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In neighboring Tremé, only two clubs now feature nightly live music. In a 2011 op-ed piece responding to the closure of Donna's, OffBeat editor Jan Ramsey, who has documented the city's cultural ebbs and flows for decades, asked: "What's better for the city: a street where there's no traffic, lots of crime, a derelict park, no music and few retail outlets just so a few people won't have their sleep disturbed? Or a vibrant cultural and entertainment district that could-with the proper enforcement and development-become another jewel of the city?"
Culture or Noise?
"Proper enforcement" is hard to come by in a city with a long history of disorder and corruption. In the summer of 2012, as part of the run-up to the popular Essence Fest, the police conducted a series of city-wide sweeps, checking the licenses and permits of 100 businesses. Around 40 were found to have licensing or zoning violations, among them some of the most popular music venues in town.
One of the businesses, the Circle Bar, could not produce a permit for live music, and it was told to cease hosting bands immediately. Fortunately, it had an escape hatch: If an establishment can prove it has been operating openly in defiance of the law for five years, it can be grandfathered. So Circle Bar owner Dave Clements hosted a "notary party" where 60 musicians signed affidavits stating they had played there. Armed with the affidavits, more than a decade's worth of press clippings, and photos of the well-known chalkboard that the club puts on the street every day to announce that night's performer, Clements was able to obtain a permit.
The police sweep prompted a backlash from musicians and arts lovers, including a series of community meetings at trumpeter Kermit Ruffins' club, Kermit Ruffins Speakeasy. Councilwoman Stacey Head spearheaded an effort to streamline the permitting process, and the Landrieu administration softened its tone. "I've instructed the City's enforcement agencies to enforce the law fairly and to take a customer-friendly approach," Landrieu said in a statement.
The city has simplified the permitting process since then, a sign that neighborhood associations won't automatically be given the upper hand. But plenty of questions still surround who is and who is not granted the highly coveted mayoralty permits, which allow for live entertainment in commercial/residential districts.
A large bar called Bamboula came to Frenchman Street in November 2013, much to the dismay of neighborhood businesses, which saw it as an unwelcome dash of Bourbon Street into what had been the locals' favorite non-tourist music street. Meanwhile, many would-be owners of small clubs and restaurants ended up walking away, overwhelmed by bureaucratic red tape and public hearings with neighborhood groups.
Permits and licenses are only part of the problem. The city's sporadically enforced noise ordinance has become a frequent catalyst for battles between clubs and neighborhood associations. While the Circle Bar was able to bring musicians back onstage within a week, the same cannot be said of Mimi's in the Marigny, another establishment found to be lacking a live music permit during the 2012 summer sweep.
While Mimi's was able to resume live music with a temporary mayoralty permit in September 2012, a protracted legal dispute has meant an on-again, off-again schedule. Despite owner Mimi Dykes' efforts to mitigate noise since opening the club in 2005-including monitoring decibel levels, installing sound bafflers to reduce noise escaping to the street, and ending performances earlier-a handful of neighbors have filed numerous noise complaints. These complaints have come largely from newcomers to the neighborhood.
Lorelei Cropley, for example, moved into Marigny in 2010 after checking zoning laws and confirming that live music was not allowed there. (She hasn't said whether she noticed the clubs already open on the street.) In April 2013, Cropley and others filed a lawsuit against Mimi's that not only complained of window-rattling late-night dance parties but questioned whether the club was permitted to host music at all.
A judge ordered Mimi's to immediately cease hosting music. On September 6, a mayoralty permit gave Mimi's a green light to begin booking concerts again. The club's opponents are now plotting their next move; Cropley has vowed to take her fight against Mimi's all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.
Such efforts have the support of Hear the Music, Stop the Noise, an organization that has been one of the lead actors in the fight against Mimi's and other loud New Orleans music venues. Led by the prominent environmental attorney Stuart Smith-by no means a recent arrival-the group seeks "to preserve the musical culture of New Orleans by combating the rampant noise pollution that threatens the wellness of musicians, citizens and tourists alike, and jeopardizes the historic architecture of [the] city."
In practice, the line between "noise pollution" and "musical culture" isn't very easily drawn. Many musicians and music lovers see the increasingly frequent noise complaints as an assault on New Orleans culture and a threat to its long-term survival. In the words of Bru Bruser, whose band lost a steady weekly gig when neighbor complaints kept the club it had played for two years from getting a music permit, "People wanna move to New Orleans's hip neighborhoods, but it's insane that they aren't even hip enough to realize there is live music there. So they show up and throw a fit, when they could have just lived somewhere else."
Signs and Parades
The city government has tried to play the role of peacemaker in some of these disputes, urging mediation between businesses and neighbors. It even ordered an exhaustive study by Oxford Acoustics on the city's "soundscape."