Oct 222012

Owen Courreges

D.J. Luddite is no more.

Some explanation is required.  My day-to-day persona is that of Owen Courreges, Attorney at Law.   However, on Thursday evenings I have been breaking out my 1923 Brunswick suitcase phonograph at the Bayou Bar in the Hotel Pontchartrain.  There, I play 78 rpm records as my alter ego – D.J. Luddite (because D.J. Luddite eschews modern technology).

It’s kind of like Garth Brooks and his rock alter ego Chris Gaines, only far less lame and pretentious.  Well, at least less pretentious.

However, for the past few weeks I’ve been absent.  Music has been silenced at Bayou Bar.  This is regrettable, because Bayou Bar has a storied history in the music community.  Reportedly Cole Porter played here somewhat inconsistently on weekends for about twelve years.  Frank Sinatra and Frankie Lane used Bayou Bar as their watering hole, and are even rumored to have performed on occasion.

The Hotel Pontchartrain was recently renovated and reopened as an extended-stay hotel for seniors, although it has recently ventured into short-term rentals for the cast and crews of productions filming in New Orleans.

This wasn’t as much of a change as people think.  The Pontchartrain was never really a traditional hotel even when it offered nightly stays; many people have set up residence there, especially seniors, throughout its history.  A decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court from 1955, Steere v. Martson, held that a wife in a divorce action established residency in Orleans Parish by living at the Hotel Pontchartrain.

I don’t want to put words down anyone’s throat when it comes to why Bayou Bar will no longer be featuring D.J. Luddite, although apparently the whole music schedule has been cancelled due to permitting issues with the city, or as I’ve called it, the “War on Live Music.”

Although I’m not sure why the city decided not to allow Bayou Bar to continue having music, I suspect that its zoning categorization has something to do with it.  Although hotels are generally allowed to have live entertainment under the zoning code, the Hotel Pontchartrain isn’t just a nightly hotel and really never has been.  However, now it has kitchenettes throughout and presumably cannot claim a nonconforming use due to being closed for renovations for more than six months.

Thus, while the Hotel Pontchartrain can’t really be called an apartment building with its round-the-clock reception, in-house kitchen and downstairs bar, it also isn’t a typical hotel.  Thus, the city can reasonably argue that it isn’t entitled to the zoning amenities of a hotel, including live entertainment.

Still, the Hotel Pontchartrain has always been a hybrid, and to my knowledge, it has never had significant problems with the city in the past. The music is relatively quiet; Phil Melancon and jazz trios in a masonry structure aren’t exactly the types of acts that cause traffic tie-ups or noise complaints, even if they manage to draw a substantial crowd (D.J. Luddite never drew crowds. Maybe a suitcase phonograph with a 40 watt amplifier doesn’t exactly scream “dance party”).

This, however, is the central problem with the way the Landrieu Administration is dealing with zoning.  Reactive enforcement to zoning issues deals with conditions that may actually be causing problems, but Landrieu has elected, instead, to engage in broad enforcement sweeps.  He has also apparently elected to construe the zoning code in a restrictive fashion.  Rather than bending over backwards to issue mayoralty permits, Landrieu tries to find reasons not to grant them.

With the Hotel Pontchartrain, the city could just say that the property has historically been a hotel, which is defined pretty broadly under the zoning code anyway, and thus the Hotel Pontchartrain can have live entertainment.  That would be a perfectly defensible construction of the zoning code.

For his part, Landrieu seems to be scrambling for ways to deny responsibility.  In a pamphlet recently issued to guide venues through the permitting process, the Landrieu asserts that, quote, “[M]ayoralty permits no longer have anything to do with the mayor or his office.” 

That is a complete, utter, boldfaced lie.  I feel dirtier just for reading it.

The pamphlet goes on to note that mayoralty permits are issued by the Department of Finance, which is a part of the executive branch of which Mayor Landrieu is head.  He’s the supervisor. He sets the policies. He appoints the Director of the Department of Finance with the approval of the city council (which is very deferential in these matters).  For Mayor Landrieu to disclaim responsibility for Mayoralty Permits would be like the President denying any responsibility for foreign policy. “Foreign policy no longer has anything to do with the president or his office.  It’s handled by the Department of State.”

