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Kicking People Out Doesn't Fix Anything

Kicking People Out Doesn't Fix Anything
By Gordon Chaffin • Issue #132 • View online

The Chinatown Gate in Downtown DC, 7th and H Streets NW, in November 2020. (Photo by Gordon Chaffin)
The DC Council will once again consider changes to public noise rules aimed at reducing — perhaps kicking out completely — the street musicians who frequent DC’s Chinatown/Penn Quarter neighborhood and a few other areas. That’s according to Martin Austermuhle’s reporting, linked above. Here’s an excerpt from Rachel Kurzious reporting from 2019 when the bill was last introduced:
“The text is identical to an emergency bill introduced in June that would have banned playing music through amplified devices audible from more than 100 feet away and prohibited gas generators in public spaces. It also empowers D.C. police officers and other law enforcement officers to issue a fine of $300 after a verbal warning.”
My mother likes to tell this story about our family trip to DC in July 2001: My brother and I (12 and 9) were amazed by street musicians playing bucket drums outside the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. We were also surprised and curious about a large number of homeless folks in plain view. We were sheltered kids, which I have mixed feelings about. My parents didn’t teach me to judge buskers or panhandlers, though I experienced an unhealthily anesthetized environment.
Car-dependent suburban sprawl creates an unhealthy detachment from the community you grow up in. Your parents may take you to sports arenas, concerts, and theaters — if they’re even still located in the city that anchors your region. But, you drive to a parking garage, walk into the venue, walk back to the car, and get back on the highway. My first time really seeing Detroit was when I ran the marathon, my freshman year of college. I wonder sometimes if the children of Reston, Virginia know where Trinidad is or why Howard University is so important to DC and American history.
The anesthetization of public space from uncomfortable shared problems like homelessness or even just the discomfort of loud music is a pernicious force. If there’s one thing I believe is part of gentrification, it certainly is the removal of vivid manifestations of local culture. You don’t have to like the music! Not everything in life is Yo-Yo Ma at Wisconsin and M. But, “get out of my sight/earshot” so that the insert-national-chain or high-income property owner or commercial tenant is willing to move in/stay? That’s wrong. That’s much less than what we owe to each other as neighbors.
Excluding people from public space doesn’t fix societal problems. Pushing people with genuine needs out of public view without a reasonable alternative accomplishes nothing. You don’t erase the people or their problems. If it’s the culture you limit — the street music — then you deny and extinguish the history you claim to love. If we as a collective focus 95% of our time and energy on the exclusion part, then we can’t pretend to care about the people we’re pushing out.
I oppose the DC Council’s effort to limit amplified noise because it reflects only the complaints of privileged residents and does nothing to — on the other side of the coin — provide public resources for buskers and other local creative performers to sustain and even grow their businesses/side-hustles. My issue with the anti-street music stakeholders is that they are rarely if ever vocal allies on raising money for community art spaces where folks could busk. There are more and more empty storefronts these days and not a lot of donating square footage to the 7-piece brass quartet near 7th and H.
There is of course a necessary balance between the facilitation of cultural performance and vibrancy with the livability aspect of mixed-use places where people sleep, work from home, and enjoy arts. I’m sure there are reams of caselaw about noise ordinances. I’m also sure there are many, many instances where noise and other “quality of life” laws are used selectively as tools of exclusion for an undesirable presence. This is the long, oft-repeated story of “keeping the riff-raff out” by denying public transit expansion or fighting against affordable housing.
I’m contemplating this new rule for life: if you’re against something strongly, you have to also be for something in equal proportion. I’m wary of the movement of Adams Morgan business owners seeking to change Unity Park in DC to remove frequent visitors of the public space. That’s because those same, privileged stakeholders focus most of their energy on efforts to remove people with the generation of dubious crime accusations and demands of enforcement. If you’re really against dangerous, unhealthy activities — not just against the people — then you need to show up more on their behalf. You raise a supportive voice when it’s time to take money from punishment to treatment. I’m not interested in anyone focused more on pushing someone down than lifting them up.
I oppose DC’s extremely cheap on-street parking permits and near-universal political deference to long-term car storage in public space. But, I support with frequent public comments the provision of free or reduced-rate, guaranteed parking for residents who really need that spot at that location. I support massive re-purposing of curbside space for pick-up/drop-off and commercial + package delivery. I want less car space and more dedicated transit space. If you’ll stand with me about bike lanes, I’ll stand with you about affordable housing.
I understand local businesses oppose homeless encampments. I also wish the NoMA bridge underpasses were safer to walk, run, and ride bikes along. But I care far more that my neighbors have to camp in tents on the cold sidewalk a hundred feet from an REI that sells them. What kind of a fucked up juxtaposition is that? There must be at least an equal push from the same encampment naysayers to make immediate, safe, affordable housing available for all. You can be against something, but you’ve got to be for something.
There’s probably a bias across all races and income-levels where we summon greater energy for civic participation to complain than to proactively push for new things. It’s easier to destroy than build, criticize than create. But, we must liberate ourselves from our biases by acknowledging them. We must counter-steer against our innate faults with intentional words and actions we can control. One of the things we can control is our cultural competency. Right now, folks with whiter skin, newer arrivals to the DC area, and higher incomes need to defer to street music and its culture.
It aggravates me when powerful people shrug and suggest this effort isn’t about music removal. It fits a theme of capitalism-driven trading up of cultural sensitivities. Blocks removed from that Chinatown Gate is CityCenter DC’s million-dollar condos. The late-capitalism metaphors are too cute by half when shops name-dropped in Kanye songs replace local businesses. No one smart and strategic enough to get elected to office should ever be given the benefit of doubt to be so obtuse as to dismiss criticism with the guarantee that all will be well so long as the new, always changing, increasingly more complex rules are followed and fines paid on time.
I’m on board with stricter DC Council street noise rules if it becomes about lifting the #DontMuteDC movement up as much as it is about meeting the needs of people who choose to live near perhaps the densest street corners in the District. Do you say that’s not the place for amp-enabled, loud-and-proud expression? Then provide the spaces! “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here” is not progressive government policy. I don’t mean gestures. I mean dollars. In-kind support. Without tourist and office building street traffic, I bet a lot of those creative arts professionals could use direct investment (not another complicated grant application).
A closing aside that I’m not too fond of the overt political opportunism around Support Local DC efforts. Mayor Bowser and several other local politicians were quick to jump on that #DontMuteDC anti-gentrification effort. They now brand many things with Go-Go and Mumbo Sauce references. Sure, #DontMuteDC. But, go easy on the marketing collateral and harder on the substance. The music kept playing at 7th and Florida in Shaw, but those Inclusive Zoning mimiums stayed right where they were.
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Gordon Chaffin

This is Gordon Chaffin's newsletter. By day, he's a local journalist and current events storyteller living in Washington, DC. The goal: produce writing and multimedia -- civic participation resources -- that include, inform, and equip stakeholders with the least power to improve their community. On evenings and weekends, Gordon is a freelance audio/video producer and photographer. Topics of interest: transportation -- especially non-car transit -- plus housing, environmental justice, social and gender policies like family-medical leave, and education -- especially early childhood. Please send news tips to gordon[AT]streetsensemedia[DOT]org and freelance job inquiries to gordonchaffin[AT]gmail[DOT]com.

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Gordon Chaffin, 3401 12th St NE #4466 Washington, DC 20017