New Orleans, Blues, and Politics- part 1

New Orleans is a hotbed of music, especially jazz and blues.  Since the early 1970s there has been an uneasy truce between the musicians (especially in the French Quarter) and the residents regarding acceptable levels of noise or music. Recently, as has been reported, this truce broke down when one group began arguing for reducing the maximum permitted noise level from 80 dB to 70 dB, which is the equivalent of two people talking to each other. Others opposed the change in the noise code.  I think that a happy compromise can be reached, but specifying noise or music levels is not just about preventing hearing loss; we already have good models for this.  It is also about annoyance and, alas, the field of acoustics has very little to say on this topic.

Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other soundsLarry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds The following is the first in a three-part series by Larry Blumenfeld, who wrote it for Blu Note magazine with the title “Marking Time, and Making Time For Smart Cultural Policy, in New Orleans” Larry Blumenfeld is editor-at-large of Jazziz and a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and Blu Note.  Larry is also responsible for the various photographs found in this 3 part series.

Cover “The Mascot,” November 15, 1890. Cartoon by F. Bildestein
Cover “The Mascot,” November 15, 1890. Cartoon by F. Bildestein

My son Sam turned six today. We’ll make a big deal out of it in our family, reflecting on remarkable growth that began in trauma (four weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit) and dreaming about his future. Last Friday marked nine years since the floods in New Orleans caused by the levee breaches that followed Hurricane Katrina. I suspect some locals will celebrate or conduct solemn ceremonies, while others entirely ignore the date. I doubt much national media will pay attention. I know there will be a big wave of coverage (mine included) next year, when that particular trauma turns ten: we tend to reflect most around round numbers. I’ve been ambivalent toward these anniversaries based on my experience. I recall during the first anniversary of the flood, one Lower Ninth Ward family stood by and watched as an anchorwoman held her microphone in front of their devastated home: “The producer said he doesn’t want us in the picture,” the father told me, holding his baby in his arms. Point being, pay close attention to—don’t ignore—the lives represented by each house destroyed and rebuilt or not, every neighborhood that comes back or doesn’t.

For what it’s worth, here are my accounts of August 29 in New Orleans, from 2007  and 2010.  The conversations—often battles—of nine years ago concerning what would get rebuilt and would not, and who would return and would not, has in large part now given way to debates—and, again, battles—over the shape and character of a “new” New Orleans.

Part 1 second picture Those of us who remember the green dots on maps issued in January 2006 by then-mayor C. Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission—targeting certain hard-hit areas of New Orleans as future park space—know that the future of New Orleans, and the city’s character, has a lot to do with how its spaces are zoned and used. Amid the panic and fury of alarmed residents whose neighborhoods had been overlaid with those green dots, and who expected to return and to rebuild, that 2006 map quickly met its demise. Yet many of its ominous implications have played out anyway through obstacles to rebuilding and land-grabs. On August 26, three days before the anniversary of the 2005 disaster, the New Orleans City Planning Commission will begin a series of public hearings regarding a Draft Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance . According to the Planning Commission’s website: New Orleans’ zoning ordinance no longer meets the needs of the city today and is an obstacle to creating the city of the future. The 1970s zoning ordinance—unsuitable for a 21st-century city—has been amended so many times and overlaid with so many changes that it is extremely difficult to understand and riddled with inconsistencies. Public hearings on the CZO were held on August 26, and are scheduled for September 2 and 9.

What does all this have to do with culture? A great deal. Especially in New Orleans, where so much culture bubbles up from and is played out in the streets, and is incubated and branded in specific neighborhoods—but actually wherever culture happens in cities. I’ve been writing for the past nine years about indigenous New Orleans jazz culture—not just its joys and its role in rebuilding, but also the curious tensions and inhibitions that surround it, which have grown starker and more urgent since the 2005 flood, and that often have basis (and, I’d argue, solutions) in matters of city ordinances and, yes, zoning. For those who live in New Orleans, those who travel there regularly in real life or just in their minds and hearts, and those who treasure its culture from afar, this moment—when an as-yet-undefined “new” New Orleans rubs up against whatever is left of the old one—speaks volumes regarding what is exceptional about the city’s culture, and how those in power might best support and nurture (as opposed to simply promote or, worse, suppress) that exceptional resource.

There are some aspects of this dynamic that are particular to New Orleans—say, the climate surrounding second-line parades. But there are also reasons why the ways in which this story plays out will inform other cities that wonder how to balance homegrown culture with the steamrolling effects of development and the polarizing nature of growing inequity. Tensions around New Orleans culture tend to bubble up as provoked by specific incidents: a funeral procession turns into an ugly spectacle of police intervention; the Social Aid & Pleasure clubs that mount second-line parades sue the city  in federal court over prohibitive fees; a brass band gets shut down while playing on its usual corner; a popular club gets cited for violating this or that ordinance, based on a neighbor’s complaint. Much of civic life and city governance revolves around negotiating individual circumstances; no two cases are the same. Yet it’s been clear for a very long time to the attorneys, activists, musicians and culture lovers in New Orleans (as well as to a journalist like me covering this scene) that New Orleans has long been at odds with the very culture that defines it and that much of the city’s tourism is based upon. The very idea is mind-boggling to those who live outside New Orleans: a city whose image is largely derived from its live musical entertainment and other cultural rituals essentially outlawing or severely inhibiting public performance and expression through noise, quality-of-life, and zoning ordinances.

New Orleans has a penchant for ritual, and for reliving its past, yet just because the city’s culture has always occupied embattled space does not mean it must remain so. What New Orleans has needed for a long time—what there now exists a unique opportunity to craft—is a broadly conceived policy that removes culture from the crosshairs of controversy though the creation of reasonable, clear and supportive ordinances, realistic methods of enforcement, and enough popular awareness to create a sea-change in attitude. The ninth anniversary of the flood that couldn’t wash away New Orleans culture might best be honored by removing the obstacles that some fear will whittle that culture away or twist it into something lesser in the name of development.

In part 2, we will review the key areas of interest.

About Marshall Chasin

Marshall Chasin, AuD, is a clinical and research audiologist who has a special interest in the prevention of hearing loss for musicians, as well as the treatment of those who have hearing loss. I have other special interests such as clarinet and karate, but those may come out in the blog over time.