Police remind businesses of rules regarding live music
“Businesses that have played by the rules are frustrated because businesses have opened that are not playing by the existing rules.” Kristin Gisleson Palmer, councilwoman
Two New Orleans police officers walked Frenchmen Street on a recent Friday night wielding unusual weapons: highlighted copies of a city ordinance.
Moving from club to club, the officers asked proprietors to close their doors, remove tables from the sidewalks and take down barricades used to block off street space. Most critically, the cops also reminded them of 9-year-old music restrictions that would be a shock to most Frenchmen Street regulars: In most venues, the law says, bands may have no more than three musicians, and the music may not be amplified in any way.
The Police Department says the sweep was routine, and not a harbinger of a crackdown.
“Quality-of-life officers normally head out to such areas prior to big-crowd events. In this case, it was conducted before Bayou Classic crowds come to town,” department spokeswoman Remi Braden said. “The check puts businesses on notice that NOPD is making sure they’re following the rules and providing a safe setting for residents and visitors. When officers make periodic checks, it’s more likely that owners will continue to abide by safety rules when thousands descend on city streets for events like the Classic.”
But the police visits set off a storm of protest online, perhaps because club owners say the regulations haven’t been enforced in years, and the visits seemed to them to bode ill.
Brian Grenier, of The Maison, one of the venues governed by the restrictions, wrote a blog post at FrenchmenStreetLive.com headlined: “Major Crackdown Begins on Frenchmen St., Future of the Street in Question!”
In it, Grenier predicted many musicians would be out of work if the sweeps continued. Facebook sprang to life to share the blog, with poster after poster fretting that, yet again, New Orleans was trying to stamp out live music.
The angst reflected a real-life division about the future of the street, with some Faubourg Marigny residents looking for the burgeoning strip to calm down and return to its roots as a neighborhood commercial corridor that happens to host live music. Others, particularly the owners of clubs that have opened in recent years, argue it is time to embrace the street’s growing popularity and revisit rules that have been widely ignored.
The debate about the future of Frenchmen Street comes at a time when musicians, music lovers and neighborhood groups are locked in a sometimes contentious debate over the place — and volume — of live music in the city.
If last week’s enforcement effort took some club owners by surprise, the regulations at issue aren’t new. They date to a 2004 ordinance called the Frenchmen Street Arts and Cultural Diversity Overlay that aimed to preserve the quality of the music played there and prevent Frenchmen from turning into an extension of Bourbon Street.
“We wanted to extend the French Quarter where we could have more live music, and create a street that not only would bring more live music — jazz, blues, our native New Orleans styles of music — but to have a combination of entertainment, businesses and residents that was compatible with business, economic development and good entertainment,” said Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson, who in 2004 represented the area and headed a committee that helped write the zoning overlay.
The way the ordinance sought to accomplish its aim was to propose a one-to-four ratio of alcohol outlets to other uses, grandfathering in the existing live music venues under the old rules, and forcing any new ones to open as restaurants where music would be an enhancement.
At the time, there were four live music venues in the two blocks covered by the overlay — Snug Harbor, d.b.a., The Spotted Cat and The Blue Nile. Two other music spots, The Dragon’s Den and Checkpoint Charlie, lay just outside it, so they aren’t governed by the overlay.
But Frenchmen Street, instead of freezing in amber, has spawned more music clubs since the overlay was passed, though most of them — including The Maison, Vaso, The Three Muses and the new Bamboula’s — are classified as restaurants.
Under the zoning ordinance, restaurants may have a maximum of three musicians playing acoustic instruments, and they can’t charge for admission. Those places have routinely flouted the rules, and they’ve gotten little pushback from City Hall or the NOPD for doing so.
Still, that doesn’t mean everyone is happy. Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who represents the area, said her office has received numerous complaints recently from residents and business owners alike.
“It’s across the board,” she said. “Businesses that have played by the rules are frustrated because businesses have opened that are not playing by the existing rules.”
