The rhetoric surrounding Jimmy's Music Club's attempts to get a liquor license needs to be dialed down.
Yesterday I wrote about my takeaway from the St. Roch Tavern ABO hearing. I'd like to see the discourse focused better on the relationship between music venues and their neighborhoods because a lot of people are marginalizing their voices by missing the issue or adopting overly dramatic stances. When The Uptown Messenger wrote about Jimmy's Music Club's efforts to get a liquor license, one commenter typified the overblown language that has surrounded the situation when he addressed Councilperson Susan Guidry, writing, "So everything that has made NOLA great you now want to destroy." Still, it's hard to imagine a more apocalyptic position than the one embodied in the title "Don't Kill the Music," the name of the benefit that will take place April 6 to support Jimmy Anselmo's efforts to get his bar open.
Let me be clear: I want Jimmy's to reopen, and extending a liquor license moratorium indefinitely to keep him from getting one sounds a lot like the Animal House double secret probation. I feel for Anselmo, who owns a building that can't generate income right now, particularly after his years of service to New Orleans' music community.
But "Don't Kill the Music"? Is live music in New Orleans really dead if it doesn't exist in Jimmy's? Anselmo got out of the live music business in 2000. If it were to reopen, what would make it different from other clubs that are open right now? Those who remember Jimmy's fondly are flying the flag for its heyday as a New Orleans punk stronghold, but unless the club starts booking those bands - now in their 50s, as are their fans - it will likely be simply another music club. That's not a bad thing; in fact, I'd love to see another venue with a proper stage and sound on which young artists can develop their music just as punk bands did at Jimmy's in the late 1970s. Would that be the music Jimmy's would book? Who knows, but Jimmy's won't be Jimmy's circa 1978, or '88 or '98. The club that people champion nostalgically was not only a place but a time, and we can't get back there, no matter how fondly we remember it.
I'd feel a greater sense of outrage if Anselmo and Gary Quaintance, who will lease Jimmy's from Anselmo, were out of options. For the city to renew year after year a liquor license moratorium while waiting and waiting for a new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance to be adopted and take effect is unreasonable, but as Keith Spera reported in his story on the situation:
One Alcoholic Beverage Control Board member at the Feb. 19 hearing reportedly suggested Quaintance and Anselmo might be better off applying for a waiver to the moratorium. Quaintance disagrees: “Why should I apply for a waiver to a moratorium that is illegal?”
According to Anselmo, the building at 8200 Willow Street has held a liquor license since 1929. “This is my property that I’ve worked for my whole life,” he said. “And now the city wants to not ever have a bar there again.”
Others in the Riverbend area affected by the moratorium have successfully got waivers by working with the neighborhood to negotiate the terms under which they could sell alcohol. Anselmo, Quaintance, and their lawyer Mike Tifft have dismissed that path as unlikely to work. Anselmo told The Uptown Messenger, "I do not see how trying to deal with Ms. Guidry and Mr. Speir for a waiver would prove productive when she herself wrote the illegal moratorium and appointed Mr. Speir, who is on the board of the Carrollton/Riverbend Assc. to the Alcohol board."
On March 26, Matthew Yglesias wrote at Slate.com:
promoting the development and expansion of nightlife hubs should be a key economic development priority for cities. Or, rather, preventing neighborhood busybodies from stifling them ought to be. That means making decisions about liquor-licensing rules at a higher level, with consideration of the full citywide effects in terms of tax revenue and job creation. And it means attempting to directly address perceived problems with crime and trash. Instead of refusing to issue new liquor licenses, why not send more cops and offer more frequent street cleaning in the hubs? Food service isn’t the sexiest sector in the economy. But it’s one that every city can be strong in. It also provides great opportunities for locally owned businesses, and meaningful opportunities for people with limited formal education to work their way up the ladder and go into business for themselves. Cities need to treat it as a more serious matter than a simple question of neighborhood opinion.
That's the sort of conversation we need to have. Not who has declared war on music or who is killing it, but the role it plays in turning neighborhoods into destinations. The incentive it creates for further business development. The foot traffic it creates that helps keep a neighborhood vibrant and safe. In 2007, then-Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu and I talked about his then-burgeoning cultural economy initiative, and the things he said then are applicable now:
I’m intimately aware of all these discussions about how you should love art for art’s sake, and I do and you should. But if you want money out of the general fund, you better go and give them a rationale why it’s going to benefit the community at large and why it’s good for us. Tell me how it’s going to be self-sustaining. Tell me what the return on the investments is going to be, and tell me what the business side is.
Abstract arguments are going to lose in the current climate with business people and City Hall; focusing on the issues that they're focusing on will be far more productive.