A few takeaways from last Friday's rally against the sound ordinance across the street from City Hall.

Glen David Andrews photo
Glen David Andrews

I covered the MaCCNO-led rally in Duncan Plaza against the sound ordinance for The New Orleans Advocate. Here are some notes and observations that didn't fit in the story.

- One of the central themes at the rally is that musicians want a seat at the table - a very reasonable request, but they can’t be surprised nobody wants to offer one to people who call those who disagree with them culture killers and music haters.

When I interviewed MaCCNO’s Hannah Kreiger Benson for my background story on the sound ordinance in The New Orleans Advocate, she said, “MaCCNO’s position is that the ordinance on the books needs to be revised in the light of David Woolworth’s science and the principles that we wrote.” I quoted her in the story as saying, “The ordinance needs to be withdrawn, and something much better needs to be written with a much better process and a much better outcome.” 

In the joint statement from Councilmembers Stacy Head and Kristin Gisleson Palmer, they wrote:

There has been much public consternation over the perceived intent and impact of the ordinance, and fear that the hard work and recommendations of the many constituency groups with Mr. Woolworth were not followed.  In order to allay those fears, Mr. Woolworth has suggested, and we agree, that an even more limited focus on VCE only is appropriate.  Mr. Woolworth and Councilmember Gisleson Palmer in particular, have worked closely with the French Quarter Management District to craft recommendations tailored to the VCE district. 

These recommendations, including that the measurement should be taken at the property line of the source of emanation, along with a noise level threshold, will be the substance of an ordinance that will be presented in draft form at the next Housing and Human Needs Committee meeting on January 27, 2014.  At that meeting we will also invite the Health Department to present the status of the hiring of environmental health officers who will have the primary charge of enforcing sound laws. Thereafter, we will conduct additional field tests with Mr. Woolworth and welcome public comment in order to inform the draft, and then the resulting ordinance will be formally introduced for first reading. 

In most worlds, getting City Council to withdraw an ordinance and go back to the drawing board and take into account someone whose position seems reasonable would count as at least a partial win, but the general tenor of the conversations I’ve seen so far is that it’s time to prepare to protest, and that the next ordinance is going to be bad. It’s like people are addicted to the fight and the accompanying feeling of righteousness, even after a partial win.

- One of the provisions I’m most conflicted about is the idea of measuring at the sound source’s property line instead of the listener’s abode. That assumes that loudness is a de facto bad thing - a premise I reject. At the same time, I understand Nathan Chapman’s concern that those who complain will become targets for harassment, and that will be a disincentive to report sound violations. I think about how people who complained about the volume at St. Roch Tavern, Mimi’s, and Jimmy’s were vilified and wonder if they should have to go through that. If people are going to come unglued and go after anyone who calls for a decibel reading, they can’t be surprised if the authorities work to create a less punishing procedure for those affected by the sound.

- For the “Seven Essentials” coalition (whatever size it is), the strategy of demonstrating broad-based support for their ideas was a smart one that gave City Council a reason to believe the measure was popular. As Councilmember Palmer said, “It shows that there’s a consensus out there that this needs to be addressed. When I see a neighborhood association sign on to something, I assume it was vetted through their board and membership.”

At Nola.com, Richard Webster showed that the Mid-City Neighborhood Association’s support was less concrete than it seemed in list form, and the Warehouse District Neighborhood Association illustrates the hazard of Palmer’s assumption. The decision to support the list was made by its president and two board members, so three people claimed to represent the neighborhood. Since then, 16 members signed a letter to City Council saying that the association didn’t support the “Seven Essentials,” but unless a vote was taken after a meeting two weeks ago, email correspondence suggests that the question on the table changed while the vote was taking place. Whatever the case, the neighborhood association has 56 members (as of a week ago). Census stats mix Warehouse District population in with the Lower Garden District, so it’s hard to find solid population data for it. For argument's sake, I ballpark it at 1,500 people. If the association voted unanimously, it would still represent approximately a quarter of the residents - hardly a resounding validation of the list by the citizenry. I believe someone in each group gave the coalition a reason to believe that his or her neighborhood supported the list, but because of varying levels of participation and procedural rigor, it’s hard to say what that list really means.

- I loved the guy holding up the jambox that served as a PA like John Cusack in Say Anything.

- “We as MaCCNO are not asking for an unregulated city. We’re asking for policies that approach our culture as an engine of economic growth as well as a valuable part of our collective economic identity. We’re asking for policies that reflect our city and honor the importance of our culture and our heritage. As the noise ordinance is reworked, we want to see an honest process that includes one-third authentic, broad, neighborhood representation, one-third culture and tourism businesses, and one-third musicians and culture bearers.” - Hannah Kreiger Benson

- “This is nothing new,” lawyer Carol Kolinchak said, citing noise, sound and music prohibitions dating back to 1843. She’s right that New Orleans has historically treated music like something to be endured at best, but it should also be noted that the city’s music has survived 170 years of neglect (to be kind), and we’re giving a lot of credit to the current crop of politicians if we assume that they can harm it in ways none could before. That doesn’t mean the music community should kick back with a “whatever” attitude, but those who fear the musical sky is falling should check themselves. 

- The half-hearted “yeah”s and general lack of response when Glen David Andrews called for musicians to police their own volume and sonic footprint was discouraging.

- Glen David Andrews rallying for civic action: “I’ve been through a lot in the last few years, and my only savior is music. If you’re not scared - because I’m definitely not scared - let’s go to jail and let’s make it happen. I know a good lawyer.” 

- The rhetoric at the rally was heated and more focused on the value of music than the ordinance itself, but it illustrates the degree to which musicians feel taken for granted. New Orleans has tied its identity to music. It's an essential part of the city's plans for the future, but musicians seem to be taken for granted as changes to zoning and sound take place around them. They’re the collateral damage in enforcement efforts, and they’re often the most financially vulnerable players in the game. MaCCNO’s discourse can be pretty aggressive, but if they're not invited in the door, it can't be a surprise if they kick a little.