Another week, another titanic bummer on the music scene. After months of rumors, it has become official. By the time you read this, Helios, the king-hell funky music/poetry/dance/art venue on lower Westheimer, will have closed. It will re-open in January, with the live music component scaled back enormously. The culprit, as was the case with the recent Walter's Two Gallants fiasco, is some whiner who couldn't take the noise.
It's a clich to say that this or that is "killing the scene," but in this case it is true: these sniveling simps really are killing the scene. It just makes my blood fucking boil when I think about these people. They are usually lawyers, and they are usually from places like Kingwood, Katy and Dallas. They move inside the Loop and buy some abysmal abortion of a condo because they want to be hip and edgy and have easy access to Starbucks and Urban Outfitters. They want to bask in the reflected glow of artists, because they think that makes their dorky asses cool. And they want Montrose and Washington Avenue to go to sleep at ten p.m. sharp, so they can nod off to their Everyone Loves Raymond reruns unimpeded by the strains of actual art being created.
Jeez Louise, this is the fourth-largest city in America, and a city that loves to think of itself as world-class, not some freaking lame suburb of Salt Lake City. And the NIMBY Patrol has the ultimate weapon -- Section 30 of the City of Houston's Code and Ordinances. It really is a noise weenie's wet dream. First, there's the decibel level it deems as acceptable. If your venue is in a residential area, and it is after ten p.m., it is pegged at 58 decibels at the property line. (Normal human conversation is 60 decibels, average office noise is 50. Traffic on a busy street is 70.) If your venue is not in a residential area, the decibel level is 68.
Here's a few other cities, for comparison:
Austin (75; recently lowered from a whopping 85)
San Antonio (70 in business areas, 63 residential)
New Orleans (70)
Houston has the lowest decibel level of any city I could find, which probably helps explain why we have so very few outdoor concerts. But that's not all -- let's say you own a venue and you have stayed always within the limit. Let's say you've spent thousands of dollars soundproofing your joint. And let's say that some asshole doesn't like your club, for whatever reason, and they decide to complain about the noise. The cops come out and take a reading, and it's within the limits. According to the way the law is written here, that doesn't matter. In October of 2001, the 1997 ordinance was amended to read thusly: "Regardless of the measurable [decibel] level...the generator of any sound of such a nature as to cause persons occupying or using any property other than the property upon which the sound is being generated to be aware of sympathetic vibrations or resonance caused by the sound shall also be prima facie evidence of a sound that unreasonably disturbs, injures, or endangers the comfort, repose, health, peace or safety of others in violation of this chapter."
So, in other words, all it takes is one. One jerk-off to say, "Officer, I can see sympathetic vibrations and/or resonance, and it is disturbing, injuring and endangering my comfort, repose, health, peace and/or safety." Doesn't matter if the cop doesn't see it -- it doesn't matter if it's not even there. All you have to do is say it is, and that it bothers you. And you can do it all anonymously -- so there could be a developer trying to shut the bar down so they can take over the spot, a competing club owner, or somebody with a grudge against a member of the band.
Rudyard's owner Lelia Rodgers has been dealing with this crap for years and years. She said the worst episode was this past Memorial Day weekend. "I pulled all the permits to have an afternoon parking lot party," she says. "Third song of the first band, the police came. They read me chapter and verse about how I didn't have any rights. My permit from the city wasn't worth anything. If anybody complains, then I have to shut down. And I did. I spent $800 on that party, and it was worth nothing."
So basically, anybody can shut down any show for any reason whatsoever. Rodgers believes that even more shows would be shut down if more police and music-haters knew that this law was on the books. "Most police will come by and do a decibel reading and tell the complainer that I'm legal," she says. "They haven't read the ordinance all the way through. But every now and then you get a hard-ass that can give you chapter and verse."
Rodgers doesn't have any easy solutions to the matter. "I don't know what to say. If you're looking for advice to give to people -- insulate as best as you can and make friends with your neighbors. Give 'em your phone number and tell them you will work with them."
Walter's on Washington owner Pam Robinson would love to do just that, only she doesn't know who is phoning in the complaints on her. Robinson is also a veteran of these wars. A few years back, a cranky townhouse-dwelling neighbor hounded Walter's off of its previous location on Durham through a series of spurious noise complaints, and now it's happening to her again. A week or so after the Two Gallants disaster, she was visited by the police again, and this time she was cited with a ticket, for the first time, as she puts it, "in the history of Pam."
Robinson believes that the complaints are less about noise than they are about property values. She isn't sure which of her neighbors is making the complaints, but she thinks she knows who it is. "The lady that makes the complaints against me comes to jazz nights here," she says. "She likes that. But she doesn't like punk stuff and the kids with mohawks. She can't hear it. I have spent so much money on soundproofing that there is just no way she can hear it. We've been back there. You can't hear anything. The other neighbors have been supportive, and they've told me you can't hear anything."
Walter's, after all, is on Washington, which has to be one of the noisiest streets in all of Houston. It's a busy road. There's a fire station around the corner, and H.P.D.'s Central Command is right down the street. There's some heavy industry -- junkyards and stuff like that -- on Center Street, one block north, and one block beyond that is the ridiculously busy and loud Union Pacific railroad tracks.
"They can't do anything about the train and the train is louder than anything. I don't think they make sound meters that can measure the train's decibels," Robinson says. "The fire station goes all day and night. And then there's me, and I've spent thousands of dollars on soundproofing. I just don't get it. These people need to get a life. When you live in the city, you should know what you are getting into. There's some of the worst crackhouses in the city in this neighborhood. Why doesn't that woman complain about those -- there's gunshots, stabbings and everything going around right next door to her."
Robinson got her first ticket on October 22. She says the policeman didn't do a decibel reading. "He said he didn't have to do a reading," she says. "So I told him it was just a matter of interpretation -- you say it's too loud, and I say it isn't. So he said, 'We'll go to court and let the judge decide.' Hopefully my attorney is better than the city's. I know he makes more money."
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Robinson says she asked the policeman to tell her who was making the complaints, but the officer refused to tell her. "That's crazy," she says. "This is America, the last time I checked. I get shut down for the night. That person gets the satisfaction of shutting me down for the night, but I'm trying to run a business here. It's not fair to the bands -- they lose money on merchandise and sales. Plus it just sucks. It just downright sucks."
Robinson is utterly defiant this time around. She's not budging; she swears she won't be moved off her perch. "I'm not goin' nowhere," she says. "I'm fighting this to the hilt. I don't understand. I've been here for years, and somebody else moves in here and the day they move in they start complaining -- they should have known better than to move in. I was told that this woman who is complaining is 'connected.' I really don't give a fuck if she's connected. This is America. If I'm breaking the law, fine, but I'm not."
That is exactly the spirit we need right now. These townhouse NIMBY wankers and their friends the developers really are killing the scene, and with it, the soul of Inner Loop Houston. It's past time to fight back. "I'm out here right now in The Woodlands, and this place is like a Hollywood set," Rodgers says. "I would kill myself if I had to live out here. It creeps me out, but suburban people love it, and they are trying to turn Houston into The Woodlands. It's like the end of our life in Houston. They're winning, and it just makes me want to sit down and cry. In ten years the face of Houston inside the Loop is gonna be as faceless and soulless and devoid of uniqueness as any other planned model community. It's just awful."