Although elected officials can delegate, they are the only ones responsible to us.  Thus, if a person appointed by the mayor lays a proverbial egg, we blame the mayor, not his subordinate.  The buck cannot be passed.

If Landrieu expects this city to accept that he is not responsible for the enforcement and permitting policies the branch of government which he leads, he needs to say so quickly so we can replace him with somebody who, in Trumanesque fashion, will actually take charge.  Even taking Landrieu at his word that he hasn’t masterminded the music crackdown, this whole “my subordinates can do what they want” style of governing isn’t working and insults our collective intelligence.

The proof is before our eyes.  Nobody can play on the piano that Cole Porter played on for over a decade without breaking the law.  Sinatra’s watering hole is a music-free zone. This is happening in America’s music capitol and it’s Landrieu’s fault.

He needs to own it, or fix it.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  8 Responses to “Owen Courreges: The Rise and Fall of DJ Luddite”

  1. What a shame. I just moved into this area and was looking forward to visiting the Bayou Bar. Thanks Owen for bringing this problem to light.

  2. Part of what New Orleans Noise (http://www.neworleansnoise.com/) wants to find out is exactly who prompted these enforcement actions and why. It’s amazing that there’s no stated reason for the increased action, as clear as these crackdowns are.

  3. Might it have something to do with the city’s anticipated entrance into the live entertainment business at Mandeville Wharf? And will Mandeville Wharf have to go through the same onerous permitting process, vetted by the neighborhood association, as other venues in the area?
    Removal of zoning as a determination of the ability to host live music is key to the future of our cultural community. Regardless of the motivation for the actions, it is clear that the zoning code is being used as a tool to restrict First Amendment rights and stomp all over personal property rights. Nobody should need a permit to perform live music in New Orleans, of all places. As per Mary Howell, if they cause disruption by creating excessive noise issues, parking or littering, those issues should be dealt with on a case by case basis.
    Of course, this being New Orleans, one has to wonder what other chicanery City Hall is up to while they have the cultural community’s attention focused elsewhere. They are smart enough to realize that the last time the cultural community was assaulted, 5000 people showed up at the doors of City Hall. That time, we were under assault from street crime. This time the assault is based in City Hall itself.

  4. Perhaps a law suit against the City’s Zoning statute is called for. While the courts have given wide discretion to municipalities in zoning matters, the application of the statute if inconsistent or applied with no rational relationship to it’s intent might be fertile grounds for a challenge. Is ther a lawyer in the house?

    • I doubt it. The last time there was any kind of permitting crackdown affecting live entertainment was about ten years ago, and a group of bars sued then and lost, even though in my opinion they had the better case on a number of grounds. I think many judges view this as a political issue rather than a legal one, but of course it’s actually both.

  5. Owen – Does Bayou Bar have any chance at reopening, like Circle Bar?

    Honestly I have to say this is just about the most wrongheaded concept going around. this city has few industries anymore and it has almost no homegrown industries peculiar to us, and they go:

    – Historical tourism
    – Carnival tourism
    – Sports tourism
    -Music tourism.

    Where’s the jazz museum, like the Country Hall of Fame in Nashville, like the RocknRoll Hall of Fame in Cleveland?

    Where are the historical sites and markers showing where famous musicians lived and played and entire music styles were born?

    Owen, as long as you and the UM ask questions and raise this issue there is hope, but you and the site have got to start taking a much harder look at corruption in this City. And you may well ask where that comes into play here, and the answer is simple: lack of transparency. This *WAS* Stacy Head’s district, but NOW it is Diana Bajoie’s. Where is she on this? Where is her name in this article? Where are the questions to Strachan, Cantrell and Kaplan about their take on this issue?

    Head was very good at responding to district inquiries but Bajoie can’t even be reached. It is no accident i think that much of this is going down in her district. And I am not saying she has some profit motive here, but what has happened is that corruption has gotten us an incompetent, disinterested councilwoman and now such issues have nowhere to go but down the sinkhole.

    • I really don’t know what the status of Bayou Bar’s permit is now. I know they were negotiating with the city. I just hope that the city comes to its senses on this.

      And for the record, I’ve already sent out a candidate questionnaire to all of the District B candidates to solicit their opinions on this issue and other major issues.

  6. i used to work there in the 70’s, Bobby Short was a regular. Alot of great performers went through those doors.

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