Saturday, April 4, 2009

Noise: Special Benefit of Downtown Living

Blaming he Victim
I am not a native Washingtonian, though my wife and I adopted this great city as our home many years ago and have been living downtown since 1995. Whenever I share the challenges our city faces from oversight by “state” politicians who like to make their political points at our expense, I am usually queried with “You knew that you were losing voting rights when you moved to DC do it is your fault, not the blame of those politicians representing states.” It is not a good argument and my friends ceased using it many years ago especially since I am generally enraged by “blaming the victim” arguments.

Sadly, I have been hearing a similar refrain since moving downtown. Complain about noise to a club owner and their response is “if you want quiet, you should not live downtown.” I have received similar advice from city agency professionals who see a commercial zone and choose to ignore the growing number of people who actually live downtown rather than commute from a state or live in a more residential ward. Since I chose to live downtown, then I should expect the bass laden beat from a nearby club and be amused by the whims of DC WASA as they prepare for the midnight dance of the jackhammer. I was once advised by a Ward 6 commissioner that downtowners should expect the lively 3AM club crowds and not complain - after all, living downtown is a choice. Clubs first, local residents last. More blaming the victim.

Bait and Switch
Nearly two years ago, I attended a hearing with other downtown neighbors on noise. An amendment was being considered that would put some limits on the volume generated by amplified non-commercial speech. There is no limit on how loud one can be if the speech is not amplified. There used to be a 60 decibel limit for amplified non-commercial speech that was remove at the behest of local unions who were, or were believed to have been, abused by police officers for being above the limit. I do not know what the facts are for the union grievance, but it only impacted daytime office workers since most of the protests were downtown. The change, though, enabled unions and other protesters to be as loud as their amplifier permitted throughout the city.

When a group of hate preachers took hold on H Street NE in Ward 6, residents joined together and after over two years of hard work and the support of Councilmember Tommy Wells, they were able to get some relief with the adoption of a 70 decibel limit for amplified non-commercial speech. They made their point by fostering their own demonstrations in neighborhoods like Georgetown and drawing attention to the harm by the change. Unfortunately, the amendment that was passed could only pass with union support. Since unions are not focused on residential venues, they were willing to give it up if they could continue to be as loud as technically possible in downtown locations. We actively supported protections that we believed would benefit all district residents. In the end, it only offered protection for some district residents. This seemed appropriate since, after all, in the blaming the victim mentality, we chose to live downtown. We chose to have less rights.

Discrimination Institutionalized
So, a bad bill was created that discriminates against those who have been at the center of city revitalization. When the vote was taken, the two sponsors, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells and Ward 4 Councilmember Mary Cheh voted against their own bill. I know they both were sincerely disappointed at the outcome. What we are left with are regulations that are unfair and treat those of us who sleep downtown and receive less city services than our residential neighbors with less protection, too. This isn’t fair; can it really be legal? But hey, just by moving to DC we willingly gave up political rights just as moving downtown gave us zoning laws that do not acknowledge our existence. So, perhaps blaming the victim is the right argument. It still makes me angry.


  1. No Offense, but I think if you choose to live downtown you SHOULD be willing to put up with noise, nightlife til 3-4 am, events, etc. That's in essense what downtown "zoning" is. It's only going to get louder as more vibrancy is breathed into our downtown. This is my opinion, but I believe it is shared by many. There are obviously limits to this, and I believe a decibel level should be in place and enforced. But if your complaint is drunk people walking around the streets after a bar or club closes, then I don't have that much sympathy. It's something that residents all over the city (even in Gtown) have to deal with, but I think the good outweighs the bad.

    Btw, kudos sticking with downtown through the dark days of the mid-90's! Please don't take my opinion as a personal attack- I just feel strongly in the other direction.

  2. Zoning isn't a carved-in-stone forever type of neighborhood segmentation. Current zoning does not reflect the growth of a vibrant place for people to work, play, and sleep. Our current noise legislation fails to reflect this, too- and much of it isn't enforced. Interesting that in NYC, major efforts have been taken to reduce noise levels. It would be great if our leadership did not just tout downtown as like NYC, but provide similar protections that now exist, their too. Regardless, I love living downtown despite the increased noise levels and the flashy Verizon light that shares it's glow with me every night.

  3. I accept that living downtown is going to be different than the suburbs, but city living does not mean living without limits. I don't accept that living downtown means surrendering my safety (e.g., accepting being mugged), my health (e.g., pollution) or excessive noise (i.e., the case in point).

    There's no reason that anyone with a megaphone can show up wherever they want and blast noise. Free speech does not guarantee amplified speech. Sometimes it's necessary, such as at a large rally, but none of these nuts who use them downtown actually need them. They megaphones to annoy, intimidate and harass people. Period.

    What also annoys me is the unlimited use of percussion instruments, whether they be plastic buckets or full drum sets. I quit eating outside at Rosa Mexicana long ago because of the "drummers."

    Our city leaders failed us because they piss their pants whenever they hear the word "unions." Any attempt to regulate noise is going to incur their wrath, and we can't have that, can we?