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David Woolworth, an acoustics expert hired by the City Council to take decibel measurements, measured the sound level on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Sound ordinances are the subject of debate.

William Widmer • New York Times,

New Orleans wants to turn down the volume

  • Article by: Campbell Robertson
  • New York Times
  • March 12, 2014 - 9:01 PM

– Last Thursday, two nights after Mardi Gras, amid the customary debauchery that is apparently immune to the chill and the Lenten hangover, a tall man with a device resembling a 1980s cellphone was going door to door on Bourbon Street.

He stopped outside one club where the crowd was shouting along to a karaoke rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” another where a live band was hurrying through “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and another where crowds cheered a woman who was sitting astride a succession of men in a barbershop chair and pouring tequila into their mouths.

“Are you hunting for ghosts?” a moderately sober passer-by asked.

If only the aim were so modest. The man was David Woolworth, an acoustics expert hired by the City Council, and he was taking decibel measurements as part of an effort to better manage the volume dial in a city long famous for its street musicians, boisterous crowds and perpetual parades.

As quixotic as that sounds in New Orleans, Woolworth’s task may be even tougher in the specifics. When the efforts to fix the city’s faulty and spottily enforced noise ordinance became bogged down in politics and a broader debate over whether New Orleans was becoming a cacophonous free-for-all or an over-sanitized Disneyland, the City Council decided to start with a more manageable goal. It would try to fix Bourbon Street.

“It may be one of the biggest challenges anybody could imagine,” Woolworth said. Bourbon, perhaps the country’s pre-eminent 24-hour street party, is the way it is, he said, and “people just take for granted that that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Battle goes back centuries

The fight over sound goes back centuries here, as do the traditions of music and lax regulation. The latest round began in 2010, when the police forced a well-known brass band to leave its usual sidewalk perch on Bourbon Street, provoking calls for change.

Not until this past December did the City Council introduce a proposed revision. But it was at odds with Woolworth’s recommendations and, critics said, so restrictive that it could be violated by lively conversation. The plan was withdrawn.

With the goal of a revised citywide ordinance delayed, the city decided to start with Bourbon Street.

Noise management entails deciding the appropriate way to measure decibels, where they should be measured and which city agency should do the measuring.

Free speech a factor

It means dealing with a wide range of constituencies — including residents, bar owners, professional bands, DJs and street entertainers. There is also the issue of the First Amendment, which puts the lovely sounding sidewalk violinist and the man screaming about the end times on similar constitutional footing.

All of this comes together on Bourbon Street. It is the noisiest place in the city, and the biggest target for complaints by the neighbors — one lawyer in the French Quarter is involved in noise-related lawsuits against seven businesses on Bourbon Street.

But perhaps most significant, while Bourbon Street might draw millions of tourists and accounts for thousands of local jobs, few in New Orleans will rush to its defense.

Even those who make a living on Bourbon Street acknowledge its less-than-stellar reputation.

“The standards on Bourbon Street have to change,” said Robert Watters, who owns Rick’s Cabaret and Rick’s Saloon, two strip clubs on Bourbon Street, and has been actively involved in the discussions about the sound issue.

Watters said the best way to fix Bourbon Street was to involve the club owners, not to sue them into submission. But despite the street’s critical role in the tourism economy, the bar and club owners and New Orleans’ influential political players rarely meet. “This is a wild and woolly group,” he said. “They’re not really part of the power structure of the city.”

Woolworth, the sound expert, is confident that there is more agreement than disagreement. He said he believed that a consensus plan for Bourbon Street could clear the way for sensible sound regulations in other neighborhoods.

No place is quite as polarizing as Bourbon Street.

“I think it boils down to more of a hate for Bourbon Street as much as it is for a noise ordinance,” said Earl Bernhardt, who owns several clubs on Bourbon Street. Bernhardt said that he was open to a reasonable ordinance and that he had put in measures, like lights that alert bands when they are playing too loudly, that keep the neighbors happy.

But clearly, he and his most determined opponents have different ends in mind.

“They feel like if they could destroy the clubs on Bourbon Street, the neighborhood could become quiet and peaceful,” he said. “Like Mayberry.”

© 2014 Star Tribune