The Battle of New Orleans

NIMBYs and newcomers threaten to regulate the Big Easy's music into extinction.


The late-night dancers in New Orleans wear everything from designer suits to bondage-club attire to nothing much at all. But recently a new accessory has started appearing in the Crescent City's nightlife: headphones. Silent discos, which have appeared at such local hotspots as the Dragon's Den and House of Blues, allow hipsters to pay a few bucks, strap on a pair of ear goggles, and dance to music spun by DJs broadcasting on site.

With its second-line parades, open drinking, and raucous live music spilling out into crowded streets, New Orleans is not the kind of town you'd normally associate with silence. But headphone venues are taking advantage of an escalating clash between neighborhood associations, clubs, musicians, and the city. Some have labeled it the War on Music.

During the last few years, this socially laissez-faire music capital has started trying to bring order to the endless party by stepping up licensing and zoning enforcement and passing laws designed to improve the "quality of life." By attempting to fine-tune the city's cultural economy, authorities are jeopardizing the very institutions that have made New Orleans such a vibrant and valuable part of American culture.

The crackdown is coming from two main sources. One is the deluge of idealistic newcomers who flooded into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help rebuild what many older residents had fled. While many of the new transplants were particularly attracted to the music scene and other vestiges of "authentic" New Orleans-Mardi Gras, second-line parades, drinking outdoors-that doesn't mean they were accustomed to living with all-night noise.

NIMBYism is especially common among the older, more affluent professionals who also moved to the city after Katrina, hoping to own a little piece of historic New Orleans magic. These gentrifiers have often been hostile to one of the city's central cultural institutions: the clubs where working musicians make a living.

The second main source of party pooping is the mayor's office, which has a fondness for top-down plans. Elected in 2010, Mayor Mitch Landrieu inherited more than $67 million in debt and a police force so corrupt he asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate it. Landrieu set out to bring order and prosperity to his notoriously unmanageable city, with tourism and the arts as prime revenue generators. Before becoming mayor, he had unveiled the New Orleans Convention and Visitor's Bureau Boston Consulting Group Master Plan, an ambitious proposal that sought to attract 13.7 million annual visitors to New Orleans by 2018. Order and cleanliness, he maintains, are essential to any increase in tourism, and quality of life improvements have become a major goal of the Landrieu administration. The trouble is, cultural creation isn't a clean and orderly process, and "quality of life" can be a sticky issue for the city's clubs.

The Battle for North Rampart

This isn't the first time New Orleans has been remade by an influx of immigrants. The city's unique culture was born out of a malange of French, Spanish, English, African, and Caribbean influences. And the town's new arrivals have been a blessing in many ways. While much of the country was experiencing the Great Recession, New Orleans' unemployment actually dropped, thanks in large part to new entrepreneurs and developers. (The shrinking population helped too, as did federal reconstruction aid.)

But along with their enthusiasm and their economic activity, the gentrifiers brought a new willingness to wage war on noisy music clubs. Take North Rampart Street, which before Katrina was one of the city's cultural hotbeds. Only a few blocks away from Bourbon Street, North Rampart's two-block strip felt a world apart from the daiquiri shops and megabars that French Quarter tourists so often associate with New Orleans.

North Rampart attracted locals, longtime residents of neighboring Tremé (made famous by the eponymous HBO series), and many gay and transgendered New Orleanians, who have deep roots in the area. Two clubs dominated the street, each with a special place in the city's cultural ecology: the Funky Butt, a modern jazz and funk venue, and Donna's, home to brass bands.

Both clubs were institutions, hosting live music nightly and open jam sessions when business was slow. Both offered visitors an experience: Donna's had the ambience of an old-style juke joint and the hominess of a husband-and-wife team working the bar and the kitchen, while the Funky Butt let visitors step into a turn-of-the-century bordello, complete with velvet curtains, scarlet lighting, and erotic art on the walls. But by the fall of 2010, both clubs were closed.

While Katrina did not significantly damage the Funky Butt building, the costs of remediating existing problems, combined with life changes, prompted the owners, trombonist "Big Sam" Williams and his then-wife, Shaneka Patterson, to walk away from the venue. Then local businessman Pat Ritter tried to reopen the place, but he ran into trouble. City Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson told him he would not have her support, because of neighbors' concerns that North Rampart might become another Bourbon Street.

In early 2013, Patterson began working on a plan to reopen the Funky Butt in the new Freret Arts Corridor, a mostly residential neighborhood that was seriously damaged by the hurricane and has since been designated one of the city's new cultural overlay districts to facilitate zoning and licensing. But Patterson ultimately abandoned the project for "personal reasons."

With the closing of the Funky Butt, Donna's became the lone music outpost on North Rampart. But the brass-band venue faced similar maintenance issues and, more important, growing complaints from the same neighbors who blocked the Funky Butt. Owners Donna Poniatowski and Charlie Sims finally shut the club down in 2010. When Eugene Oppman bought the business in 2011, the Board of Zoning Adjustments determined that the new Donna's would not retain its old entertainment license because more than six months had elapsed since the original Donna's closed.

Attempts to open other music clubs on North Rampart have met similar fates as would-be club owners' plans have been nixed by their inability to obtain music licenses over the complaints of French Quarter neighborhood groups. Today the street, which sits directly across from Armstrong Park and Congo Square-the fabled cradle of African-American music-is silent.

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."

The resulting report, presented by Oxford consultant and musician Dave Woolworth in August, recommended that the city create a dedicated "sound officer" to make enforcement more streamlined and less prone to charges of selectivity. (The New Orleans Health Department and the police currently handle noise enforcement, with the overburdened and often distrusted police shouldering most of the dirty work.) The report also suggested setting new, simpler decibel limits and changing noise violations to civil rather than criminal offenses. (I have not been able to find any cases in which the noise war led to criminal charges. But two musicians told me about encounters with uniformed officers who used threats of criminal charges to demand immediate shut-downs.)

