Land Use
 

Delicate balance: neighborhood peace vs. the city’s great treasure — its music

A crackdown on non-compliant venues is taking a toll on the musicians as well.

Karen Gadbois

A crackdown on non-compliant venues is taking a toll on the musicians as well.

In the closing moments of the recent Tom Dent Congo Square Symposium, Ronald Waguespack, owner of the St. Roch Tavern, stepped up to the audience microphone and expressed outrage that “on the word of two people” his bar would be fined, temporarily shut down, and have conditions imposed on its ability to present live entertainment.

In fact, under current procedural rules, it only takes the word of one person to wreak havoc on the city’s nightlife, further imperiling the livelihoods of our musicians.

Waguespack focused on the vaguely undemocratic nature of the proceedings and overlooked a more basic question: why he and the bar were summoned to a hearing of the city’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board in the first place.

As the proceedings made clear, no one was arguing that the tavern should or shouldn’t be in business. Attorneys for the city questioned whether St. Roch Tavern had violated a consent agreement that Waguespack signed in 2011, addressing noise, loitering and litter complaints. All they needed was one person to say yes and the heavy penalties kicked in.

Disharmony between city and clubs

The relationship between New Orleans and the clubs that provide live music — and a livelihood for musicians — is fractious these days, and that’s unfortunate. Music is integral to life in New Orleans, not to mention the city’s “brand” as a tourist destination. Shutting down St. Roch and, even more recently, banning music at Mimi’s in the Marigny, is particularly unfortunate for those businesses, given the timing. Jazz Fest, less than two weeks away, is an economic engine that helps businesses get through the summer, and the city’s musicians fuel that engine.

Despite that central importance to our culture and economy, the musician’s existence is a precarious one. According to a 2010 study by the musicians’ aid organization Sweet Home New Orleans, musicians earn an average of $15,000 a year — an income level that forces them to rely on spouses or second jobs.

That hardly seems like just compensation for men and women who are the city’s greatest asset. No wonder musicians feel persecuted when venues are shut down, even temporarily. With those venues go gigs.

But the “war on live music” meme has kept members of the music community fighting the wrong fight, worrying about whether a city that is building its tourism industry on the back of musicians cares about live music. Instead, there are far more constructive questions to pursue:

  • Can the city find ways to crack down on businesses not in compliance with permitting and zoning — but without inflicting collateral damage on musicians and their livelihoods?
  • Is it desirable to have the beverage control board and City Council changing the nature of New Orleans nightlife one consent agreement and conditional use permit at a time?
  • How to respect “quality of life” concerns in specific neighborhoods without shuttering music venues that are a proven asset to the city as a whole?
  • Does the relatively free-range nature of New Orleans’ nightlife add to the city’s mystique, even for those who finish their drinks before they leave the bar and are in bed by 11?

Retuning regulation

Some of the outrage against the city crackdown on live music needs to be converted into positive support for venues in trouble and the musicians who depend on their continued survival. We’ve seen it happen.

Mimi’s in the Marigny expanded live music offerings shortly after Hurricane Katrina when bands needed work. When the neighborhood was largely empty, there was no problem with that. The music helped enliven otherwise slow nights, and those gigs and countless others in rogue venues were symbols of New Orleans’ indomitable spirit. But when the neighborhood was repopulated and the corner of Franklin and Royal emerged as a nightlife hub with three flourishing bars, the fact that Mimi’s was never zoned for live music became a problem. On Friday, Judge Michael Bagneris forced Mimi’s to stop presenting live entertainment because it has yet to get the necessary zoning changes and permits for live music.

Venues leave themselves vulnerable when they make ad hoc changes in their formats and offerings without heeding city regulations. The Parkway Tavern also presented live music after Hurricane Katrina, but once the city began its crackdown on unauthorized clubs by shutting down King Bolden’s on Rampart Street, Parkway quietly stopped booking bands.

Note, by the way, that the action against King Bolden’s was a maneuver rooted in the administration of disgraced former Mayor Ray Nagin. In other words, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s people did not invent the problems faced by clubs offering live music.

Not every enforcement action should be disparaged as part of an anti-music campaign of harassment and persecution, and not every citizen complaint can be dismissed as the ranting of a neighborhood killjoy.

That said, I wish permitting sweeps, beverage control board actions and zoning enforcements didn’t feel like New Orleans’ version of sin taxes: the cultivation of a revenue stream that voters won’t challenge because it’s pinned unarguably to a club proprietor’s ignorance of the law or poor judgment in trying to defy it.

