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Amplified Noise Act

Two ways of making change.

The Georgetown Independent’s statistics department estimates that, by the time he or she graduates, the average Georgetown student will have avoided eye contact with over 150 street musicians. Residents and tourists alike say that D.C. streets would not be what they are without its ever-present orchestra of guitar players, bucket drummers, and guys playing along to music on their phones. With the exception of the Hare Krishnas who seem to spontaneously manifest at the corner of Wisconsin and M, few mind the fact that every Metro entrance is guarded by men with trombones. But some neighborhoods and residents disagree, and have pushed legislation to change this.

The Amplified Noise Amendment Act of 2018, born B22-839, would limit noise generated by electrical amplification (speakers, etc.), to the degree that it “can not be plainly audible at a distance of 100 feet or more.” Violators would be subject to a verbal warning, followed by a fine to not exceed $300. The proposed bill’s little brother, B22-900, would have similar effects and would also ban gas generators from public spaces as a noise hazard. Many cities, such as New York, have similar ordinances. But both bills have already proven divisive, both in the ambiguous wording of qualifiers such as “plainly audible” and in the effect this legislation might have on D.C.

Introduced this summer, B22-839 was officially pulled from the D.C. Council agenda in July due to backlash and is not scheduled for vote. However, public hearings are ongoing. On Oct. 4, D.C. residents, business owners, and community leaders appeared to give statements supporting or discouraging its passage. The turnout was a veritable who’s-who of odd, vaguely associated groups. Interested parties included the American Farm Bureau Federation, which claims it has a problem with horn musicians outside their downtown office, the “Please Turn It Down” Coalition, an extremely specific single-interest group, and most amazing of all, the D.C. chapter of The Recording Academy, better known as the organization which distributes the Grammys.

Most parties involved expressed their support for street musicians—The Recording Academy going so far as to condemn the use of the word “noise” in the bill’s passage as an insult to music. In fact, many supporters of the bill went out of their way to declare their support for street musicians, and some neighborhood representatives repeatedly tried to clarify that the bill was not an attempt at gentrification. Chairman Phil Mendelson has expressed his belief that most of the complaints regarding B22-839 are based in misconceptions that the bill is meant to “clean up” street buskers.

However, many of the speakers cited street performers as a nuisance, a hindrance to business, and damaging to property values. Downtown residents complain that the musicians stay awake as long as the clubs are open and keep them from sleeping. One such resident stated that his blind daughter is unable to use her voiceover software for homework due to the ambient noise around their Gallery Place apartment. It is likely that, should B22-839 go to vote, street performers would be its primary violators.

What does this mean for students if B22-839 should pass? Thankfully, most of GU’s campus guitar players quarantine themselves in common rooms, but as party season approaches with the end of the semester, blaring music can often be heard from blocks away. After a verbal warning, this bill would allow the city to fine students to the tune of hundreds should neighbors call in a noise complaint. Any such incidents, however, would be handled by the university’s police department, which reserves the right to process students according to University guidelines. As of writing, GUPD has not commented on any plans to change the way in which they handle noise complaints, nor has the university expressed an interest doing so.

However, while Georgetown partygoers are likely to be safe, the high volume of street musicians on M Street and Wisconsin Avenue could make them a target, both from those who dislike the noise and from those to consider them a threat to Burleith’s property values. Many groups, such as the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation and We Act Radio, a social consciousness media group, have expressed dismay over the threat this poses to D.C.’s unique music scene, and maintain that labelling music as “noise” will rob our city of culture. Hoyas who feel strongly about preserving D.C.’s unique street music—or who feel that the city should adopt regulations surrounding street music volume—are encouraged to attend future public hearings.

Stollhaus is an International Politics Senior and Local Spotlight Editor.

PC: Roland Estrata/Flickr.

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