charlottesville, Virginia Cultural Arts Precinct, he pointed to old banks and theaters were made into neighborhood-friendly performance spaces by installing double sets of doors to help keep the sound inside.
Cox spoke encouragingly about the value of increasing density and creative friction, but his slides from Charlottesville looked disconcertingly like the faux-nostalgic Ye Olde Towne section of many cities, and the solution to a dubiously conceived outdoor bandshell that was useless when it rained was a large sail over the space. Despite his rhetoric to the contrary, my takeaway was that one response to unruly culture is "Control, cover, neuter."
Urban planner Dave Dixon's talk revisited New Orleans' cynicism toward enforcement, drew distinctions between culture and entertainment, then argued for a very different approach to culture. He pointed to trends in the housing markets toward urban, multi-family dwellings for people who consider a vibrant, diverse culture a draw, and away from suburban, single-family homes for people who value space, peace and quiet. If Dixon's take is accurate - and some around me questioned it - it speaks directly to civic leaders and politicians, whose efforts to constrain New Orleans nightlife one consent or conditional use agreement at a time may be counterproductive.
Musician Dave Woolworth concluded the symposium with details on his efforts to quantify and understand the sound being discussed. He touched back on Campanella's presentation by revisiting the history of noise-related complaints and controversies in New Orleans, then spoke of the lengths he undertook to get a clear picture of the impact of sound in the French Quarter and the areas under discussion. He observed that noise is subjective, and that neighbors could hear the same sound at the same volume and experience it differently - one as problematic noise and one as ambient sound.
Woolworth finished with a series of recommendations including treating sound violations as civil rather than criminal offenses, and imposing a sound level cap on Bourbon Street. It's a common sense response to the current situation, which focuses on how far above the ambient sound level a bar's sound goes - a problematic measure since the bar's sound helps to create the ambient sound on the street. Of course, these all rely on enforcement, which takes us back to where we started.
For another take on the night and the presentations, see Brian Boyles' report at The People Say Project.