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New Orleanians sound off on noise ordinance

Noise: How much is too much?

Noise: How much is too much?

Suddenly there’s a lot of noise out there about noise.

In late December, the City Council introduced proposed revisions to the city’s noise ordinance that would limit decibel levels of live music, and now “all Hell is breaking loose,” as Offbeat publisher Jan Ramsey phrases it.

In fact, what looks like a championship fight is shaping up. In one corner: VCPORA (Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates), the organization purportedly behind the ordinance; in the other: MACCNO (Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans), a group that advocates for local musicians. As the controversy heats up, the gloves are coming off. A sampling:

  • Louis Armstrong would be appalled by modern-day Bourbon Street, maintains ordinance proponent Stuart Smith in his online blog. “The class acts he knew are mostly gone, replaced for the most part by super amps and bass woofers that blast the night away with zero respect for the environment of the French Quarter. Bourbon Street has become a caricature of itself.”
  • Buddy Bolden, who could reputedly push the sound of his cornet “clean across the river,” would be appalled by the ordinance itself, notes’s Jarvis DeBerry. “It would make it an unlikely place for the next Buddy Bolden to create out loud.”
  • About VCPORA and its concerns, Ramsey has this to say: “The majority of citizens in New Orleans think you are full of crap, and are trying to quell music through back-door politics. You call it noise. We call it music and street culture.”
  • And according to blogger Bob Freilich, the ordinance as written is “a scurrilous draft … with impossibly low decibel limits recommended by a questionable audiometrician.”

I met a woman in a French Quarter bar last week who told me that most people don’t know the real reason behind the noise ordinance. It’s needed, she confided, to protect musicians’ hearing from the effects of too-loud music.

The truly weird thing: She was serious.

The most controversial parts of the proposed ordinance focus on two things: decibel level, which would be 60 dB max at night for residential parts of the French Quarter, 65 for commercial areas; and where those decibels are measured. Before, levels were measured from the complaining party’s property; now they would be measured from the property line of the sound’s source.

Even the conversation around these seemingly concrete points gets a little strange:

From a press release advocating the change in where to measure from: “For many people, such as our elderly, it can be intimidating to call authorities about a nearby bar. Many people are uncomfortable having police take sound measurements standing on their stoop or porch, or inside their homes.”

Ramsey’s response“The old people I know who are ‘intimidated’ by calling in a complaint are … gee, I just don’t know any old cranky person who would be intimidated. What hogwash.”

When I first moved here in the late ‘70s, I lived in the 900 block of Bourbon Street, between Lafitte’s in Exile (which could get rowdy) and Lafitte’s Blacksmith (which did not). But the only sounds that routinely pierced my balcony window arose from the opera singer across the street practicing her arias.

As for the strident notes of the riverboat calliope: I would ban them outright if I could. A more annoying, discordant melody has never been invented (sorry, Doc Hawley – you, I love). Give me Rebirth any day.

These days, I live within earshot of several bars. And I have to say that the noise generated by them rarely bothers me. The most raucous crowds tend to gather during Saints games and Carnival parades. And badly parked cars and wandering drunks are far more apt to mar my residential calm than bands.

Still, I’m sure that even on a slow night the noise levels from these neighborhood joints exceed the ordinance’s maximum allowed after 10 p.m.

According to my expert sources on the Internet, a normal conversation at 3 feet clocks in at 60 decibels; a vacuum cleaner at 70; a chamber group in a small auditorium, 75; and a telephone dial tone, 80.

I’m not sure how loud a “normal” live band is; a Google search yielded uneven results. The one I identified with most:

“120 is cool!!! If it’s too loud, your fans are too old!!”

Which generated the response:

“Or not old enough. I can’t hear it unless it’s that loud.”

For those who are concerned about sound politics, there are many free decibel meter apps available for smart phones and tablets. But I haven’t downloaded one.

I’m too bemused by another issue our City Council has deemed worthy of a vote: whether or not Krewe of Tucks members can throw toilet paper from their floats this year.

NolaVie contributor Jonathan Land offers a graphic tongue-in-cheek take on the sound ordinance here. Check out NolaVie president Sharon Litwin’s article on the issue here. Chelsea Lee snaps an Instajournal of Quarter musicians here.


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