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Music Community Press Conference @ Kermit's Speakeasy Catalyzes City's Response to Unfounded Live Music Permit Crack-Downs

Activism & Community, Business & Economy, City Life & Neighborhood, Music, Scandals & Problems

September 27th, 2012


MUSIC COMMUNITY FORUM
& PRESS CONFERENCE CATALYZES MAYOR’S OFFICE OF CULTURAL ECONOMY TO ADDRESS
UNFOUNDED LIVE ENTERTAINMENT CODE ENFORCEMENT AND ISSUE TEMPORARY PERMITS FOR
AFFECTED VENUES


~ FORUM LOG ~

 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

 

It’s still a balmy 85 degrees at Noon on this sunny late
September day in New Orleans as cars, bikes and folks line up along Basin
Street and N. Robertson St. and quietly file into lauded trumpeter and NOLA prince,
Kermit Ruffins new Treme Speakeasy restaurant and bar,
nestled on a corner just a short block behind Louis Armstrong Park and the
historical Congo Square. The open-barrel barbeque grills are smoking alongside
the club outside, the usual cats slow-cooking that familiar savory goodness,
but the place is quiet – no music wafting from inside the place today.

 

These folks are not lining up today for a lunchtime set with
Kermit Ruffins & the BBQ Swingers, nor any other swingin’ set from any of
the countless New Orleans musicians that grace Kermit’s doorstep on a given
day. Today, musicians, venue owners, promoters, record label proprietors,
neighborhood association leaders, reporters, journalists, photographers and
artists and entertainers of many genres have filed into Kermit’s small, humble
new spot to discuss the recent, and seemingly selective, harsh enforcement of
the City of New Orleans’ half-century old live music and entertainment permit
code.

 

DON’T STOP THE MUSIC

 

Action taken suddenly in recent months by City officials has
caused the halting of all live music in at least a dozen small bars, clubs,
restaurants and coffee shops around town, in some cases forcing these
businesses to close, even if temporarily, altogether, music being their main
mode of customer attraction. However, it is unclear exactly how these
businesses have been targeted for citations on not having proper live
entertainment permits in place, as these businesses are located in various
neighborhoods and serve various types of crowds.

 

Regardless, favorite Marigny neighborhood haunt and home of
the famed “HUSTLE” Saturday night dance party with New Orleans’ beloved DJ Soul Sister, Mimi’s came under fire
last week, causing decade-long proprietor, Mimi
to cancel all live music until further notice. This news sparked public
outcry in support of the favorite local spot, as well as an invitation from
Ruffins himself to both Mimi and Soul Sister to attend a community forum and
press conference he organized for today.

 

Kermit himself
just this month, finally, received his live music permit for his new Speakeasy
on Basin St. in Treme, which is one of the main reasons he wanted to host this
community forum and press conference. Though he is a local celebrity (even more
so since his role in the launch of the hit HBO series, “Treme”) and hometown
hero, largely affecting the fast-tracking of his live music permit with the
City, he still ran up against some obstacles along the way, and has been open
but not able to (legally) have live music, for months now. Therefore, he
decided it was time to help out other fellow New Orleanians up against the same
challenges in simply doing what they do – produce quality live music for all
walks of life. Sadly, the average venue owner or musician will endure a much
longer waiting period than Kermit experienced getting up and running with the
City, many having to wait 6 months to a year for their permits.

 

The Speakeasy is packed to the gills, standing room only,
the smell of sweet BBQ emanating from the back, as Kermit has promised everyone
in attendance today a free lunch for their commitment to this issue. After
Kermit welcomed everyone, the discussion is quickly led by two local attorneys,
Tim Kappel and Ashley E. of NOLA
Entertainment Law
, who have been working tirelessly on the live music
crack-down problem and are versed in the City’s live entertainment codes.

 

One resident stated up front, “The problem is, this is a music city, but it’s not music-friendly.”
Expectedly, this inspired a roar of frustrated shouts from the group. Jan Ramsey, Publisher and Editor in
Chief of acclaimed monthly music magazine, OffBeat,
spoke up to incite notions of action in numbers, having witnessed the drastic
changes of late on the live music haven that is Frenchmen Street, where
OffBeat’s offices are located.

 

GETTING ORGANIZED

 

The suggestion made to begin organizing in numbers soon
rose, and a sign-up sheet began to circulate. Mentions of email lists,
petitions, regular meetings, and social media blitzes bounced energetically
about the room. One legal consultant reminded us that the reason those filing
noise complaints with the City were currently winning was simply because they
are organized, they have funds to support their agenda, and they have
demonstrated to the policy-makers that they represent a distinct faction of the
voter base, including many of whom that are directly contributing financially
to specific City officials’ political campaigns with the election season in
full swing.

