The new year may have brought a tenuous ceasefire in the ongoing battle before the New Orleans City Council over sound and noise, music clubs and sleep-deprived citizens. But, on a Carrollton side street that has been the site of some of the earliest and most bitter clashes so far, the operators of the former Jimmy’s Music Club and their neighbors are exploring one possible path to resolving those issues: starting by sitting down at a table, face to face, and talking to one another.
When Jimmy’s Music Club — now known as The Willow, because of legal issues surrounding the use of the former name — received permission to reopen in 2013, one condition imposed by the city was that its owners and new operators sign a “Good Neighbor Agreement” with the surrounding Carrollton Riverbend Neighborhood Association. After sitting down with a mediator last year, that agreement was reached, and it required quarterly meetings to discuss operating issues with the neighbors during the club’s first year open — with the first meeting eventually set for Jan. 23, Thursday of last week.
Although blown kisses and promises of goodwill were being exchanged around Jimmy’s reopening last year, the mood leading up to last week’s meeting was once again almost incomprehensibly toxic. Social-media postings accused The Willow of degenerating back to its maligned predecessor, the Frat House, and were answered by accusations of “Jimmy hating.” Then, the owner of the neighboring Carrollton Station bar was caught placing a lit earwax candle in the door of Jimmy’s, and as the NOPD hauled him away for attempted arson, building owner Jimmy Anselmo told local media that he believed the incident was somehow related to neighborhood complaints against his club.
The tension then was fairly palpable in the awkward silence that reigned momentarily before last week’s meeting began. But after introductions were made, the grievances poured forth — patrons urinating outside or sitting on neighbors’ porches and talking on their phones in loud voices, difficult parking, and most of all loud music that leaked into neighboring houses.
With mediator Susan Norwood from Community Mediation Services leading the conversation, most of the complaints were dispatched easily. The rowdiest patrons were on a night when more people arrived than expected no security guard had been hired, but guards are being hired more often than the Good Neighbor Agreement even requires, said club operator Bradley Vega. More surveillance cameras are being installed around the building and aimed toward neighbors’ homes, Vega said, so if patrons are acting out of line the managers inside will be able to see and stop it.
And parking, both the club owners and the neighbors all agreed, was a harder issue to solve, perhaps even outside the scope of the club’s or the neighborhood’s ability to address.
Despite those issues, neighbors agreed that The Willow has been less disruptive to the neighborhood than its predecessor, the Frat House. Neighbor Michael Guidry said he was “terrorized” by the patrons of the Frat House, but hasn’t experienced similar excesses yet with The Willow. “No throwup on my porch,” Guidry said by way of comparison.
But one issue dominated the majority of the meeting — noise emanating from the building — and the frustrations that accompanied the discussion of it were similar to those that playing out across the city.
Two homeowners who live closest to the club, Glen Vatshell and Christy Williams, both said they frequently hear music from the club inside their homes.
“I have no interest in complaining about the club. I just want to go to sleep at night,” Vatshell said. “It baffles me. I’m two houses down — so it is going through a double house into my bedroom.”
The club operators, however, said that the police have come when noise is complained about, and found the sound to be within legal limits. They themselves have checked the decibel levels in the alley next to the club, and found the volume there to be little louder than normal conversation. How can they address a problem, they asked, that appears to elude detection?
Like any sausage-making process, the discussion was not always pretty. Voices were raised, recollections were challenged, motives were questioned, and grievances were aired yet again. But both sides also insisted they were acting in good faith.
“I would like it to be harmonious here,” Vatshell said. “I’m not looking to cause any trouble. I want to have a quality of life. … and I would like a solution.”
“We will make every effort, because we don’t want you to be without a quality of life,” said Bea Quaintenance, who with her husband is one of the primary leaseholders at the club. “But we also reserve the right to operate a business, and there has got to be a meeting ground.”
Norwood, the mediator, tried to focus on solutions, specifically, creating a protocol for the club to receive noise complaints, act on them, and report back to the residents. The club owners also said they are continually adding more soundproofing, and hope what they plan to add will address the problem.
“Our intention is not only to not disturb the neighbors, but to mediate whatever remaining issues there are,” Quaintenance said. “If we have not secured every single leaking hole, not only do we apologize, but we will continue to make the effort. We’re going to get it. It’s just that it hasn’t been a particularly long timeline.”
Having a conversation
The notion that a legal document backed by the City Council was necessary to bring the residents and business owners together might have been difficult to believe for the people who first built those houses and businesses decades ago. But, in a city rent completely asunder eight years ago and now receiving new residents on a daily basis, necessary it may have been indeed. One longtime resident, Williams, said when asked what she liked about the meeting: getting to see so many new people for the first time.
City government monitored the meeting, but did not participate: Kelly Butler from City Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s office attended, but did not speak.
In the end, the legal insistence on cooperation and the ensuing face-to-face interaction between the club and its neighbors may indeed broker a solution. Participants on both sides praised the frank discussion facilitated by the neutral mediator, the willingness of the other side to listen and the even the mere chance to hear what progress has been made so far.
“I like that I didn’t feel attacked in this meeting,” said Ted Cuccia, one of the operators of The Willow, as the meeting concluded. “I’m looking forward to figuring out something with the noise that’s more clear cut.”
“I’m glad that we are able to sit at the table and have a conversation about how we are going to keep you guys in business, and also keep the neighbors that live on the street satisfied,” said Betty DiMarco of the Carrollton Riverbend Neighborhood Association.
“I feel encouraged by what I’ve heard tonight, and I hope to see it come to fruition,” Vatchell agreed.
Observers of the good-neighbor agreements often demanded by the City Council frequently note that they have yet to be tested in court, but last week’s meeting at The Willow may have been one of the first rigorous tests of them in practice. Time — in this case, the three months before the next quarterly meeting dictated by the Good Neighbor Agreement — will tell if that is enough.
“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”