Sometimes, between looking for conspiracies to expose and conspiracy exposés to debunk, I think about, Why are the Hoodies really doing this sound stuff? By really, I mean, you know, really. What’s going on? Do they even know themselves?
Chapman the noise angel tells about halcyon days in the 90s when it was quieter, when you could sleep with your window open. His Seven Essentials wanted to take the sound rules back to 1997, when Jackson Square was still the Garden of Eden. Of course, there is something a bit dreamy about this story. Many remember the FQ in the 90s as drug-loaded, with gay v. straight segregation, a lot of rats and cat shit in the halls of large houses in shaggy condition, divided into many small flats.
Chapman tells one story of how he had to move out of an apartment that he loved, because the “noise” had just become too much. But that was in 1995, if I am following the chronology right. So – what am I missing?
Something is wrong with it anyway. When Chapman moved out, somebody else moved in, and for all we know, might reside there happily to this day. If not, well, somebody else does.
The French Quarter’s population is pretty low now, no more than 3,900. How many actual living people are within serious encroachment range of the four music bar blocks of Bourbon Street? Some point out that we have to include the hotels, which is mostly to say the Sonesta. But the Sonesta charges more for its Bourbon-side rooms, so that doesn’t hold up too well.
The residences affected must be up and down the side streets: Conti, St Louis, Toulouse, Orleans, St Peter, St Ann. Dave Woolworth says count 180 feet from the noise emanator for safety. So counting both ways from Bourbon, we are talking about the residential properties within that distance. I have not done a survey yet, but that space looks like under a third of the area of the FQ, and probably the most intensively commercial third. So I am going to take a stab and call its residential density 1/4 of normal, which is probably high. So I get 3,900 x 1/4 x 1/3 = 325. I suspect that is higher than actual, but until I walk the space and count, let’s go with it.
How many of those are complaining? A certain percentage will have moved there because they like it. Some will have done the things a reasonable person would do in that neighborhood: insulation, curtains, rugs, air conditioning. They may not love every last decibel, but they have their sound absorbers in place, just as they have a roof against the rain. So what are we really talking about? A hundred? Fifty? Less? Is that really what this is all about?
Why is Chapman leading a charge against something that bothered him 18 years ago? Why is Stuart H. Smith, Atty at Law, so crazed on this subject as to risk arrest and prosecution for intimidation of public officials? Why has VCPORA gambled its reputation on bumbling conspirators, inspiring more mockery than serious attention? Bourbon Street – the VCE in zoning language – is already contained by zoning. Why are so many people driving so many other people nuts about this?
Well, before the anti-music crowd blew it in December and January by somehow maneuvering a really bad bill into Council, based on a really bad manifesto, put together by a camel-making committee of 13 or so, none of whom knew much about sound propagation, and then trying to back it up with secret communications, threats and intimidation, they claimed to be acting on behalf of some other neighborhoods as well. But a big chunk of that turned out to be flimflam.
There is something besides decibels in play here. Something that has been around a long time, and it ain’t going nowhere fast, and it is not nice. It is ugly and stupid and needs pushing out of sight and out of the mind of the French Quarter and the whole city.
Respectability is one word for it. More properly, the appearance of respectability. Victoriana: just look the part. Look nice, smile, and you can get up to anything out of sight.
Attacks on music have a long, comical and respectable history. The other side of the musical culture is the anti-music culture.
What? How could I say that. They tell us that they LOVE music. And that is why they have the right to tell musicians how to play it. They know best, you see.
In reasonably recent history, the responsible adults of the classes of privilege feared and repeatedly tried to avoid or suppress new music. A lot of the objection and resistance was from what you might call the upper class, and it was deeply enmeshed with Jim Crow and selling the city as a bastion of white culture. Louis Armstrong is an icon now, but what did they think of him when he was building that style in the whorehouses of Storyville, and then after Storyville, when there he was, black and playing jazz, the loudest trumpet anybody knew. Do you know what the white Respectables of New Orleans thought of jazz in the 1920s?