In August 2013, Hear the Music issued a rebuttal to the Oxford report written by its own acoustic expert, Arno Bommer. Among other things, Bommer argued that the suggested decibel standards would allow for louder sounds during otherwise quiet times and that using Woolworth's suggested noise limits in cultural overlays would result in a much louder city. On December 19, 2013, the New Orleans City Council introduced proposed revisions to the noise ordinance. The revisions largely ignored the recommendations that the Woolworth report made, and instead, took their cues from a seven-point proposal put forward by the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents, and Associates.

New Orleans musicians and music lovers took to the airwaves and Internet attacking the proposal. Woolworth himself led a group of council staffers on a tour of the French Quarter, taking sound measurement along the way, and found that 90 percent of the readings taken would violate the proposed ordinance. A planned protest on the City Council's Housing and Human Needs Committee Meeting on January 17, 2014 to discuss the ordinance turned into a celebratory parade when the council withdrew the proposal the night before the meeting. The council has since taken up a much more limited revision of the noise ordinance, focusing exclusively on Bourbon Street. But it seems some revision of the city's general noise ordinance is imminent.

Bureaucrats have more incentives to compromise than groups like Hear the Music are. But the authorities' quest for a more orderly nightlife has created other problems unrelated to noise.

In September 2011, as part of a city beautification campaign, the Department of Sanitation began a crackdown on "bandit signs," which include any placard, poster, or flyer posted on any public right-of-way. Treating the signs as a form of litter, the city announced that anyone posting them would be fined $25 per sign, $50 if it was attached to a tree. One musician joked, "I am going to put 'This Event and Flyer Brought to You by Mitch Landrieu' on all my flyers."

As a result, music promoters, independent contractors, and even owners of lost pets have been forced to battle one another for precious space on coffee-shop billboards. A few months after the announcement, flyers began appearing around the city again, and so far no one has complained about being hit with a fine for a bandit sign. But the ordinance remains on the books, waiting for selective enforcement.

Even New Orleans' most sacred cultural practice, parading, has had run-ins with the Landrieu administration. In 2011 the 20th Annual NOLA Designer Costume Bazaar-a one-day marketplace where designers and artists sell their latest Mardi Gras wares before Carnival Season begins-was shut down for not being properly permitted. Since the event didn't have a nonprofit sponsor, the licensing cost totaled $1,100. Some creative partnering with Threadhead Records helped organizers reduce the cost but could do little to alleviate the headache of City Hall red tape. Happily, in January the bazaar celebrated its 22nd year, tucked safely away in the St. Claude Community Healing Center.

Small-time street vendors who follow second-line parades, selling food and drinks to participants and spectators, have also had issues with the government. In October 2012, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed an ordinance requiring permits for street vendors. The low-cost license (just $25) was intended to prevent selective enforcement, but many New Orleanians saw it as an attack on the city's culture.

There is a long tradition of unlicensed street vendors at parades, and the vendors have historically maintained a good relationship with the police, giving officers free bottles of water and food in exchange for looking the other way while they sell their goods. While the new permits would allow vendors freedom from the fear of police harassment, many bristled under some of the ordinance's provisions, which included the seemingly impossible stipulation that all vendors-even those walking with the parade-be responsible for keeping a 10-foot perimeter free of trash and litter.

The measure also banned vendors from selling alcohol, a market that emerged immediately after Katrina, when many bars were still closed. The prohibition on alcohol sales, combined with the perceived goodwill between vendors and the police, has led many to question the true motive of the ordinance, with some charging it was pushed through by bar owners looking to cut competition.

The Cultural Corporate State

It would be wrong to say that the mayor and the city council don't love New Orleans culture. To the contrary, they place great value on the culture and aim to preserve it. Mayor Landrieu himself is a lifelong resident and arts lover who studied theater in college along with law. At times, even he grows weary with his campaign to clean up the city. At a 2011 city council meeting, Landrieu reluctantly warned residents who were demanding stricter enforcement of a variety of city ordinances to "be careful what you ask for."

Yet the administration's efforts to help the cultural economy tend to rely on the input of large promoters and celebrity musicians who rarely work in the city's lower-tier clubs. While North Rampart street remains silent, the Downtown Development District has reached out to the Grand Ole Opry in planning the renovation of the historic South Rampart Street strip were New Orleans jazz began, to go along with the city's larger plan to revitalize the area around City Hall and the now vacant Charity Hospital.

In the new "cultural economy" of New Orleans, big and traditional are the buzzwords; it is the small-time operators most likely to stumble on something new who find themselves on the outside. The prospect of facing unpredictable enforcement of licensing and zoning regulations tends to scare away small investors, as does the threat of neighborhood associations with well-funded legal representation. That leaves the big boys, who can navigate bureaucracies and afford protracted court battles more easily.

The city's top-down approach to developing the cultural economy does not adequately reflect that sector's bottom-up nature. It assumes the culture that has managed to produce so much on its own will generate even more once properly regulated and administrated.

From the brothels where Jelly Roll Morton pioneered early jazz to the housing-project block parties that gave the world twerking, New Orleans' cultural innovations happen on the margins. The city's traditions have always been shaped by informal institutions and relatively unregulated markets. Trying to make city government the primary driver of the cultural economy threatens to forever alter this ecosystem. In the words of New Orleans guitarist Andre Bouvier, the city's culture "is like a bayou—without the bacteria and algae in the backwaters, the whole thing will die."