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MaC-Notes: “Maple Street Muses about the process”

evan christopher jpgThe New Orleans music scene had a small victory Uptown on Maple Street last week. By engaging in the process, citizens opposed and defeated an overlay that was designed to limit live music in restaurants. Just over one year later, this activism has paid off in the form of a new “Three Muses” that, by following its model of quality food and music, will be an asset to that neighborhood’s cultural makeup.

The process? I don’t really know what else to call it. I don’t want to limit it by calling it a “political process," although that’s a part of it. I also don’t want to discuss it as an abstract theory of social dynamics to be pondered. Engagement of the process describes a course of real action for those of us for whom the “new” New Orleans evokes grievances and concerns with alarming frequency.

What’s an “overlay?” MaCCNO’s executive director, Ethan Ellestad explained: “…an overlay is a zoning tool that creates specific provisions that supersede specific zoning regulations in a defined area, and can be used to either more or less permissive. …The Maple Street Overlay was designed to restrict live music and alcohol in restaurants along a section of Maple--it would have switched them from permitted (i.e. allowed) to conditional, which creates an additional step needed for approval, and given the neighborhood association a chance to oppose them--which they always did.” (MaCCNO is the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, for anyone recent to the conversation.)

Other overlays include St. Claude and Freret. Both are “Arts and Culture” overlays created to encourage music. St. Claude, the better example, was actually proposed by Bywater Neighborhood Association. Freret, on the other hand, hasn't been as successful in maintaining music venues, probably because the concessions to neighborhood groups have made it too difficult for them to function.

In New Orleans, we have over two dozen neighborhood associations that, to varying degrees, interject themselves into “the process.” It is unfair to assert that they exist because they are against businesses like Three Muses, even though they’re exactly the type of business that the Maple Street overlay was created to prevent. The fact is, besides uneven and culturally sensitive permitting enforcement, we don’t have a fair, enforceable sound ordinance. Some of us feel like we don’t have a say in protecting the character or quality of life in our neighborhoods, so we organize groups hoping they’ll have more weight with our civic leaders.

This is why engagement of the process is a theme that MaCCNO emphasizes. Follow MaCCNO and peruse the content they curate and discuss, The fight to protect and encourage cultural activity continues. Many stories are from our local news sources (or blogging services that have replaced our news services), but quite a bit comes from MaCCNO members, many of whom are culture-workers themselves. Every week, celebrations of small victories are juxtaposed with challenges against music venues, appropriations of cultural traditions encouraged by our over-dependence on tourism, and gentrification challenging our fragile neighborhoods.

MaCCNO strongly opposed the Maple Street overlay, as it would have limited live music arbitrarily. Had it not been for numerous e-mails and phone calls in opposition to the overlay, it would have likely passed and Three Muses would have faced much more opposition. This is a clear example of the impact of cultural advocacy. As Ellestad remarked, “It’s about as clear of a 'zoning win' as you can get.”
I’ll continue giving “the process” attention, and hopefully find other examples to illustrate that, wherever you live, it does make a difference to be a part of the conversations about your community. In New Orleans, where cultural expressions feed our souls, pass values to our children and create rallying points around which we discuss our community’s future, don’t make the mistake of thinking your voice doesn’t count.

Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and advocates for the cultural workforce. Click here for his performance schedule. He writes MAC-Notes for NolaVie. Email him with your comments about cultural issues, particularly in the music world, at evan@nolavie.com.