Shrieking partygoers toss beads over balconies and down into the street. Music booms from nightclub speakers. Bar-hoppers shuffle from one saloon to another, threading their way past street performers, pitchmen hustling clubs and preachers howling into megaphones that they’re all going to Hell.
This is Bourbon Street on any given night. It is noisy.
Too noisy for some people. Last December a move to quiet Bourbon Street found its way to the New Orleans City Council in the form of proposed revisions to the city’s noise ordinance.
The modifications were partly based on an initiative by 13 neighborhood groups that had heard enough. They wanted the Council to lower decibel levels acceptable in the entire French Quarter to 70 from 80 — with a maximum decibel level of 85 allowed on Bourbon Street itself.
“It is very difficult to live close to Bourbon Street now because it is so loud,” said Meg Lousteau, executive director of Vieux Carré Property Owners, one of the neighborhood groups that wants noise levels lowered.
A resident of Bourbon Street, Derek Waselenak, said it wasn’t the music that bothered him as much as the bombastic preachers.
“It’s not like they’re just screaming. They’re screaming into a megaphone and they’re standing right outside the kitchen,” he said, pointing toward the kitchen window.
But the silencers have lost.
On April 24, the proposal crashed with a thud, failing to find sufficient support in a City Council vote.
One reason for the failure is that Bourbon Street, at full blast, has a lot of supporters because business on the street is booming.
Last year, around 9.3 million people visited New Orleans and spent $6.5 billion – a record for the city. And spending in bars increased by 6 percent.
The French Quarter alone attracted 8.5 million visitors in 2012, according to Ms. Lousteau.
“They’re trying to starve out Bourbon Street,” Sterling Marvas, a doorman at Bourbon Heat nightclub, said of those attempting to hush the noise. “If they starve Bourbon Street out, they’ll starve New Orleans out.”
The issue divides those who see the French Quarter for its charm as a historic neighborhood and those who see it as the vibrant center of noise and excitement that draws tourists.
The anti-noise crowd stresses the charm.
“What makes the French Quarter such a fantastic place is that it is an authentic neighborhood,” said Ms. Lousteau. “It’s a cultural resource.”
Some residents have vacated their apartments or sold their homes in the French Quarter because of noise, she said. “You can’t necessarily close a curtain or put on earplugs,” Ms. Lousteau said.
The French Quarter, New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood, is two-thirds of a square mile of businesses, restaurants, bars and historic homes. It had 4,176 residents in 2000, with an average household income of $80,700. In 2010, that number dropped to approximately 3,800, but the average household income in the area rose to about $100,300 by 2012, based on estimates from the New Orleans Data Center.
“My assumption is that it would be hard for you to find someone willing to live in close proximity to the Bourbon Street entertainment district,” Ms. Lousteau said, speaking of the main strip of bars, clubs, shops and hotels on the 200 through 800 blocks.
Even residents still in the French Quarter are beginning to move farther away from Bourbon Street, she added.
Bourbon Street, and the rest of the French Quarter, has not always been as loud as it is today.
The last four decades produced a change in the soundscape, according to information presented by David Woolworth in the 2013 New Orleans Sound Ordinance and Soundscape Evaluation and Recommendations report.
Boom music with its pounding bass line started thumping through the Quarter more insistently in the 1980s, partly augmented by more powerful amplification technology and a change in musical tastes. Then in the 1990s, T-shirt and souvenir shops began pointing loudspeakers toward their doors to entice patrons. The result was a cacophony of constant commotion on Bourbon Street that thumped into surrounding areas.
“That was the beginning of the end,” said CoCo Garrett, president of French Quarter Citizens, another of the neighborhood groups advocating proposals to lower the noise.
According to Mr. Woolworth’s findings, the constant clamor of trucks, tourists and loudspeakers can reduce property rental or sale values by 20 to 50 percent. Properties in the French Quarter are worth between $94.84 and $265.04 per square foot, based on 2012 estimates from the Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office.
Now, a sizable portion of French Quarter occupants simply vacation there, said Ms. Lousteau. Of the millions of people who visited New Orleans last year, more than a third are in the 50-to 64-year-old age group — a percentage that coincides with the French Quarter’s largest resident age demographic.
Some critics have said complaints about the noise come mostly from older people living in the Quarter, but Ms. Lousteau disagrees. She recalls a young couple who lived a block from Bourbon Street telling her they had to move because of the noise.
“Your age doesn’t matter,” Ms. Lousteau said. “If you are prevented from having the peace of your own house and being able to sleep through the night, especially on a regular basis, that makes someplace unlivable.”
Ms. Garrett has friends who live on streets adjacent to Bourbon and complain about the continual thumping of bass. “It never stops. It just goes constantly,” she said. “It’s like having a loudspeaker in your living room.”
But others reflect the New Orleans tradition of just letting the good times roll.
“Different people are bothered by different levels,” said Mr. Waselenak, who lives on the 800 block of Bourbon and said he does not expect the area to be quiet.
Along with the noise, whispers of gentrification weave through the district. The Gambit, a popular New Orleans focused website, said evidence of gentrification — including reverse migration, zoning changes and new residents looking to stop the long-term practices of an area — has reared its head.
Mr. Waselenak said he assumes the complaints are coming from new owners or residents who did not fully know what to expect. But he said he doesn’t personally know anyone in the neighborhood who supports the ordinance.
“This is where the majority of the taxes for the city are paid. This is the moneymaker for the city and any restriction to that is going to reduce the amount of money that comes into the city,” Mr. Waselenak said. “Those new people that come in and think they’re going to change things, I mean, it’s wishful thinking but it’s not gonna happen.”