Credit: Darrow Montgomery

On a recent Tuesday afternoon at the intersection of 7th and H streets NW, the loudest noise came from Metrobuses idling at a red light. A group of 20 or so riders made small talk as they prepared to board an eastbound X2 bus. A set of bucket drums sat at the 7th and G streets NW entrance to the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro station, but the only person performing at that corner was Fisher Yang (known on YouTube as “Metro Asian Hymn Singing Guy”), who sang Christmas carols and played the trumpet. Though the sound of his music carries down the block, Yang, who performs outside the station every Tuesday at lunchtime, says neither neighbors nor city officials have ever asked him to decrease his volume. 

Riders entering and exiting the Metro on this particular day, in what is the heart of downtown D.C., barely noticed him as he sang “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

Those living in the Residences at Gallery Place, a condominium building at 777 7th Street NW, tell a different story. According to several tenants, music from street performers is so loud that it causes their furniture to shake and is audible in upper level units. At a Dec. 11 public roundtable organized by the D.C. Council Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, residents, office building tenants, property managers, and restaurant workers made one point very clear: They want street performers dealt with immediately.

Residents are specifically distressed over issues with amplified noise, as well as instruments that reverberate loudly, like drums, trumpets, and trombones. 

At issue is the Noise Control Act, which states that “A noise shall not be considered a noise disturbance if it is made during noncommercial public speaking during the daytime and does not exceed 80 decibels inside the nearest occupied residence in districts zoned R-1A, R-1B, R-2, R-3, or R-4.” Chinatown and Farragut Square aren’t zoned as residential areas, so street performers deal with fewer limitations and often play until evening noise restrictions take effect at 9 p.m. (Criminal penalties for making unreasonably loud noises under D.C.’s disorderly conduct law are enforced beginning at 10 p.m.)

The District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs monitors noise disturbances, but according to the offended parties few DCRA officials are inclined to enforce the ordinance, especially after they leave the office at 5 p.m. Nighttime enforcement is the responsibility of the Metropolitan Police Department, but those who testified admitted that calling 911 to report loud noise was too extreme a reaction.

Members of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2C, which covers the majority of downtown, invited At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, to listen to the upsetting sounds at the Residences at Gallery Place. Bonds was so moved by what she heard that she invited impacted community members to share their experiences at the roundtable also attended by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

For more than three hours, individuals shared stories about how the music impacted their daily lives. David Mitchell, who lives at 777 7th Street NW, uses a wheelchair to get around, as does his visually impaired daughter. According to Mitchell, the noise makes it difficult for her to use voiceover software. “It’s more of a public health issue than a noise nuisance issue,” he said of the “frenetic dancing and karaoke singing” he frequently witnesses. 

Other 7th Street NW residents worried about hearing issues and increased anxiety. Howard Marks claimed that the music has made his tinnitus (the medical term for ringing in the ears) worse. Marks, a retired federal employee who earns a pension and makes additional income as an energy consultant, says that even after installing $5,000 worth of noise insulating windows, the sound still impacts his ability to do work. “Who in government is going to protect my health and my ability to earn an income as a senior citizen?” he asked the sympathetic councilmembers. 

Concerns about the ability to work were echoed by other residents, who feel embarrassed having to explain the sound to colleagues when working from home. Office workers say they experience similar situations near Farragut Square. Evans, who mentioned multiple times during the proceedings that he was a member of a law firm in the neighborhood, recounted his own experience with a busker who, years ago, played the theme from The Flintstones outside the office daily. Real estate agents who lease space in these neighborhoods told the councilmembers that they’re having trouble filling units, and those who already lease property in buildings near busking hotspots described breaking leases and searching for space in quieter areas. 

A submitted testimony on behalf of George Washington University Hospital made the most compelling and succinct case for changing the busking rules. The entrance to the Foggy Bottom Metro station, where musicians regularly perform, abuts the south side of the hospital, which houses the intensive care, oncology, and cardiac units, and the sound levels adversely impact staff and patients.

No buskers testified at the roundtable, and the only witness who expressed any concern about a new law was John Boardman, the executive secretary-treasurer of UNITE HERE! Local 25, a union representing the District’s hotel workers. Union actions are protected under the first amendment but Boardman, who approves of the existing noise regulations, expressed concern that new rules would interfere with the performers’ rights to free speech. Cheh’s take on the first amendment was simpler. “At some point, someone’s going to sue us [over this],” she announced. “So what?”

D.C.’s daytime population is more than 1,000,000, but the problem for the testifying residents is not noise in general—it’s a specific type of noise this group of predominantly older Caucasian people have a problem with. A packet of supplemental materials submitted to the Council and distributed at the roundtable includes photos and video of buskers, the majority of whom are people of color. Response to a photo of the roundtable shared on Twitter was swift. “Qwhite a crowd,” wrote Jessica Raven, executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces. Black Lives Matter DC, in a comment attached to Raven’s tweet, wrote: “No one is keeping them here, move out, quickly and permanently.”

When Bonds asked community members to describe the buskers, they declined to give specifics. Their multimedia presentation, however, suggests that they are most offended by the go-go bands, brass players, and bucket drummers who create the soundtrack of D.C.’s streets.