In a city best known for its music, partying and lively culture, a surprising amount of cynical residents have challenged New Orleans’s vibrant way of life in the past decade. Bars and restaurants have frequently received noise complaints from their neighbors, and in many cases, legal action has been taken. Some speculate that the abundance of neighborly feuds escalated after Katrina, when the quick and forceful foot of gentrification made its way in the door, but I’ve found some litigations that predate the devastating hurricane. That is not to overlook the fact that with gentrification came the advancement of new and unacquainted ears, not content with this loud lifestyle, which caused many to file lawsuits against their neighbors.
In 2004, Pat O’Brien’s Bar and Restaurant in the French Quarter was sued by neighboring artist Peterson Yokum over a noise complaint. Yokum claimed that the music emitted from the New Orleans landmark was unbearable and that the resonation of noise throughout his home impeded on his painting abilities. This litigation was issued 11 years ago and the progress has showed no indication of resolution any time soon. And following this unconcluded lawsuit came more unresolved cases regarding noise complaints.
In early 2014, Buffa’s Bar and Restaurant just beyond the Quarter was taken to court by their neighbor Sidney Torres, who petitioned for reasons similar to Yokum. Buffa’s had not received any noise complaints or police visits regarding noise until the lawsuit was issued. Not even Torres himself called the police on Buffa’s; the bar was only aware of the complaint after a phone call from Torres’ lawyer. Unlike Yokum’s lawsuit, however, Torres is not requesting any compensation for “irreparable harm.” Torres simply wants the music turned down for a more comfortable living environment, which the owners of Buffa’s are more than happy to accommodate. But at a certain point the plaintiff’s requests became almost unattainable. “He’s never called the cops on us, he’s always been very cordial in person… but it’s just perplexing to us, because he won’t drop it. After all of the noise tests, before and after our soundproof installments, we haven’t exceeded the maximum allowed decibels,” Chuck Rogers, owner of Buffa’s Bar and Restaurant, said. Rogers spent $30,000 soundproofing the interior of the restaurant, but supposedly that has not been enough for Torres. Despite Torres’ intentions, the litigations have not affected Buffa’s negatively. The publicity of the case brought in supportive customers of live music, creating a bundle of revenue, but the standstill lawsuit has inhibited the bar from making any further progressions and doing the remodeling that they had planned for.
The frequent argument, or question for the plaintiffs in these cases, is: why would you move next to a bar if you have problems with noise? The common answer has yet to emerge, but that is partly because the answer exists in a grey area. “Of course people shouldn’t move next to a bar and then complain about it, but there is a flip side to that argument that I’m aware of,” Rogers explains. “If people have done their diligence and examined their future neighborhood only to find out that it’s much more undesirable after they’ve bought the home, that is very frustrating. But then again, the business does in most cases have the right to expand.” Buffa’s does not plan to grow or become more distressing to the area, they simply want to keep their position as the neighborhood bar. If Torres comes out on top of this case, then Buffa’s will have to resort to a jukebox which they would have no control over. Rogers insists that he wants to accommodate Torres, but in order to do that he has to be in control of the noise levels, which would be extremely difficult with customers dialing the volume knobs on a music-blaring sound system such as a jukebox. I noticed that within all of these litigations, only the defendant made changes, and when their compensation still does not meet the plaintiff’s criteria, a standstill occurs.
Why would you move next to a bar if you have problems with noise?
After Katrina, between 2007 and 2008, Le Bon Temps Roulé Bar and Sandwich Shop on Magazine Street received noise complaints from a new neighbor which prompted a lawsuit. But Joe Bikulege, owner of Le Bon Temps, described the litigation as “an excellent example of how different factions can come together, work together and get things done”. The city, the police and the neighbors were all very lenient with Bikulege, giving him all the time he required to soundproof the place. In the end everyone was happy, but I believe the defendant could have received a more accommodating closure. “Although we were not technically breaking the ordinance, I was willing to help those who live directly next to me,” Bikulege told me. “And now I know I won’t have any problems in the future.” Bikulege spent $100,000 soundproofing an aging building that was not built to have those types of installations and he even sacrificed his recompense through physical labor by personally designing and constructing a roof structure on top of the existing roof. The neighborhood is now a peaceful zone, but that is all due to Bikulege’s effort and expense.
If someone moves into a nightlife-stricken neighborhood, they should understand the situation they are entering. On the other hand, everyone has the right to address a problem that is detrimental to their decency of living. But new problems often arise when the accuser uses the case as a power trip. Both Rogers and Bikulege emphasized this point, with Bikulege stressing that the plaintiffs often reach a point of “ridiculousness” and Rogers stating that both parties must be “reasonable with each other”. Bikulege was satisfied with his experience because he does not believe his litigators were being ridiculous. Rogers is just confused, because he senses reason hidden in Torres, though Torres has not displayed it yet. It seems that Rogers has done all that he can do to accommodate his plaintiff, and now it is Torres’ turn to help himself.
In the Pat O’Brien’s case, it appears that Peterson Yokum displays that power trip, that “ridiculousness” and lack of reason. His lawyer Stuart Smith, who has become one of the leaders in this “hushing movement”, claims that he wants to create a balance between outside noise and the relaxation of the local residents. This is a reasonable suggestion, but he intends to do so by enforcing background checks, permits and designated performance areas. He insists that the customers, patrons, musicians and passersby are all unsafe to the severities of noise pollution.
Musicians don’t register sound as an imminent danger or as something that should prevent them from producing more sound. They make music for the sole purpose of producing these sounds, which are deemed pleasurable according to individual tastes and the level of intensity one’s eardrums can withstand. If a musician’s own ears hurt, then a pair of plugs usually do the trick. Yokum, who sued Pat O’Brien’s and a few other popular businesses in his area such as Court of Two Sisters and Old Opera House, is requesting that these bars compensate him with tens of thousands of dollars. Yokum told WWL news, “They continue to play their music extremely loud, they have bands without permits,” all while in the process of painting a picture of a jazz band in a full-fledged jam session. In another interview according to The Visual Vamp blog, Yokum said, “I got a little group. We drink a little liquor, get all fired up and play some music, make some noise.” There are clearly questions of hypocrisy within Yokum’s allegations.
The musically booming culture of New Orleans is not going to depart lightly. Where will it go? Once live music is regulated, the thousands of musicians practically employed by night clubs will be forced to go elsewhere or find employment separate from music. Becoming a street musician is not an option, because it cannot sustain a stable income, and the hush-hush police will boot them from their improvised stage. Maybe a quieter French Quarter is a pleasant scenario (Bourbon Street loses its trashy touch; the smell of puke diminishes), but the stream of unemployment and dislocation that would be created from that puzzling image of one of the most festive and booze-filled party centers of America, if not the world, would be highly devastating for the numerous New Orleans musicians, as well as tourism revenue. There are new residents who are unaccustomed to the culture of this city, and natives who are sick and tired of it, and they may appear to be destructing New Orleans’s traditions. However, the majority of inhabitants here abide by, or simply deal with, the customs that come with this city. Hopefully some kind of compromise can be made between neighbors and their noisy neighbors, instead of a forceful kick from their familiar way of life.