Mt. Pleasant's Faint Strains Of Music
The news releases claiming victory in the years-long battle over music in Mount Pleasant arrived within a couple of hours of each other. Two bitter opponents in the struggle over whether to ban live music and dancing from the restaurants along the retail strip of Mount Pleasant Street each argued that the District's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board had sided with them.
The Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance (MPNA), the citizens group that initially won the ban on live music in 1997, crowed about how its "voluntary agreements" with local restaurants "remain in effect."
Hear Mount Pleasant, a much newer coalition of neighborhood residents created in good part to fight for the right of businesses and musicians to provide entertainment, declared "a major victory" and reported that the ABC Board "has ruled that music and dancing will return to restaurants" in the Northwest Washington neighborhood.
Who's right? On the surface, everybody is. But the bottom line is clear: The old agreement prevented Mount Pleasant eateries from providing live music, dancing or late night entertainment. The new rules say, Go for it.
Indeed, the ABC Board's 23-page ruling is a fine exemplar of cautious and diplomatic language, but beneath the great care in making nice to everyone, the board clearly sided with residents who believe that the agreements that the MPNA won from restaurant owners a decade ago were not entirely voluntary, that Mount Pleasant is a less happy and safe place without the mariachi bands and other entertainment that once kept its streets busy well into the night, and that when neighbors and business owners together agree that they want a livelier streetscape, they should have the chance to make that work.
Despite MPNA president Laurie Collins' claim that her organization "supports live entertainment," the group has fought for years to prevent restaurants such as Haydee's and Don Jaime's from providing music or dancing, especially at night.
In the end, Collins' group saw the writing on the wall and proposed a very limited relaxation of the existing ban, allowing music until 10 p.m. three nights a week and until midnight on weekends, with no dancing permitted.
Hear Mount Pleasant, in contrast, proposed that the board allow live music until midnight on weekdays and till 1:30 a.m. on weekends, with dancing.
The board's ruling tried to split the difference, settling on an 11 p.m. stop to the music Sundays through Wednesdays, a midnight curfew on Thursdays, and a 1 a.m. end to the show on Fridays and Saturdays. With dancing.
This is your government in action--legions of lawyers and bureaucrats arguing over what time a band should stop playing.
In fairness to the ABC Board, it had to sift through mountains of testimony by residents and business people on all sides of the music question. Clearly, there's a cultural divide in Mount Pleasant, and, happily, it's not an ethnic divide. Rather, it's a matter of how you live--some people like busy streets with lots of nightlife, and some people go to bed early and figure that everyone else does too.
Hear Mount Pleasant collected 1,671 signatures on a petition seeking an end to the ban on live music. And residents such as Todd Pfeiffer, who owns a hardware store on Mount Pleasant Street and lives five houses from retail corridor, told the board that late night noise is not a major problem and that live music could help improve the neighborhood.
But Marika Torok of the MPNA told the board that late night music would disturb the neighbors, who don't want to see Mount Pleasant become more like Adams Morgan. Midnight, she said, is a reasonable hour for restaurants to close on a weekend. Another resident, Garret Fletcher, went further: Nobody eats dinner after 10 p.m., he told the board, so live entertainment ought not be permitted after that hour.
(Call out the alarm! Shut down all the all-night eateries! Nobody eats dinner after 10 p.m.!)
In the end, the board unfortunately decided to keep the supposedly voluntary agreements that the neighborhood alliance got restaurant owners to sign by threatening to challenge their liquor licenses if they didn't agree to the group's music ban. But the board amended those agreements to ease restrictions on music, allow dancing and permit owners to institute cover charges.
Board members were persuaded that entertainment "would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood." Now it's up to Hear Mount Pleasant, whose members worked tirelessly for years to win this concession, to work with the local businesses to make the new music scene an inviting and peaceful one.
Democracy in the District can be a painfully slow and frustrating beast, but the decision by the ABC Board has demonstrated that a committed group of neighbors can make reason prevail and can beat back the bullies--not every time, but often enough to get people to keep pushing for what's good and right.
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