The current approach marks New Orleans musicians as outsiders, if not by act then by association. This is the sort of fight the music community needs to focus on so that the city’s greatest treasures can stop feeling like enemies of the state.

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  • Rachel Dangermond

    Fair assessment of a problem that affects all of us. Thanks Alex.

  • Thanks for a balanced look at the issue. I wasn’t happy to see St. Roch Tavern shut for two weeks and its staff out of work, but I also know that some of the witnesses at the board hearing had legitimate issues with loitering, vandalism, and noise on some nights. They were also homeowners before St. Roch Tavern became a music destination. Caranek’s/Phil’s Lounge/St. Roch Tavern was traditionally a low-key bar for daytime drinkers, with no live music until about 2007. While the bar is a long-standing local institution, the live music and the clientele that vacillates between crusty and hipster are recent developments. Same goes for a lot of the bars on St. Claude Avenue.

  • kmsoap

    It is a particularly sensitive issue to those of us who returned to the destruction after the storm. We have worked for years to rebuild and bring life back into the city, and never could have done it without the help of those who came to our aid and fell in love with New Orleans. But it was kind of like falling in live with a girl in a coma. You may not like her much when she comes back around.

    Our music and culture are an essential part of our identity. There are many places in the country that you can go to find peace and quiet, but if you asked even the most casual observer to name ten things that define our city, the term quiet would never be listed, at least in a positive sense. The Lower 9th Ward is quiet. Of course, there are blocks where only one or two residents have returned. Quiet is the death of our city.

    New Orleans is a magical place. The sounds of the city are music to our ears, and, in something that is uniquely ours, that music is music in the most literal sense. Every time someone tries to silence the city, it is as if they want to undo the progress made since the storm. We can be rather particular about that…and we should be.

  • Alex Rawls wrote, “The current approach marks New Orleans musicians as outsiders, if not by
    act then by association. This is the sort of fight the music community
    needs to focus on so that the city’s greatest treasures can stop feeling
    like enemies of the state.”

    TREASURES?
    Are you saying MUSIC is a treasure?
    GOLD is also a treasure, but the laws of SUPPLY and DEMAND determine the value of GOLD.
    The laws of SUPPLY and DEMAND also determine the value of LIVE MUSIC.

    Alex Rawls wrote, “Despite that central importance to our culture and economy, the
    musician’s existence is a precarious one. According to a 2010 study by
    the musicians’ aid organization Sweet Home New Orleans, musicians earn
    an average of $15,000 a year — an income level that forces them to rely
    on spouses or second jobs.”

    So at the current SUPPLY and DEMAND as well as the PAST Supply and Demand, Musicians for the last 30 or more years have been making barely anything, correct? In fact, over the last 30 years, festivals are bigger and more keep popping up…that means more SUPPLY.

    If GOLD were to be as easily obtainable like say ALUMINUM, it would soon go lower in price, a lot lower.

    The same can be said for Mardi Gras Beads. At one time, the nicer beads were sought after. Yet, now, ever nicer and more fancy beads are readily available and in great abundance. Hence, crowds don’t even pick up many good beads on the ground during parades.

    What you refer to as “treasure”, or LIVE MUSIC, is in great abundance within New Orleans and the French Quarter….so much so there are FREE LIVE MUSIC street performers just playing for tips up and down the French Quarter and Canal St…….

    THAT’s called OVER-SUPPLY. And when that happens, the average musician’s yearly income will go down.

    If you want musician’s year income to go UP, you need more DEMAND and more demand means people who can afford to PAY. Those who can afford to PAY have J-O-B-S.

    GOOD JOBS.
    GOOD JOBS are by GOOD COMPANIES.

    New Orleans has almost no companies and very few good jobs.

    Good Companies want their employees to actually SHOW UP, and SHOW UP ON TIME.

    Hanging out past 11pm, day after day, causes employees to not show up on time.

    SELF-CENTERED vs BIG PICTURE:

    Many New Orleans Musicians and Bar Owners clearly don’t see the BIG PICTURE and are somewhat self-centered as they think their audience can stay up late at some bar, nite after nite, and then get up for their job in the morning day after day.

    Guess what?

    Staying up late, nite after nite, and trying to get up in the morning for school or work and being alert and doing a good job at a good company isn’t going to happen, now, or in the future.

  • “Can the city find ways to crack down on businesses not in compliance with permitting and zoning — but without inflicting collateral damage on musicians and their livelihoods?”