Owners of some of the newer clubs, and some of the musicians who play in them, say it’s time for the city to think about wiping away some of the restrictions rather than ramping up enforcement of them. The street has grown up and the city should embrace it rather than suppress it, said Grenier, whose club, The Maison, is one of those operating outside the new rules.
“I love that Frenchmen is recognized globally,” Grenier said. “I love that New Orleans is recognized for something that more closely represents our culture than breasts and daiquiris. Locals have such an attachment to Frenchmen because it was solely theirs for so long. How do you keep something like that secret in this day and age?”
Vanessa Niemann, otherwise known as Gal Holiday, performs at The Three Muses, and her band plays at a volume appropriate for the room, but it uses electric guitars because they’re essential to the group’s honky-tonk sound. She would like to see the overlay changed to govern decibel levels, not instrumentation.
“Amplifiers are not the issue,” Niemann said.
She thinks it’s time to recognize that Frenchmen Street is an entertainment district and to revise the rules to deal with that reality.
So would Sophie Lee, one of the owners of The Three Muses — though she thinks that music venues need to be sensitive to the neighborhood, too.
“It’s a different street than it was 10 years ago,” Lee said. “Some places on the block — they can’t exist with an acoustic trio by virtue of their size, but I don’t think they should have their doors wide open and the volume cranked up to 11.”
But the owners of the older clubs that were grandfathered have tended to see the value in enforcing the overlay rules.
Jason Patterson with Snug Harbor, one of the clubs predating the ordinance, argues that the new club owners knew the terms of the overlay when they opened their businesses. “The overlay was very up-front about wanting Frenchmen to be mixed-use. We already have a Bourbon Street,” he said.
“I don’t want to see Frenchmen Street become a tourist trap,” said Jesse Paige, owner of The Blue Nile. “Frenchmen Street needs to protect what it is. It’s a neighborhood; it’s a community. It’s a unique neighborhood because it’s a musical neighborhood.”
Neighborhood leaders have mixed feelings about the dispute. Miles Swanson, president of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, said neighbors aren’t totally against what the new venues have been doing. But at the same time, it’s clear that the rules aren’t being followed, he said.
“I love going to shows at Maison,” Swanson said, “but it’s not what anybody would consider a restaurant. Neither is Bamboula’s.”
Bamboula’s, a new venue owned by a group that also owns the Last Call Sports Bar and Grille on Bourbon Street, has been a source of controversy since construction began last year.
It was envisioned as a nightclub with three bars and two live music stages, although it has been scaled down to one stage and a theater that has yet to open.
“I don’t think what’s in there now is in the spirit of the overlay,” Swanson said. “They’re clearly operating more as a live music venue than a restaurant.”
“What do we do?” he mused. “Maybe we need to re-evaluate the arts and culture overlay. Is this what Frenchmen needs to be?”
Swanson’s biggest fear, and that of some others in the Marigny, is that the huge crowds Frenchmen has begun to attract will diminish the street’s distinctly New Orleans character and turn it into a tacky tourist destination.
“Everyone wants music on Frenchmen Street, but we don’t want Frenchmen Street to turn into Bourbon Street, where large establishments play to the lowest common denominator,” he said.
The city’s zoning ordinance is undergoing revision, and the draft under discussion omits any reference to the ratio of bars to other businesses in the Frenchmen overlay district. But it doesn’t junk the concept completely, restating that the overlay’s purpose is to create a mixed-use benefit to the neighborhood, not an entertainment center.
In the draft, live music remains tied to restaurants, and the size of bands allowed remains the same, though the emphasis on acoustic instruments has been removed. The revised ordinance is expected to come up for a vote before City Council terms end in May. That could make it one of the last major acts by Clarkson and Palmer, neither of whom is seeking re-election.
Swanson hopes a compromise can be reached that everyone can live with. “There needs to be a reasonable discussion among all the Frenchmen Street stakeholders and the city about what happened to make (the street) what it is today, and how we want it to continue in the future,” he said.