A Counteroffensive on Mt. Pleasant's 'Voluntary' Music Bans
With the possible exception of barking dogs and property boundaries, the most common source of neighborhood strife is the music that is one man's solace and another's torment.
In Mount Pleasant, residents fed up with loud music succeeded several years ago in silencing the bands that played at restaurants and bars along the Northwest D.C. neighborhood's main drag. Faced with the prospect that residents would challenge their liquor licenses, the businesses on Mount Pleasant Street signed what the D.C. government calls voluntary agreements, promising to shut down the music.
"I don't know why they call it a voluntary agreement, because it's not," says Alberto Ferrufino, owner of Don Juan's restaurant, where mariachi bands played before the ban. "All our neighbors are very nice, and 98 percent want to bring the music back, but one small group forced us to sign to have no live music and no pitchers of beer. They say if we don't sign, they'll protest our liquor license. My customers say, 'Alberto, why do we have to go to Adams Morgan for music?' But I had no choice."
This is not your standard residents vs. businesses standoff. In Mount Pleasant, in a church meeting hall on a weekday evening, 15 residents gather to plot the restoration of live music -- to allow an acoustic jazz brunch at Marx Cafe, roving mariachi bands along the street, a talent showcase at Don Juan's.
"The restrictions went way overboard," says Dominic Sale, president of Mount Pleasant Main Street, a city-supported endeavor to turn the neighborhood into a "culturally rich urban village" featuring restaurants and entertainment. "We're always talking to businesses about locating here, and they're scared off by the mention of these voluntary agreements."
The new group dubs itself Hear Mount Pleasant, and its members are longtime activists and young newcomers -- people such as Jason Kelly, whose jazz combo sometimes plays on his front porch for all the neighbors to enjoy; Amber Gallup, who loves "to go out to hear music and dance, and I want to be able to do that in my own neighborhood and I'm angry that I can't"; and Janelle Treibitz, a puppeteer and waitress who adds that nobody wants Mount Pleasant to become another Adams Morgan but wonders why that means there can't be a little life along the avenue.
As far back as the 1940s, country bands played Mount Pleasant Street. Over the years, the music changed to rock and then punk and then Latin sounds, but the scene remained -- until the voluntary agreements came along.
The group's strategy is to fight the District's policy -- the city encourages noise-averse neighbors to negotiate voluntary agreements and has approved 447 such pacts in the past six years -- with the very same policy. There's no limit on the number of agreements a restaurant can sign, so the activists propose to write pro-music agreements with the same places that signed anti-music deals. The city's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board would have to sort through the contradictions.
Dream on, says Laurie Collins. She's the bogeyman of the Hear Mount Pleasant crowd. As head of the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance, which worked out the no-music agreements with the restaurants, and a former member of the ABC board, Collins is the woman people love to blame for silencing the bands.
She happily pleads guilty. Proud of what she's accomplished, she's confident nothing will change. Voluntary agreements stand in perpetuity. Even if the new group completed its own deals, the board would nullify them, Collins says, because its policy is to enforce the most restrictive agreement on the books.
"It's a myth that these deals weren't voluntary," she says. "Nobody twisted anybody's arms. The restaurants had expensive attorneys. Nobody wanted the live music -- we're a 98 percent residential community. And I will be damned if people outside my neighborhood come in and do something that affects my property value by worsening the parking situation." (Because some in the pro-music group are renters -- Treibitz, for example, lives in a group home next door to Collins -- Collins considers them "outsiders.") She laughs at the notion that she and a handful of others foisted their view on the neighborhood. "They say, 'You didn't ask us.' Well, we didn't have to ask anyone. It was the Wild West here back then. There was music and bars open till 4 or 5 in the morning. We begged people to stop the noise and the trash. We had no help from the government, so we negotiated directly with the businesses."
Collins isn't opposed to all music; she even sponsors a summer series of outdoor concerts on Mount Pleasant Street. And she approves of live music in churches and restaurants that don't serve alcohol. It's the combination of drinking and music that leads to noise, trash and crime, she says.
To rally support, Hear Mount Pleasant held a movie night and showed "Footloose," the 1984 flick about a small town called Bomont where rock and dancing are banned -- until the bad, bad preacher man suddenly and inexplicably decides the kids are all right.
Mount Pleasant isn't Bomont, and Laurie Collins isn't John Lithgow. But the D.C. government took the easy road by mortgaging its responsibilities and letting the loudest residents determine what's permissible in an urban neighborhood. Ferrufino is right: There's nothing voluntary about voluntary agreements. It's time for the city to step in and restore some balance. If the District enforced noise ordinances, there'd be no reason for anyone to be banning the bands.
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