A CENTURY-OLD LAW IS STILL LIMITING LIVE MUSIC IN NEW ORLEANS
Now we have a chance to change it.
New Orleans is an old city, often celebrated for the ‘presentness’ of its history—you can see it in the architecture, you can taste it in the food, you can hear it in the music. Unfortunately, you can also find it in our legal system, where remnants of old ordinances and regulations have continued to influence the legal, physical, and cultural landscape of the city up to today. This July, with District C Councilwomen Kristen Gisleson-Palmer and District E Councilwomen Cyndi Nguyen’s office undertaking a comprehensive rewrite of the laws regulating the city’s alcoholic beverage outlets (ABOs), we have a unique opportunity to remove one of these remnants that has been limiting opportunities for live music for over a century.
Buried in the over one hundred sub-sections of the chapter of the City Code that govern ABOs is Section 10-236- Restrictions as to property near schools, churches, etc., which includes the language “It is hereby declared the sense and policy of this section…that no permit shall be granted for the opening of any barroom, saloon, cabaret, or other place where alcoholic beverages are sold at retail, to be consumed on the premises within 300 feet of any playground, church, pubic library, or school,” with an exemption for “any person or corporation who are within the 300-foot prohibited limit, and who obtain by sworn affidavit of not less than 75 percent of the property owners within such 300 feet”. It’s clear that this language was written with the idea that alcohol and music are problematic, possibly corrupting influences that need to be kept away from children and god-fearing people. It’s puritanical. A modern update New Orleans’ alcohol laws seems like a great opportunity to reflect the values of the city in 2019 (why can’t we have a drink or go to a show close to a library?), but instead, Councilwomen Palmer and Nguyen’s proposed rewrite allows restaurants to sell alcohol, but doubles down on limits to live entertainment, changing language in the section to read “no permit shall be granted for the opening of any bar, adult performance venue, live performance venue and venue authorized to provide live entertainment as a secondary that is authorized to sell alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises within 300 foot radius of any playground, church, public library, or school.”. If these changes are adopted, you could get a drink next to a library—but couldn’t get a drink while watching live music (or a play, or a magic show, or while listening to a DJ). Of course, this is absurd. So how did we get here?
The roots of these restrictions on live music and alcohol were laid 126 years ago, in 1896—the same year as the Plessy v Ferguson decision. A new city charter for New Orleans was passed that year, drastically and controversially reorganizing city government. Slipped in the text was Section 21 which read, in part, “The council shall not grant any privilege for the opening of any barroom, saloon, or concert saloon, or dance hall, except upon the written consent of the majority of the bona fide households or property holders within 300 feet…” Sound familiar? In case the intent of the language is unclear, a contemporary op-ed in the Times-Picayune entitled “No More Dives On Royal St”, written to oppose a concert saloon, makes it plain. “Let such obscene and demoralizing dens of iniquity be banished to the same precincts to which other immoral establishments be sent”, it says. “There is a place for everything, and the place for moral filth, like that for physical and material refuse, is in the rear, somewhere out of sight of decent people in their accustomed highways.” In 1904, it was decided that the existing law didn’t go far enough to banish the “demoralizing dens of iniquity”, and so the following language was added: “The Council shall not grant any privilege for the opening of any barroom, saloon, concert saloon or dancehall within 300 feet of any church or any school where children are taught.” It’s a pretty easy comparison with the ordinance that exists today.
In 1908, the same language was included in the notorious Gay-Shadduck act, which, among other things, mandated that all businesses that sell alcohol be segregated, made it illegal to sell alcohol to women, and outlawed musical instruments in saloons. A little over a decade later, Prohibition rendered all of these laws moot—and when it was lifted 13 years later, the ‘300 foot rule’ was not immediately reinstated. However, that reprieve was short lived. In 1941, Elizabeth Werlein, widely seen as one of the integral figures in New Orleans’ preservation movement and founder of the Vieux Carre Property Owners and Residents Association (VCPORA), was so outraged that Pat O’Brien’s was allowed to open on St. Peter St. she convinced then Mayor Maestri to re-establish a portion of the old law, preventing new saloons from opening in the French Quarter without the consent of 70 percent of property owners within 300 feet of the business. Four years later, Mayor Maestri fully restored the old ordinance, disallowing barrooms, saloon, dance halls, and cabarets from opening within 300 feet of schools, churches, and funeral homes. Ever since, except for the occasional tweak, the law has remained on the books.
One hundred twenty six years ago, many New Orleans residents considered live music venues ‘dens of inequity’, and their patrons ‘moral filth’. Laws were crafted accordingly. Now, the city (in theory, at least) celebrates live music and music venues, using them as a lynchpin in the marketing campaigns of the multi-billion dollar tourism industry. So why, in 2019, are we doubling down on a century and quarter old law? It simply makes no sense why a live performance venue can’t open within 300 feet of a church, library, or playground. While this may seem like a minor concern, add up the number of churches and other places of worship, schools, playgrounds, and libraries across the city—particularly in the older, historic neighborhoods. This restriction has real impact. One of the venues affected? The Dew Drop Inn. It sits about 100 feet from a church on Lasalle St.
Right now, a vote is scheduled on the revised alcoholic beverage ordinance at the City Council meeting on July 11th. Please contact the city council and tell them to remove the restrictions on live performance venues and live entertainment—secondary use in Ordinance # 32693.