Why Boston needs house shows: re-thinking noise ordinances, fostering sustainable music spaces, creating community

This is a show at my house. Not a public nuisance.

Two weeks ago tonight, I made a last-minute decision to bike downtown to City Hall and testify at a public hearing for the first time. This particular hearing was dedicated to discussing "public nuisances," along with a new noise ordinance law. The new law -- proposed by councilor Sal LaMattina, who also tried to ban ice cream truck music in 2007 -- would hold landlords more responsible for their tenants and make it easier for the police and the city to fine and evict noisy residents. According to city councilors, the new ordinance would "put teeth" into current laws: police could issue a $100 fine for a first offense, $300 fine for a second offense.

The hearing was mostly attended by older folks from the North End, who testified and talked about crazy parties keeping them awake on Friday nights and 20-somethings vomiting on their doorsteps and pissing off their balconies. Those are all reasonable complaints; cracking down on parties like that makes sense. I attended the hearing for a different reason.

“I represent a very specific interest in this discussion,” I told the city councilors, when I testified. “I live with musicians. We live in a house that occasionally makes noise.”

My testimony continued: “More and more I’ve seen police cracking down on musicians and houses where music is being made, mistaking them for typical party situations. I understand the crack down on big, gross parties. But we don’t have those at my house. We don’t have ragers or keg parties.”

This is me testifying at City Hall. Sort of terrifying, but ultimately fulfilling.

“We are trying to offer alternatives to the typical bar situations where people in the music community go to for shows,” I said. “Part of why we have shows in our house is so that people don’t have to go to bars because we don’t see music and alcohol as being interrelated at all.

I urged the city councilors and Boston residents who had gathered to look carefully at individual situations before deeming every noisy house as a “public nuisance.”

“Noise is not always unruly,” I told them. “Noise can be reasonable and productive -- if that’s your art, your craft, and your life’s work. Often in this city, I’ve seen people who are just trying to share their art with their friends, being [shut down] by the police. But a lot of these people are very reasonable, and if their neighbors talked directly to them, they’d be happy to work them. Take these situations on a case by case basis, and take music into consideration.”

In the context of the rest of the hearing, my testimony seemed oddly specific. Most the other folks testifying talked about these crazy, insane parties. Not house shows.

But it was an appropriate testimony, undoubtedly. Over the past month, it has become increasingly clear that as police are more carefully cracking down on loud houses in general, some of the city’s most valuable DIY venues (houses where basements double as makeshift show spaces) are being penalized.

In the past month, the residents of Gay Gardens -- a house in Allston that has hosted free/donation-based music for years -- were evicted. And residents of the Whitehaus -- a house in Jamaica Plain that’s hosted music, poetry, readings, films, and other community events for six years -- have had altercations with the police that landed them in court because of noise complaints. This is troubling.

I'm not suggesting that music lovers should be allowed to disrupt their neighbors and destroy their quality of life. But this new noise ordinance would encourage folks to call the police every time they hear a noisy guitar riffs or the pound of a drum -- rather than walk over to their neighbors house and fostering a community dialogue, working together to meet everyone’s needs.

I live at a house that throws shows, and we've worked with our neighbors to foster dialogues about everyone's comfort levels with noise. I've also been on the other side of the spectrum: I lived directly next door to Gay Gardens for two years, and had the uncomfortable task of occasionally having to go over to a show at 1 a.m. to ask for music to be turned down. Uncomfortable? Yes. But impossible? No. Communicating with my noisy neighbors was more effective than calling the police would have ever been. These strict new noise ordinances suggest otherwise, and are dangerously misguided.

In a city like Boston, where viable above-ground music venue options are slim, houses are often the only option for young artists. In Boston, we don't have publicly-funded community art spaces accessible to young artists, like AS 220 in Providence, the Vera Project in Seattle, or the 92Y Tribeca in New York. For young musicians, Boston only has bars, which are often expensive to book at as well as to attend. At bar shows, attendees often must be 21+ to enter. Plus, bar shows are inaccessible to those who don’t want to drink, or feel alienated by bar culture in general.

So as long as bars remain the only above-ground show spaces in Boston, our city’s independent music communities will continue seeking out underground options, and Boston’s cultural integrity will continue to depend on house shows.

I’m in my sixth year of living in this city -- but had I not stumbled upon the community of folks surrounding Allston and JP house shows in 2009, it's likely that I would have left for New York as soon as I graduated from Boston University. If Boston wants to keep young people who are interested in music and the arts, it needs to keep house shows, or provide public funding for safe, sustainable above-ground community art spaces.
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