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Can a Quieter New Orleans Still Be Fun? City Officials Are Betting Yes

March 14, 2014
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Can a Quieter New Orleans Still Be Fun? City Officials Are Betting Yes
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Tamping down noise levels has the potential to make locals and tourists much happier.

Can a city play the role of parent? After former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s earnest public health efforts like curbing large soda sales and banning smoking in restaurants and workplaces earned him the dubious nickname “Nanny in Chief,” it would seem the answer is no.

And yet New Orleans, known as much for its rollicking bon temps atmosphere as it is for its Cajun flavor, is trying to lower its laissez-faire music reputation a bit. The New Orleans City Council introduced revisions to the city’s noise ordinance on Dec. 19, setting new limits on decibel levels, and with this year’s annual Mardi Gras parade filed away, it’s trying to strike a delicate balance between fun and order.

“It may be one of the biggest challenges anybody could imagine,” David Woolworth, a nationally-known sound expert with Oxford Acoustics in Oxford, Mississippi, who presented a report commissioned by the council on how best to revise the city’s noise ordinance, told The New York Times. In the wake of last week’s Mardi Gras, Woolworth is taking decibel measurements on the French Quarter’s infamously raucous Bourbon Street. “People just take for granted that that’s the way it’s going to be,” Woolworth said of the noisiest place in the city, and the biggest target for complaints by the neighbors.

Challenging (and nebulous) as it may be, the noise ordinance has some concrete points: Enforcing a maximum decibel level of 85 on the popular eight-block stretch of Bourbon Street, and maintaining a maximum level of 75 decibels in commercial areas between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. In perspective, the current ordinances puts the ceiling at 10 decibels above the ambient noise level, or 60 (whichever is higher) on Bourbon Street, and 80 in other commercial areas. Those five or ten decibels make a big difference when you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Interestingly, business owners on Bourbon Street are willing to participate. Robert L. Watters, who owns Rick’s Cabaret and Rick’s Saloon on the strip, is so invested that he’s now the chairman of a state agency that manages the French Quarter. Though civic activists like Nathan Chapman doubt club owners’ ability to permanently enforce rules, Watters is intent on getting the “wild and woolly” band of Bourbon Street proprietors involved in the city’s power structure.

All that should placate locals like Glen David Andrews, a trombone player who has led a parade in the City Council chambers. Tamping down noise on Bourbon Street sounds tantamount to removing lights from Times Square, but both landmarks have something in common — they’re beloved by tourists, but they can be a nuisance to city residents, particularly ones who live near the ever-expanding tourist districts.

“The problem with Bourbon is you have a bunch of these new clubs and they’re not the essence of the city,” Andrews said. “They got jam bands and they’re just blasting music. At least in the ‘80s you still had classy joints.”

The ordinance doesn’t touch the nature of the clubs, but it has a chance to keep them under control. A well-managed, fun party scene may be the Bourbon Street of both tourists’ and locals’ dreams.

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