 

Once the group seemed to be in full agreement on the power in numbers, the motion was then
made that this coalition of sorts needed more than just a list of names – it
needed an action plan. The question was raised, WHAT DO WE WANT?

 

Admittedly, as soon as the rally for email lists and
petitions and social media blitzes fired up, I became a bit leary that this
would be yet another fairly disorganized community meeting where frustrations
are vented, and perhaps even a contact list is started, but no tangible plans
are created. Surprisingly, in the end, I have to say that this particular forum
was perhaps one of the most productive one-hour community conferences I have
attended. People were receptive to the idea that we needed to have an
intelligible proposal drafted to the City, clearly laying out what it is we are
asking for – not a laundry list of complaints, but rather, proposed solutions.

 

In response to the question, “what do we want?”, former
owner of King Bolden’s bar &
lounge, Mario Madero says “a moratorium on this noise ordinance
enforcement”
– that is, until the City can put proper infrastructure in
place to serve its cultural economy bearers. He noted the unfair outcome of
legendary Jazz joint, Donna’s, also
located on Rampart St, finally able to re-open this year, 6 years after
Katrina, and already closed again due to new live music code and zone
enforcement
. (Madero’s bar, King Bolden’s –located on Rampart St. directly
across from Armstrong Park, now under new ownership as Tonique with no music or
theme – was forced to close in May of 2007, sparked largely by new next door
neighbors who opened a bed & breakfast that catered to retirees.)

 

WHAT IS YOUR JOB,
ANYWAY?

 

Half way into the forum, it was observed that not a single
representative from the City Council or Mayor’s office had spoken. Any City
representatives in the crowd were asked to please come forward and speak in
response to issues raised and the request for a moratorium on the noise
ordinance enforcement. One business owner noted that City Council Chief, Stacy Head was in attendance but
elected not to speak. Instead, Director of the Office of Cultural Economy and
cultural tourism advisor to Mayor Landrieu,
Scott Hutchinson came forward to speak and address questions.

 

Several residents wanted to know where the promised “one-stop permit shop” for live
entertainment permits was, to which Hutchinson responded, “Well, we are working on that now and expect that our new system for
the process of permits and such will be rolled out in late October (a month
from now).

 

Columnist and Second Line culture activist and
documentarian, Deborah Cotton then
took the stand to state that the recent
crack down is not just on live entertainment venues (i.e. bars, clubs,
restaurants), that recent targets for entertainment permits have also been
Second Line paraders and their respective Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs,
street musicians, Second Line vendors, Mardi Gras Indians, and traditional
brass bands. She expressed concern that the City was attempting to tax, fine or
control anyone singing on a street corner in New Orleans.

 

“How can your office
run harsh enforcement of these entertainment laws (which, the first place, have
not even been reviewed to be updated and made relevant for today’s times since
the 1950s or 1960s) when your office is not even scaled up or prepared to
efficiently service all the small business owners and musicians in the city
through the process of getting their permits?”
asked Cotton. “Your job, Mr. Representative Sir, is to
make sure that all of our entertainers and venues are informed and
expeditiously processed through permits before
issuing any citations.”

 

WON’T YOU BE MY
NEIGHBOR?

 

It was not long before a
happy Marigny resident
testified that, “I’ve
lived one block from Mimi’s for over 10 years and NEVER had a problem living
there with noise or trash or crime. I imagine that some neighbors up the street
may have a problem with the music on some nights, but that’s part of living in
this city, and in that neighborhood. But since Mimi had to shut down live music
last week, no less than 35 musicians, DJ Soul Sister included, are now out of a
JOB. I thought your office was supposed to “create jobs” in the ‘cultural
economy’?
 


She continued, “And I mean, I hear you are citing parade
vendors? What is that? Here’s a guy who just spent his last $50 buying supplies
to throw some BBQ on the smoker in time for the week’s big parade and hope and
pray he turns over $100 – $150 so he can finish paying his rent tomorrow…
THAT’s entrepreneurship to me. And you’re going to ticket him or make him get a
$1,000 permit? I thought you people were supposed to be the cultural ‘job
creators’?”

 

Another resident well-read in the language of the code
itself noted, Furthermore, the actual code says ‘live entertainment’ – not just
music, so does that mean that every
church choir in the city needs to be cited for being “out of zone”? Every high
school play and football game?
This law seems rather vague and erroneous. This seems to me to be a case of “we’re all
for diversity, so long as it’s OUR kind of diversity.” 
This man’s point was extremely
relevant – it shed light on the fact that the City was clearly targeting those
artists that fall under “popular tourist attractions” – or, types of music and
entertainment that people come specifically to New Orleans for – not just any
type of event or artist.

