[Originally printed in Governing Magazine]
New Orleans, LA–New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. It’s also where the blues and so many other genres have been refined. It still swarms with buskers — street performers — random parades and live music bars. But recently tension has grown between those who make the music and those living near it. Although the city’s initial response was to tamp down on the noise, it has since launched an educational campaign called Sound Check to reduce complaints while letting the music play on.
Noise complaints, says Scott Hutcheson, adviser for cultural economy to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, have been a constant in New Orleans, dating back to the 1800s. But they have grown worse since Hurricane Katrina, as historically musical neighborhoods like the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny and Treme have welcomed new residents, many of them unaccustomed to local culture.
The city initially acted aggressively to shut down the noisemakers. Starting around 2007, it harassed and even shuttered some unlicensed but long-established music joints. It also used zoning rules to prevent other music venues from expanding, stopped buskers from playing after 8 p.m., broke up some of the city’s famous “second line” parades and even tore down community fliers that advertised shows.
This infuriated local musicians, who claimed that the city was ruining their livelihoods and suppressing the culture. After a failed attempt by the city council to amend the existing noise ordinance for greater flexibility, it fell to the Landrieu administration to address the situation. The administration has responded by launching Sound Check and refusing to enforce many regulations, such as the “curfew” laws that discouraged buskers.
The goal of Sound Check is to tackle noise complaints through education. Instead of imposing top-down rules enforced by the police — such as the austere 85-decibel limit — the health department sends inspectors to neighborhoods to address issues case by case, based on the location and tenor of the complaints. “One of the great benefits of Sound Check is that they’re trying to find out from all of those stakeholders what issues exist,” Hutcheson says, “which will help us find out if we need to amend ordinances.”
In its first four months, the program has already reduced complaints. The ultimate aim is for the program to lead to an ordinance that gracefully factors the economic importance both of New Orleans’s music industry and its post-Katrina residential growth.
If the program succeeds at this, it could prove instructive for other musically oriented cities struggling with noise problems. After all, when officials are legally rigid toward noise, they may squelch a cultural asset. But when officials mediate between residents, musicians, venues and other stakeholders, they can save the music.