Before they decided Louis Armstrong and so many others are our heritage, they did everything they could to prevent their children listening to him. They only reconciled to jazz when the big white bands came out, and turned the wild sounds of the early New Orleans greats to swing. The swing bands called themselves Orchestras and they sat in nice lines. The boosters promoting tourism, who had been working hard to make sure the world knew that the Creoles of New Orleans were exotic heirs of Spanish and French culture, but white, above all white, could feel good about jazz now. They could claim it as a New Orleans original, and the white guys would play nice interesting music, not too loud, not too dissonant, not improvised.
They were not original in this. The Jim Crow South intensified racism in New Orleans, but it wasn’t new. Congo Square was under progressive persecution from the Louisiana Purchase. White society had nothing but rabid contempt for what researchers think was the emerging jazz sound after the civil war. Ragtime horrified them. The same did not go for their children. Young people adopted new music, and their parents made futile attempts to suppress it, or at least keep it away from the white side of the tracks.
An interesting unintended consequence: some school music programs owe their beginning to the older generation’s suspicion of what they could not understand. They donated instruments and resources for the schools to teach the kids proper, European, German, white music.
Some of us might even remember the emergence of Elvis Presley onto the national stage. Rock and Roll. What is the world coming to? And Gangsta Rap. OMG. Are we really still here?
Do you think our Hoodies will see themselves in this picture? I don’t. They see what they want to see, and the mirror is not part of it. Like the parents that were nervous if their children heard that loud, brash trumpet of Louis Armstrong – and I don’t mean Pops, the avuncular icon of the 60s; I mean Louis of the 20s and 30s, in his prime – they have a powerful need to judge what they don’t understand. Why does Bourbon Street have to be so loud? What good is it? That is not how music should be! We know! We are wise and powerful! We can stop this!
No, you can’t. You are neither wise nor powerful. You are at your very worst capable of being a temporary annoyance. Or not.
In 1955, the wise and powerful knew that Elvis Presley wasn’t how it should be. Didn’t help. Neither was Jelly Roll Morton. Neither was Leadbelly and Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry and Pete Seeger and JZ. Neither was Eminem and Madonna. Now she is okay, rich and into religions. We are used to her. But how did you feel about your 12 year olds buying that metal book?
In a public discussion last week about Bourbon Street sound volumes, one of the Council members, possibly annoyed at the charts and cool discussion of the recorded volumes instead of general indignation at the “noise,” asked in a tone that sounded vexed, What about my right to enjoy a walk down the street without being offended by loud music? Thinking it was a serious point for discussion, I asked, How do you weigh that against the thousands of people every day who are visibly loving their experience on Bourbon? Our CM’s answers were interesting. A bit angry, but interesting. In effect, it did not matter, because as a tax paying middle class citizen of New Orleans she has a right to quiet enjoyment of whatever she wants to quietly enjoy. That seems so strange that I may be exaggerating her intention, but that is what it sounded like to me. She also retorted, What about all the people who are not there because they don’t like it? I thought but did not get an opening to say, Presumably they are someplace else, where they do want to be. Personally, I rarely want to be on Bourbon Street, and I find that a good solution is not to go there unless I want to. Works for me.
Then she told me I would never understand because I thought shops could do whatever they want, a laissez-faire free for all. That would be based on Nolascape’s retail articles of a few weeks ago. Her accusation is not true, of course. The right question is, how do you regulate? What is fair, and when does it become an inappropriate attempt at social engineering?
But why was that statement in a technical discussion about sound? Are mechanisms of control closer to the real issue?
