New Orleans is often called the northern-most Caribbean city. If so, the French Quarter must be our Bermuda triangle: Noise ordinances go there never to be seen again.
By a 3-3 vote on April 24, the New Orleans City Council brought to a close four years of effort by residents, music advocates, business owners and city officials intent on revising all or some portion of the city’s sound ordinance.
As a community advocate who has volunteered on the issue of sound for the last 25 years or so, I’ve never seen us get so close and yet so far. Outgoing Councilmember Jackie Clarkson shared a poll about the issue. Like the final Council vote itself, it was a dead heat. There was no political win for elected officials to champion the issue — at least as the issue played out so divisively in the media. When politicians look at the long fight over sound levels in New Orleans, they see casualties everywhere.
Ordinances were introduced in December and April — both decried by different segments of the community, both killed. The rancor was as loud as Bourbon Street on a Saturday night. As the process imploded, every community element seemed to become tainted, whether resident, bar owner, elected official, reporter, street performer or even police officer.
In short, it seemed like civic carnage. But why? Across the country American cities are taking seriously the growing body of scientific studies documenting noise pollution as a legitimate hazard to the health of urban residents and employees, not to mention a threat to historic cities. While we were arguing about who did or did not want to “kill the music,” an official from Key West emailed me for information on our process and efforts. He subsequently reported that, after some compromise, they passed an ordinance mirroring many of our recommendations, such as measuring from the sound source property line and measuring for low frequency decibels. His email noted he was off to New Orleans for JazzFest, seemingly unworried that their new regulations would be anti-music.
That wasn’t the case here: At our peak, we built a coalition of 20 neighborhoods that spanned the city. The goal of the “7 Essentials to Make the Sound Ordinance Fair and Functional” was to find balanced and reasonable solutions based on science and common sense. It came to be seen as anti-music, even though New Orleans residents love our music scene. Its goal was to target a handful of problematic bars, many featuring DJs, not musicians.
Worse, early on the conversation lost the important element of personal respect. When we debate this or other potentially divisive community issues before a new council, let’s vow to do better. We all love New Orleans or we’d live somewhere with better humidity, lower insurance rates and no risk of losing everything in this year’s hurricane season. But jaws dropped at how personal the discourse got. Reputations were bloodied.
So was the sound effort of the last four years all for naught? Well, actually no. An ordinance about where to place speakers passed in 2012, although enforcement has waned. Of greater significance is, of the now-infamous Essentials, the goal we thought most important was universally embraced by the council, mayor, residents, musicians and bar owners: New Orleans will recreate a sound management program in the city health department. That’s where it lived until budget cuts in the 1980s tossed responsibility to the police, who never wanted it. It’s taken us almost 30 years to get this program restored.
Sure, a lack of willpower by this or future administrations may sink the restored health department program. But listen carefully. Despite all the noise, I still hear change in our future.
Nathan Chapman, recipient of the Vieux Carré Commission’s Elizabeth Werlein Award and VCPORA’s Schwartz-Gage Preservation Award, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.