    No. Musicians work venues, and if you shut down those venues, you hurt musicians, period.

    “Is it desirable to have the beverage control board and City Council changing the nature of New Orleans nightlife one consent agreement and conditional use permit at a time?”

    No.

    “How to respect “quality of life” concerns in specific neighborhoods without shuttering music venues that are a proven asset to the city as a whole?”

    Two ways: First, by focusing enforcement resources on venues that actually have a history of complaints as opposed to rote permit sweeps; and, secondly, by actually investigating complaints to gather objective evidence rather than simply taking the word of one or two people, who may simply be cranks.

    “Does the relatively free-range nature of New Orleans’ nightlife add to the city’s mystique, even for those who finish their drinks before they leave the bar and are in bed by 11?”

    Yes.

    Here’s the thing, though — none of these answers are in conflict with the idea that the city is cracking down on live music and that it’s a problem. Positive support for specific venues is one thing, but it’s not the only thing. All this directionless hand-wringing — shielding our eyes to the bigger picture and pretending that this hasn’t become a larger problem under Landrieu — is foolish.

  • Should crack down on Orleans Parish Gas Stations as they are a glorified combination Nuisance Bar, Homeless Shelter and Drug Addict Haven.

    Just driving around, these GAS STATIONS, at least the ones in Orleans Parish, you can see that these gas stations, at least in Orleans Parish, are a HUGE problem.

    WORSE THAN A NUISANCE BAR:
    These Orleans Parish Gas Stations are very similar to a nuisance bar except far worse.

    These Orleans Parish Gas Stations sell alcohol 24/7 and even to the homeless, panhandlers and addicts 24/7…even between 7am-11am in the morning!

    WORKERS and MANAGERS WHO COULD CARE LESS:
    These gas stations hire minimum wage workers and low paid managers who could care less who they sell to and know
    full well who the homeless, panhandlers, addicts and gutter punks are as they see them several hours per day, every day!
    They definitely don’t get tips like a bartenders either.

    The homeless, addicts, gutter punks and panhandlers even get to use the nice bathrooms while going outside to
    aggressively beg/ask/demand for money from the customers that are pumping gas, hence, the customer pumping gas can’t easily ignore them. They also camp out and panhandle at the same intersection the gas stations are located on.

    These Orleans Parish Gas Stations have customers (e.g. thugs, addicts, homeless, panhandlers, etc) that leave trash, garbage, beer cans, liquor bottles and any packaging all around the gas station and neighboring businesses and streets that are sold by the very same gas station.

    These Orleans Parish Gas Stations allow loitering 24/7 and drinking on the premises 24/7.

    HIDE BEHIND BULLET PROOF GLASS:
    These Orleans Parish Gas Stations also HIDE behind bullet proof glass and exchange goods through a metal sliding slots/drawers while other surrounding businesses get robbed by the same customers (teens, thugs and drug dealers) the gas station serves on a daily basis.

    While the gas stations are even bigger, brighter and more flashy to combat crime, those building and lighting improvements only sell more alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, etc and the neighborhood becomes worse as the gas station attract more EBT, Section 8, welfare and you name it, while crime and murders skyrocket in the same neighborhood.

    SOLUTIONS:
    These Orleans Parish Gas Stations definately need to have their alcohol permits revoked, limited hours of operation times, and many just closed down….JUST LIKE NUISANCE BARS.

    While these Orleans Parish Gas Stations by themselves bring in more sales tax revenue from more sales, the number of 911 calls and crime in the very same neighborhood eats up any increase in sales tax revenue.

    Moreover, these Orleans Parish Gas Stations REDUCE the other surrounding neighborhood business sales as their customers are afraid of the crime, homeless, panhandlers and addicts these Orleans Parish Gas Stations attracts.

    Thus, the over all tax revenue of the neighborhood becomes far less from reduced sales taxes and decreased property values and taxes.

    Heck, all Orleans Parish Gas Stations should be have their alcohol permits revoked as that is no different than the Drive-Thru Daquiri Shop. Allowing homeless, addicts, panhandlers, and gutter punks to purchase alcohol all times during the day only increases the social problems.

    Lastly, allowing even gas station customers to quickly and easily purchase single cans/bottles of alcohol (without waiting in a grocery store checkout line or walking down a grocery store aisle) at all times of the day while fully knowing they are going to drink and drive is just as bad and contributes to the highest car insurance rates in the nation. Very similar to the drive-thru dacquiris shops that states outside of Louisiana laugh at.