 

A causal perspective to this whole phenomenon was offered up
by a Lakeview resident & downtown
business owner
when he said, Clearly,
all of this broke once the new condos went up, let’s just be real. And the
thing is… “you don’t buy a condo on the
beach and then b*tch about the tide rolling in every night, do you?”
– Same
rules apply, you don’t buy a condo in
the heart of New Orleans and then b*tch about the music every night.”

 

At this point, keenly predicting where the conversation
could travel after this statement, Ashley,
one of the community attorneys present, provided sound advice on our action
plan when she suggested, What
we don’t want to do is turn this into an old neighbors against new neighbors
thing…
that will get us no where. We DO need to get along with our
neighbors. We DO need to be just as courteous to them as we expect them to be
to us. We must find compromise that serves everyone. We WANT all of our
businesses to be in compliance with the law… but the question is: are those
laws even up to date or constitutional themselves? Are they being selectively
enforced? Who is getting fast-tracked in the permit process and why?”

 

SO WHAT NOW?

 

Perhaps one of the
most significant statements made this afternoon though was Ashley’s:
  “BE
INFORMED. If you are a business owner or entertainer, READ THE CODE. So that
when the time comes to fight City Hall, your argument is intelligible and
prepared. Because the other parties that are lobbying for these crack-downs
have special interests and funded agendas and they are VERY organized and know
that they represent VOTES to the politicians running these policies. I’ve read
this code several times, I’ve been buried in it, and I am happy to help support
anyone that wants to learn more about it.”

 

Our other community legal council present, Tim next asked of Mr. Hutchinson, “Why has the
‘harsh’ (in your own words) re-enforcement
of these (decades old) live music codes on small local businesses and artists preceded the expeditious outreach, education and processing of
the necessary permits for these same people?”


Again, Hutchinson deferred to his statement that his office
is looking into all that, and that he has meetings scheduled with the Mayor and
other officers later today.

 

Mimi herself is
finally prompted to take the mic to voice her concerns in her own words, “I have owned Mimi’s in the Marigny for over
10 years and have been having live music multiple nights per week for several
years now, all of my taxes are paid and up to date. In fact, I have paid my
‘live entertainment’ tax each year and you (the City) have no problem taking my
money for that. So am I going to get my money back from those ‘live music’
taxes if I don’t have a ‘live music’ permit now?”

 

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: The City did not cite Mimi’s as a random
target last week, but rather, a neighbor complained about noise/music and then
went and looked to see if Mimi’s had a permanent live music permit, which it
does not presently have on the books, even though Mimi has been paying her live
entertainment tax for the past several years each year.  Therefore, this particular neighbor, due to a
technicality, had a valid complaint because the permit not being in place on
the books.]

 

Sue Mobley, The Executive Director of Sweet Home New Orleans rose to present the cold fact that, “In the past several weeks alone we have
coped with a 300% increase in new [out
of work] clients
due to this recent aggressive code enforcement, forcing
hundreds of musicians, artists and music-related small business owners out of
jobs. It is evident that this current system is destroying people’s
livelihoods, rather than assisting them. What is your office going to do about
it?”

 

Several other concerns are raised by other local entrepreneurs,
including an independent record label owner who asked, “So why is it illegal to flyer/poster for live music shows on telephone
and lamp posts now, but politicians can leave their campaign ads up for what,
forever?”
An onslaught of questions were now coming at Hutchenson, but time
was running out and it was time to bring the meeting to a head.

 

One of our fearless legal leaders, Tim Kappel closed the
forum with a single question to Hutchenson: 
“So when will we have an answer from the Mayor’s office on the
moratorium on the live music permit enforcement?”
  Hutchenson replied, “I hope today. I am headed back to
our office now, and I hope that we can have some sort of reprieve for those
affected today. If not today, at least this week, we should have an answer on
the temporary moratorium and temporary permits.”

 

THE FOUR-LETTER WORD

 

To his credit, Hutchenson maintained an impressively calm and
inviting composure as a shower of questions, comments, accusations and irate
shots were fired at the only City representative bold enough to stand up and
take the mic. However, it soon became clear that he was not personally familiar
himself with the Live Music and Entertainment Code of the City of New Orleans,
even as the Director of the Office of Cultural Economy. In fact, Kappel cited
an excerpt from Article 13 of the
code that may be questioned as possibly unconstitutional. Hutchinson offered to
consult with the District Attorney on the matter to further educate himself on
said legal documents.

 

Yet, there was an recurring response from Hutchenson each
time someone asked about why the process of obtaining a live music permit from
the City was so long and difficult. Several times he stated that “it’s not just about what type of business
you are, it’s where you’re located. It’s a zoning issue.”
This was the
a-ha moment
. Though the City is still undecided on many of the new zoning
proposals, the “Hospitality Zone” included, the complex matrix of zones and
over-lays written into the City permitting code is enough to make anyone’s head
spin. And these are the culprits keeping new businesses from opening swiftly
across town.

