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This DC Council hearing exemplified the challenges of living in a gentrifying city

As newcomers mix with long-time residents, the burden of actually forging a neighborhood together is being pushed onto local government.

WASHINGTON, DC -DEC 15: Dozens of residents in D.C.;s Gallery Place neighborhood asked City Council members find a way to limit noise from street performers. Their critics say the discussion is the most recent sign of gentrification downtown. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC -DEC 15: Dozens of residents in D.C.;s Gallery Place neighborhood asked City Council members find a way to limit noise from street performers. Their critics say the discussion is the most recent sign of gentrification downtown. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC — As an urban area gentrifies, does it also become noisier?

Well, it depends on whom you ask. To the residents and office workers living and working in new downtown digs here in the nation’s capitol, the noise is intolerable.

“It is difficult to overstate how loud, intrusive and troublesome the sounds of the local street musicians are when amplified or accompanied by horns and drum kits,” Colleen Brown said Monday during a D.C. city council committee meeting convened to hear citizen opinions on how to curtail noise. “My coworkers and I regularly experience frustration, anxiety, and headaches due to the extreme noise levels.”

In Washington, D.C., city legislators are considering a package of bills that would restrict or outlaw noise-making in the city. Two separate bills were discussed at the public hearing, including one that would outlaw gas-powered leaf blowers in residential areas, as well as a separate proposal that would turn down the volume on amplified music played on downtown street corners.

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For nearly seven hours on Monday during a meeting of the council’s Committee of the Whole, a parade of citizens nearly unanimously urged the council to take immediate action and make the city quieter.

Like a neighborhood listserv that came to life, a contingent of anti-leaf-blower activists spoke out in favor of a council proposal to ban the sale and use of gas-powered blowers in the city by 2022. Of the 20 people who spoke on the legislation, only two of them — trade group representatives for landscapers and power tool manufacturers — opposed the bills, citing adverse impacts on their constituent industries. They were easily drowned out by the impassioned pleas of NIMBY activists. 

Haskell Small, who identified himself as a fourth-generation Washingtonian who works at home as a music composer and pianist, demanded action to silence the racket created by lawn crews in his verdant neighborhood. “I find the horrendous noise of gas-powered leaf blowers to be not only an intrusion on my right to peace and quiet, but also an invasion of my space, making it sometimes impossible to work,” he said, reading his statement in a calm voice that failed to mask his frustration.

The leaf-blower activists, however, were only the warm-up act to the dozens of speakers who came to complain about buskers playing music through loud speakers near metro stops in busy downtown locations.

Stephanie M. Lawley, an attorney with Leyid, Voit & Mayer, told the committee that her office in the Metro Center area experiences nearly non-stop music on a daily basis.  “The volume is so loud that is sounds like a rock concert is going on inside my office,” Lawley said, urging immediate passage of proposed legislation.  “Now that the warm weather is here, the frequency of the loud volume of music has increased, making this an urgent problem which needs to be addressed promptly.”

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But to those street musicians who play drums, horns or amplified instruments for pocket change just outside metro stations, these are the sounds of the city, bringing vitality to urban areas. And, to their mind, these objections are being raised by newcomers to the area, and they question whether they have the right to impose new regulations on the spaces in which these musicians have long lived and played.

Kymone Freeman, co-founder of We Act Radio, a community-based broadcast and new media firm targeted to inner-city listeners, was the lone speaker — out of nearly 50 registered to testify before the committee — to defend the buskers during the hearing. He angrily challenged those who objected to the buskers’ right to make a living downtown, calling the noise debate a “battle over turf” in the city.

“I’m offended by the speed of this emergency legislation that’s not for a retention plan for longtime residents and small businesses being displaced out of the city, but for the powerful and the wealthy, and their comfort,” said Freeman. “The amplification has not increased in the city. It’s the number of new residents who have invaded the city and increased noise complaints.”

At the heart of the challenge in the District is existing law which allows broad freedom for buskers to perform in public areas or places that aren’t zoned as residential neighborhoods. But, as the city has gentrified, some erstwhile business districts such as the Chinatown and Penn Quarter areas have become increasingly  residential without a formal change in zoning. In these cases, police have only a limited authority to silence the street performances.

Penalties in the proposed legislation could, in fact, lead to fines and jailing for noncompliance. Under existing District regulations, “excessive or unnecessary noises…are a menace to the welfare and prosperity of the residents and businesses.” However, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), one of several agencies that enforces noise restrictions, is primarily concerned with matters such as preventing private-firm trash collectors from operating in residential areas in the evenings and restricting construction crews from working without special permits during the prohibited 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. time frame. 

But, as Freeman told the council, the newcomers knew — or should have known — that they were moving into a part of the city that was well-known to have a vibrant urban street scene — the sort of thing that real estate developers use to market up-and-coming neighborhoods as hip enclaves, brimming with authentic city life.

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Freeman contended that the council should not “seek to provide suburban amenities to urban settings by criminalizing [black] youth and street musicians.” Such fears are not entirely unfounded: in recent weeks, there has been much discussion of the propensity among white people to use the police to patrol black bodies in public spaces.

Clearly, there is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer. The challenge posed by noise in the city is complicated by issues of race, income, and freedom of expression in public spaces. The complaining residents tend to be wealthy, white, and politically influential, while the buskers are typically black, less affluent, and protective of their First Amendment rights to public expression. Amid this swirl of competing facts and values, finding a simple solution to bridge the gulf of lifestyles and expectations is a daunting task.

While the job of resolving community-based concerns falls upon city lawmakers, there exists an inherent power imbalance. As reflected in the marathon city council meeting, where politically connected citizens showed they have the time, resources and patience to spend eight-plus hours in a hearing room to complain to City Hall about their neighbors. Regardless of the legislative outcome, some District residents will be unsatisfied.

Is this the everlasting fate of urban life, the never-ending struggle over who has a right to enjoy the changing face and values of city life?

Indeed, by appealing to the authority of municipal government, District residents hardened the lines that already separate them from one another. While issues of race, class and geography were obvious, if not always clearly articulated in the citizens’ testimonies, there was an obvious effort to find a happy medium to the concerns of noise and the free expression of buskers in the city.

It ought to be possible for the city to expend as much energy as necessary to get neighbors to talk and cooperate with one another in a search for a cooperative compromise, while avoiding the imposition of a punitive “broken windows” theory that leads to the criminalization of those who only want to let the music play.