City health inspectors hit the streets of the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny last month, kicking off a public health campaign dubbed Sound Check. Its stated goal is to educate musicians, bar owners — and revelers drawn to New Orleans' anarchic soundscape — about the dangers of high-decibel sound.
There's a lot of work to do.
On a recent Tuesday, a fresh-faced young man in a New Orleans Health Department polo shirt made his rounds on an outreach tour of the downriver end of Decatur Street. Along the way, he spent a few minutes chatting amiably with a 50-something saxophonist as a jazz quintet set up in The Market Cafe.
The saxophonist declined to take a proffered pair of earplugs. "The best earplugs for a musician? Cigarette butts. You break off the filters from a cigarette and put 'em in your ears," he informed the inspector, who jotted down notes.
After about 10 minutes of civil conversation — including about 30 seconds during which the inspector held out a Sound Check information card that the musician pointedly made no effort to take — the Sound Check crew moved down Decatur Street.
After the inspectors left, it was clear — despite the genial chat — the musician (who declined to give his name, saying he didn't want any trouble from the city) was not convinced of the sincerity of the city's concern that sound was putting him at risk of hearing loss and hypertension.
"Yeah, my ears are hurtin'," he rasped, pulling a mouthpiece from a purple Crown Royal bag. "From listening to all this bullshit.
"The city needs to quit worrying about my ears, and start worrying about my wallet."
The attempt to educate — or at least quantify — sound levels in a city synonymous with the joyous noise of live music comes about 18 months after a failed attempt to update the city's 60-year-old noise ordinance.
A public health campaign centered on noise pollution in any other city might not invite cynicism. There's a growing body of research showing that chronic exposure to loud noise leads to many health problems, and few people would say they enjoy the noise from a nearby airport or train tracks. In New Orleans, around 11 million tourists visit the city each year to listen to the "noise" that generates most of the city's complaints about excessive sound.
Sound Check likely marks a restart of a debate over the volume in the downtown entertainment districts. After two years of research, committee meetings and fractious debate on the floor of the New Orleans City Council, that effort to set new sound regulations ended with failed votes in January on a citywide ordinance, and in April, when rules tailored for the city's entertainment district went down as the council deadlocked.
The city remains in an untenable position. The ordinance on the books is in parts enforceable, and in total, nearly impossible to enforce. Investigating and enforcing noise complaints falls to the understaffed New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), which is not known for its swift response to armed robberies, and officers don't exactly speed to the scene of a noisy nightclub. That means people cited for noise violations aren't the loudest; they're the ones who get complained about the most, or who happen to be loud on a night when NOPD has an officer available.
Another wrinkle: In 2014, the City Council deadlocked over an amendment to a noise ordinance draft that lifted a street musician curfew, which the City Attorney's office and council members argued is unconstitutional and unenforceable. As written on the books, it only applies to noise from street musicians and not other sources. Last year, City Attorney Sharonda Williams said the city won't enforce the curfew, but that noise made by musicians and others must meet agreeable sound levels, though those levels now are up for debate.
With enforcement of noise laws almost nonexistent, frustrated residents turn to civil lawsuits to lower the volume — often backed by the law firm of multimillionaire class-action attorney Stuart Smith, one of the city's most persistent foes of blaring music.
City Public Health Director Charlotte Parent said her office is working on the issue that underlies the fractious debate over noise regulations, without any "predetermined outcome" in mind. Sound Check crews will chat up musicians and pass out information, and while they will sometimes be taking sound readings, the data won't be used for issuing tickets.
The health department made a similar outreach push ahead of enforcing a ban on indoor smoking, and, Parent said, the city has yet to issue a citation to any business for violating the ban.
"Sound has always been a public health issue, whether or not it's been a part of the argument around the sound ordinance," Parent said in a recent interview.
"We have no agenda in terms of what a new ordinance ... looks like or whether it moves forward."
Scott Hutcheson, cultural economy advisor to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said the status quo can't hold.
"If you leave things as they are, you create a pot that could start boiling," Hutcheson said. "You get a situation where people say, 'If no one else is going to help, we're going to [file a lawsuit].' We want it to be the case that you don't have to look for help, because things are better."
New Orleans City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, whose District C comprises the entertainment districts of the French Quarter and Frenchmen Street that produce the bulk of the city's noise complaints, introduced a new version of the sound ordinance this spring but says she hasn't consulted the city administration about the ordinance.
"The last time was so controversial, I've asked the parties to narrow down any issues and bring that to me and start working toward moving the legislation," Ramsey said. "I don't want it to be where we start out everyone is at a point of disagreement."
The same day the inspectors approached The Market Cafe quintet, they ran into club owner Jude Marullo outside Balcony Music Club (BMC) at the corner of Decatur Street and Esplanade Avenue. The club, Marullo told inspectors, already was outfitted with decibel meters, staff and musicians were offered earplugs and the walls of the club were stuffed with sound-baffling material.
Marullo declined to disclose his opinion on sound regulations, but by way of explaining the attention to acoustic details at BMC, he suggested a review of a lawsuit filed against another one of his clubs, Funky 544.
Funky 544 was the subject of a lawsuit seeking $32 million by a pair of Toulouse Street neighbors — represented by Smith's SmithStag law firm. The renovations and costs of defending the lawsuit were steep, but the sound-dampening efforts at the club likely were the reason the jury verdict was in favor of the club, said Marullo's lawyer, David Halperin.
A judgment that size would have put Marullo and his partners out of business and raised insurance costs for club owners across the city, Halperin said. An informational campaign by the city and an ordinance that could tamp down some of the angst from residents could have benefits. (Smith could not be reached for comment.)
Ethan Ellestad, director of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, which led a brass band into the City Council chamber during discussion of the noise ordinance last January, was skeptical.
"Singling out music as a health hazard is not going to solve the problems that exist," Ellestad said. "Public health could be a red herring; it's a way to control music and cultural products without helping anyone in the music and cultural community."
A growing body of research has found that prolonged exposure to loud noise — particularly when it disrupts sleep — can lead to health problems ranging from high blood pressure to depression, said Richard Neitzel, a public health specialist at the University of Michigan. Neitzel has collaborated on research with Monica Hammer, a public health researcher who is consulting with the Health Department on Sound Check.
"Once you get to a certain level [of sound], it doesn't seem to matter if it's a jetliner taking off or loud music," said Neitzel, who said he was not aware that his colleague, Hammer, was consulting with New Orleans officials.
Sound levels on Bourbon Street, particularly inside bars, consistently register above 100 decibels. On a recent tour of Frenchmen Street — on a fairly quiet period between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on a Thursday — the Sound Check crew saw only one reading above 80 decibels, registered while the inspector was standing behind the Young Fellaz Brass Band on the corner of Chartres Street during a typically raucous rendition of "Do Watcha Wanna."
The Young Fellaz illustrate the difficulty in balancing quality of life with quality of culture: similar street corner bands have been the training ground for musicians throughout decades, from Louis Armstrong to Trombone Shorty. According to one 8th District quality of life officer, the Young Fellaz are the target of most of the noise complaints coming from residents near Frenchmen Street.
After the Sound Check crew left, the older of the Young Fellaz advised younger members of a few well-known truths: Noise violations are seldom handed out and will land you in front of a criminal court judge, who more than likely will dismiss the charge.
"This is New Orleans," hooted a trombonist. "There is no noise ordinance."