 

As an Urban Planning student, one thing that has stuck with me
over the years is that “zone” is a
four-letter word
. Unless we are talking about protecting residents from
actual toxic or potentially dangerous areas (read: chemical plants, oil
refineries, incinerators, etc), a “zone” does nothing but inhibit the natural,
organic ebb and flow of a city. Zones keep people apart, rather than bring them
together. Zones separate businesses from neighbors and restrict where one can
obtain a variety of goods and services to specific areas, rather than right on
their neighborhood street corners.

 

If I can only get live music on certain streets in certain
neighborhoods at certain times of the day – in those areas permitted within a
“Hospitality Zone” (now dubbed the “HoZone”)– then I might as well move to Anytown USA, because that is
not New Orleans. Moreover, the prioritizing of public facility improvements
only in areas frequently visited by tourists (read: French Quarter, Central
Business District, etc) in “Hospitality Zones” over public works in all
neighborhoods, equally, is blatant discriminatory zoning, effectively pulling
the rug out from under the people that provide the very “hospitality” that tourists
spend money for in this town. For example, what good does a streetcar
improvement do if it’s only within the downtown “Hospitality Zone,” and the
very people that provide said “hospitality” cannot even get to work
expeditiously because public transit in out-lying neighborhoods is poor or
non-existent?

 

It seems to me that New Orleans could become the blueprint
administration for the “Cultural Economy” nationally, given its inherent roots
in music, food and culture entrepreneurship. Of course, that is provided the
City and State governments actually facilitate policy, and execution of policy,
that truly supports independent residents in getting their small businesses and
careers off the ground. That means that the Mayor and the City Council have to
review these old entertainment codes, update them to today’s standards, provide
community outreach and information sessions for small businesses to fast-track
them through the paperwork process before
prioritizing citations, and most importantly… seriously consider what a
“Hospitality Zone” would mean for the Birthplace of Jazz.

 

“Hospitality Zone” sort of sounds like “Disneyland”, doesn’t
it? And that is not what people come to the Big Easy for. Did Satchmo create
his Jazz in a government-designated “Jazz Zone?” I think not. Unfortunately, or
fortunately for Jazz lovers, he created it in “zones” designated for Black
folks. But that is a topic for another day…

 

THE CART BEFORE THE
HORSE

 

Several other concerns are raised by other local
entrepreneurs, including an independent record label owner who asked, “So why is it illegal to flyer/poster for
live music shows on telephone and lamp posts now, but politicians can leave
their campaign ads up for what, forever?”
An onslaught of questions were
now coming at Hutchenson, but time was running out and it was time to bring the
meeting to a head.

 

One of our fearless legal leaders, Tim Kappel closed the
forum with a single question to Hutchenson: 
“So when will we have an answer from the Mayor’s office on the
moratorium on the live music permit enforcement?”
  Hutchenson replied, “I hope today. I am headed back to
our office now, and I hope that we can have some sort of reprieve for those
affected today. If not today, at least this week, we should have an answer on
the temporary moratorium and temporary permits.”

 

As one resident pondered at the forum, “Aren’t you (City) putting the cart before the horse? Is the City’s
‘Office of Cultural Economy’ prioritizing tourism before the culture that in
fact brings the tourists here in the first place?”
Indeed, who is the
City’s Department of Cultural Economy serving?” Tourists? Or New Orleanians
that make this destination the magical place that it is?

 

~ Words by Jocelyne
M. Ninneman

 

Special thanks to Kermit Ruffins for offering to organize
and host this much-needed community forum and press conference, and for the
complimentary swingin’ BBQ lunch!

 

[NOTE:  As of late Wednesday night (9/26), both Mimi
and the owner of Siberia informed us that the City had granted a temporary live
music permit to both venues
until their permanent ones could be issued, and
that each proprietor would be assigned to an assistant of the Director of the
Office of Cultural Economy on Thursday, 9/27 to personally walk each business
owner through the process of live music permit filing immediately
. Hooray
progress!]


 


RESOURCES:


If you’d like to sign the petition in support of Second Lines and Second Line vendors, protecting them from extraneous permitting and fines/fees, please click here. Or for more info, contact @DebCotton


To stay up to date on New Orleans Noise Ordinance issues and solutions, please visit:  http://www.NewOrleansNoise.com


Contact the City of New Orleans Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy here.


Tim Kappel Law


NOLA Entertainment Law


New Orleans Musicians Union



Tags: NOLA, New Orleans, music, permits, City of New Orleans, Kermit Ruffins, Mimi's, DJ Soul Sister, live entertainment, Scott Hutchinson, cultural economy, tourism

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