By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
They came with their trumpets. With their trombones and their tubas, too.
They came to make a lot of noise.
And they silenced an effort to turn down the volume in one of America’s loudest cities.
Specifically, some 300 musicians who gathered outside New Orleans City Hall last Friday wanted to show their opposition to a proposed noise ordinance that would have set lower legal limits for decibel levels in the French Quarter. The new rules would have also changed how the police measured the level of noise before deciding if a citation was in order.
“The thing a noise ordinance has to have foremost in mind is the music and culture of the city, which is a huge part of our history and our traditions here,” said Hannah Kreiger-Benson, spokeswoman for the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, a broad-based group that includes musicians, artists, venue owners, music lovers and even lawyers.
It’s a group that believes “music and culture people have to be a part of the policy and government process,” said Kreiger-Benson, who makes her living playing the piano and trumpet and works with MACCNO in her free time.
The proposed ordinance was the result of months of study by the City Council, which hired David Woolworth, principal of Mississippi-based Oxford Acoustics and a nationally known expert in the science of sound.
The two council members pushing for the ordinance said they wanted to target bars and nightclubs that were becoming a nuisance to residents.
But the musicians who make noise to make a living said the ordinance was too broad.
It would have lowered the maximum decibel level in the French Quarter of the city, the part most well-known for its music scene, to 70 decibels from the current level of 80 decibels. Because of the way sound is measured, that equates to almost a 50 percent cut in legal noise levels.
The French Quarter Business Association objected to how quickly the ordinance was moving through the City Council and questioned the consequences of its possible passage. Though some provisions were targeted only at Bourbon Street, the new rules could hurt commercial and residential areas too, the group warned.
“Enforcement of these new provisions may prohibit restaurants having their doors open and all courtyard dining. There are may be many harsh unintended possible effects that are not presently fully understood,” the association said in a statement.
More concerning for Kreiger-Benson and her musician friends was the threat the ordinance posed to some bars and clubs, which many freelance musicians rely on for financial support.
“People would have lost their jobs,” said Kreiger-Benson. “You would scare music and culture-producers from producing music and culture because they would be concerned about running afoul of the law.”
She said she didn’t see the proposed ordinance as a malicious attempt to silence the cultural noise of New Orleans, but worries the stricter laws could be used in a subjective way to target certain groups.
And last week, those same musicians made their mark.
With the noise ordinance set for a hearing Friday, the MACCNO planned to have some members show up and speak about the new rules. But after it became apparent there would be too many people to fit into council chambers, a musical sit-in outside City Hall was planned, with performers from across the city’s eclectic music scene.
Kreiger-Beson said the group was preparing for more than 1,000 people to show up – they found local restaurants to volunteer their bathrooms to the cause and called all the food trucks they could find.
The City Council tried to cancel the party.
Thursday evening, less than a day before the hearing on the ordinance was supposed to take place, the proposal was abruptly pulled from the agenda and the meeting was cancelled.
“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” were not being followed, said two members of the council in a joint statement explaining the cancellation of the meeting.
Members of the City Council did not return calls to Watchdog.org.
Residents of New Orleans are not ones to miss out on a party, so more than 300 musicians showed up Friday even without a meeting to attend.
“We’re here to bury the noise ordinance,” said Glen David Andrews, a locally known trombone player, according to one account.
They planned to stand outside the council chambers and play for a few hours, while taking turns speaking about how the ordinance would affect them individually.
Marching around City Hall, however, was not an option because that would qualify as a “parade” and would require a permit.
Before the afternoon was over, the musicians had marched into City Hall and were welcomed into the vacant council chambers to meet with members of the city government and staff.
“One thing we can all do is advocate for the things we are passionate about and the things we believe in.” said councilwoman LaToya Cantrell. “In my opinion, that is what you’re doing here this afternoon.“
It seems to have worked.
In place of the broad ordinance affecting the entire French Quarter, the council members now plan to study a more focused approach to address only Bourbon Street, without affecting the rest of the French Quarter, according to newspaper reports.
“We assure the public that our work to create workable and reasonable laws that preserve our music culture and industry has not stalled, but will continue in earnest,” said Stacy Head and Kristin Gisleson Palmer, the two council members who head the committee overseeing the proposal, in a joint-statement.
In New Orleans, the music will continue. So will the government.
Boehm is a reporter for Watchdog.org and can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @EricBoehm87 and @WatchdogOrg on Twitter for more.