The next segue pulled the curtain back, and there was the ol’ Wizard, looking shocked: What about nudity? (Where did that come from? Weren’t we doing decibels here?) There is a woman, in Jackson Square!, topless for pictures for money or tips. Someone interjected, she has body paint on. It is a possibly tricky legal question whether she is sufficiently exposed to be called nude. The Council member seemed unimpressed. Dave Woolworth, still standing by the projection screen, looked perplexed. What do T-shirts and painted breasts have to do with decibel charts?
So the associations are: loud music -> T-shirts -> lewd women. Plus ça change. The Hear the Noise clique like to say they love jazz, just not this loud stuff. But Louis Armstrong who made his bones in Storyville would have recognized this association instantly. These music lovers would not have loved jazz so much in 1920, when the word itself scared many white New Orleanians.
“If any of this is true you won’t be electable as dog catcher by the time I am finished with you. I really can’t believe it but now have 2 investigators on it and intend to depose Robert Watters under oath. I sincerely hope none of this is true. You only promised me one thing when Wilma (Heaton) and I got you elected. I expect you to stop these people who are attacking me personally and pass this legislation. Your victory party was at my house for christs sake and after all that a strip club owner (Robert Watters) has become your confidant and spokesperson.”
Palmer responded by email telling Smith, “This is bulls— and I am disappointed in you.”
I quoted the whole thing because it is fun. Lest we forget. The juicy part for this discussion is, ” . . . a strip club owner . . . has become your confidant . . . ”
There it is again: loud strange music -> commercial sex.
But they love jazz.
Sex, drugs and rock and roll, Bourbon style, and the first two aren’t properly illegal any more either. The loud sound, the big bass and big amps – that is what millions of people like now. If you are not one of them, you don’t have to understand it. They don’t care. You can be as irrelevant as you like. It won’t hurt them. Your father didn’t understand Rock and Roll and your grandfather didn’t understand jazz, so you are in good company, fulfilling your generational mission.
That is all the ferocious Lawyer who has captured the Hoodies really is – a guy who doesn’t get it. He will strut and fret his hour upon a small stage and fizzle away with his comical sidekicks. We remember Louis Armstrong, not the strutters and fretters. If the Council panders to the Dementor again, and to his acolytes and the suckers he threatens and tries to frighten, I predict they will be on the way down soon too. Do you think the people will put up with another Jackie, yanking their chain for 25 years? I don’t think so. Stacy Head should think about it. Join the future. It’s alive.
You have Royal Street, O Ye Class Warriors. You have Magazine, and Wholefoods. Bourbon is not opening pole dancing shops on Royal, at least not yet. There are nice things there. I like them too. I usually like them better than I like Bourbon Street. But not everybody does, and not all the time, so be smart, guys: leave it alone.
The sound ordinance should be a minor issue. Oil and gas giants are taking our world to bits, ruining the air and the earth and the sea, using your air and water as an industrial sewer. The military industrial complex has become an indispensable component of the economy, needing wars to keep it spinning. Financialization of the economy does not create value, it concentrates money. Most of Congress, federal and state, are paid to cover for one or the other of them.That is what we should be looking at, not telling people what they should be listening to, impenetrable to the lessons of a century or more of mass entertainment.
It should be a minor issue, but it isn’t. The Bourbon Street ordinance is in preparation. The Hoodies will be on the warpath again, to undermine, control or take it over. Make them shut up, for being wrong, for being boring, for being sleazy and for being a distraction. I think this council will be rewarded by the city if they do this right, and be out of office before their terms end if they try another round of Hoodie tricks.
I am no expert, hardly even a duffer, on music history. Maybe I got stuff wrong. Here are some references. Prove me wrong, I’ll be glad to correct.
“Music v. Noise,” 2013
“The Band is Always There and Always Playing,” 2013
“”Defining New Orleans Music,” 2013
Bad Vibrations: The History of the Idea of Music as a Cause of Disease
Anthony J. Stanonis, The Big Easy: New Orleans and the Emergence of Modern Tourism 1918-1945.
Richard Campanella, Bourbon Street.
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