New Orleans memo: You can still have great music without noise pollution


Sometimes a name can tell you a lot. In the past, I’ve told you about my enthusiastic support for a New Orleans group, active on Facebook and the Internet, that’s called “Hear the Music, Stop the Noise.” The title makes a powerful point: That it’s possible for a great American city like my hometown to continue having a spectacular and vibrant music scene without assaulting people’s eardrums and harming their health. This public education campaign has been very successful. Since launching in January of this year, the website has received over 18,000 hits and over 20,000 page views. Hundreds have signed the petition on the website. The Facebook page has 167 people who have friended our page and we are getting more every day.

We’re not opposed to the great venues in the Big Easy — the Cajun rhythms of a bar like the Maple Leaf or the world-class funk of a Tipitina’s, not to mention the great jazz that New Orleans is famous for. Most of the worst noise offenders are bars whose owners do not appreciate the need to have balance such that they have dragged down once-great entertainment strips like Bourbon Street, even as wonderful food and music thrives elsewhere in the French Quarter and around the city.

Why do we care? As a resident of the French Quarter (one of many), I can tell you that over-the-top noise pollution is exactly that: Pollution, just like spilled litter or a foul stench, disrupting the natural beauty of a balmy night in the Crescent City. But it’s not just that throbbing music from a dive bar or a go-go club can keep you up in the middle of the night or make it hard just to have a conversation. It’s that science is now proving beyond a doubt that repeated exposure to the levels of noise that are all too routine in a neighborhood like the French Quarter can be truly harmful to your health.

This summer, I wrote about a New York Times survey of 37 popular nightclubs and bars in the Big Apple — it found that New York’s hot spots were getting louder and louder, deliberately so, and that fully one-third now had noise levels that bordered on dangerous. Club owners turn up the noise for a variety of reasons — maybe to attract a younger clientele, maybe even to get you to eat and drink faster and give your seat to the next paying customer. But long-term exposure to noise pollution can cause all kind of chronic health problems — damaged or lost hearing is the most obvious, but prolonged exposure can also cause high blood pressure or heart problems.

For a long time, the city government in New Orleans — not exactly a regulatory pitbull — was remarkably lax about enforcing the city’s zoning laws and noise ordinance, issuing just a handful of violation notices even as the situation along Bourbon Street and in some other parts of town spun out of control. Things have changed a bit in the last year, and there’s been a stronger effort to make sure the laws are followed. In some cases, not surprisingly, there has been a pushback, from some owners and even in the media.

This article appeared this week in the NOLA Defender:

Dozens of people gathered today at Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy on Basin St. in response to Kermit Ruffins’ earlier Facebook call to action to come together and get a plan to “stop the city from taking live entertainment away from small clubs.”  Last week, DJ Soul Sister’s HUSTLE party and other weekly gigs fell silent Mimi’s in the Marigny. Earlier, Siberia Bar, and, for a week, Circle Bar had to cease live music as a result of the city government’s “aggressive” enforcement of old zoning laws and sound ordinances. 

 With the line of people running outside the door, the Restaurant & Bar failed to fit the funky hodgepodge of musicians, heated club owners, attorneys, journalists, who showed up to support music and culture in New Orleans. Scott Hutcheson, the mayor’s advisor on cultural economy, showed up mostly to listen, and spoke briefly at the end of the meeting.

There’s one thing that needs to be made clear: Efforts like “Hear the Music, Stop the Noise” that support appropriate enforcement of the zoning and noise pollution law have never been about stopping quality live music in New Orleans. We also support changing those laws for the better of all the citizens of New Orleans. There is an appropriate time and place for all artistic activity, however. It’s always been about finding the right balance. To that effect, we would love to work with concerned citizens like Kermit Ruffins to help find ways that nightclubs can continue to put on live music, yet stay within the law.

That would be a win-win for everyone involved.

I love music and home-grown music the best, just ask anyone that knows me. I financially support the musicians at French Quarter Festival, the New Orleans Opera, the Symphony and the ballet. I am a full time and constant presence at Voodoo Fest and the Jazz Fest. I also love Kermit Ruffins’ music, and he has played at my house on two occasions, though I doubt he would be available to do it again now that he is a superstar. I would love to offer legal advice to his new group on compliance issues and hope to visit with him soon about this extremely important issue. I see a lot of common ground here. For example, many residents fear opening up residential zoning districts to live music because the city has historically not compelled compliance with quality of life laws. Stricter enforcement would allay some of those fears, as would sound proofing requirements, etc.

Let’s hope we can come together and find solutions.

To keep informed about the battle for balance in New Orleans, visit the “Hear The Music Stop the Noise” website – and sign our petition:

Please visit and “like” our Facebook page:

To read my Aug. 3 blog post about noise pollution from New Orleans to New York, please check out:

Check out my Feb. 9 blog post about New Orleans noise pollution at:

To read about the meeting held at Kermit Ruffins’ nightclub, please go to:

For more coverage in the Times-Picayune, please read:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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