On a Friday night near the Gallery Place Metro station in downtown D.C., Malik Stewart plays his drums. A block away, Jinji Martine sings an amplified mix of pop hits and Christmas favorites.
Both are part of a vibrant busking culture, which for years has been part and parcel of downtown life in the nation's capital.
But as the number of people living there has increased, so have complaints about performers, who fear that the city's push for a "living downtown" — drawing residents to the commercial core — will drive them out.
Two dozen residents and business owners testified last week at a D.C. Council roundtable to demand that the city enforce noise regulations or come up with more effective legislation.
"It's become unbearable," said Ranya Elias, a 40-year-old government analyst who lives in the Residences at Gallery Place, an 11-story complex at Seventh and H Streets NW above the Metro stop. "I shouldn't have to worry about hearing loss or not being able to enjoy my home in quiet."
Complaints about buskers are not new, but massive speakers and gasoline-powered generators mean street performers have gotten louder in recent years, Elias and her neighbors said.
Elias, who lives on the building's fourth floor, said she sometimes sleeps with her air conditioning blasting to mute the noise and a heated blanket to compensate for the cold. Other residents have tried insulating their windows or getting sound machines.
It has all been to no avail, they said.
"We knew this wasn't a purely residential area — we knew it would be busy — but this wasn't the bargain we made," said Robert Wuertz, vice president of the building's condo board.
In part because of encouragement from developers and city officials, the number of people living downtown increased 16 percent from 2011 to 2016, from 8,449 to 9,831, according to the downtown D.C. Business Improvement District.
"Downtown has evolved in the last 20 years," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "We certainly recognize this is a problem, and one we haven't had before."
The maximum noise level for commercial zones is 65 decibels during the day and 60 at night, but there is no limit for the unamplified voice, said D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs spokesman Jason Washington.
Residents, who have downloaded decibel-measuring apps on their phones, say they complain about noise readings above 100 but get no response from officials, including DCRA staff and police.
"It seems like a lot of people have responsibility, which leaves no one with any real responsibility," said Elias, who has rented her apartment for six years.
Because street musicians are protected by the First Amendment, District agencies have "little recourse for enforcement during the day," the DCRA and D.C. police said in a statement.
Additionally, the decibel-level reading must be taken from the nearest residential zone, and street performers are generally not performing in residential zones, the statement said. The condo where Elias and her neighbors live is in the city's "downtown zone."
A D.C. police spokesman said noise complaints are part of a broader category of "disorderly incidents," and he couldn't say how many were received.
Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who convened the roundtable, said the situation seems unfair to downtown residents. She is not considering new legislation but said existing noise ordinances should be enforced.
She pointed out that there was a swift online backlash when she called the hearing, and people suggested that she sided with the Gallery Place residents over the buskers. Bonds, who is African American, said some of the criticism was racially tinged, suggesting that she was favoring white gentrifiers over black street musicians.
Many of the District's longtime residents can't afford downtown apartments. A one-bedroom home in the Residences at Gallery Place is listed for $360,000. Financial disparity by race is growing in D.C., where the median annual income for white families is $120,000 and for black families is $41,000, according to a recent Georgetown University report.
"I understand the concern, but we cannot pit those who can afford to live in the community against those who come into the community to make money," Bonds said.
Stewart, 25, is a D.C. native whose drumming helped him stay out of trouble when he was growing up. He said he is not opposed to newcomers but does not want them to push out the local culture.
"It's disrespectful to try to erase what was already here," Stewart said. "They minimize what we're doing — not all, but some newcomers reduce our artistic value by calling us noise makers."
Stewart, who was inspired by D.C.'s native go-go music, has turned into a kind of local celebrity. As he drummed on a recent day — hands not slowed by the below-freezing temperatures — he twirled his sticks in the air, fist-bumped onlookers and motioned for a friend to join in.
Gentrification and the increased number of complaints that came with it led him to stop performing at 14th and U Streets NW, he said. As the number of complaints increased at Gallery Place, he has been doing fewer street performances and traveling more for paid performances.
"I don't want to be pushed out of my own city," Stewart said.
Martine, 19, was homeless when she came from New York to D.C. last year and is trying to earn enough money to rent an apartment. She said she understands residents' concerns about noise but does not have a choice: Singing is how she makes enough money to stay off the street.
She said she receives complaints almost every day.
"I tell them they need to make a living, and this is how I make mine," said Martine, who hopes to enroll in community college in January.
Around 6 p.m. last Friday, her speaker died. But she kept singing, trying to catch the crowd heading into the Capital One Arena for the Wizards game at 7 p.m.
Mostly, the people passing by looked at their smartphones.
On her best day, Martine said, she made $80 per hour. The six hours she spent at Gallery Place on Friday were "just okay," she said, looking at the change, dollars bills and a Wizards pamphlet that someone had dropped in her yellow collection bin.
"I know the sound can be loud, but we want to be a part of a solution," said Stewart, who added that many street performers were not aware of the D.C. Council meeting and should be invited to future discussions.
David Mitchell, an English professor at George Washington University, said that if something does not change soon, he will consider moving from the Residences at Gallery Place. He said the music is so loud his daughter, who is blind, cannot use her voice-over software and cannot do her schoolwork in the apartment.
"No one has control of their private living space," Mitchell said.