Record Shops' 'Illegal' Music Angers New Moore Street Neighbors
EAST WILLIAMSBURG — When Caprice Esser starts her work day each morning, the freelance hairstylist feels inundated by a cacophony of salsa and merengue tunes that rise up from two record shops on her Moore Street block.
"They play music out on the sidewalk ... the stores are so close to each other that I have to hear both at the same time," Esser, 31, lamented about the beats pulsing outside San German Records and Johnny Albino Music Center. "It's seven days a week, eight hours a day."
Esser — who just moved to the street last May — has placed constant 311 calls and spoke up at a Williamsburg Community Board 1 meeting this month with her complaint.
"It's a violation," she claimed of the sounds. "I'd be happy if they would just turn it down to a reasonable level."
According to the city's administrative legal code, speakers or any "sound reproduction device" are prohibited from being placed outside a business without a permit.
"No person shall operate...any sound reproduction device, for commercial or business advertising purposes or for the purpose of attracting attention to any performance, show, sale or display of merchandise," the law reads.
In addition to the speaker prohibition, the city's Noise Code calls for a general limit for a commercial establishment's noise level to "42 decibels as measured from inside nearby residences (not as loud as a normal conversation level would be inside the residences)."
But owners of the shops — both nearly 50-year-old family businesses that serve the Puerto Rican community and other longtime Latino residents in the neighborhood — insisted they have done nothing wrong and that they never received complaints until a recent batch of new young people started arriving on the street.
"How would you feel if somebody came to your block and started telling you what to do?" exclaimed Jesse Millan, 38, owner of San German Records whose father opened the business in 1967 after moving to New York from Puerto Rico. "It's quiet now. We used to have two speakers and now we just have one."
Millan said his shop — the third-oldest Latin record store in the city, he claimed — had not gotten a noise ticket since he became owner 14 years ago, and that new residents should respect the history of the block.
"It's like the Christopher Columbus syndrome, you move somewhere and forget anyone was there before you," Millan said in his shop one recent afternoon. "Now cops have to come down all the time because she [Esser] always calls 311 so they have to ... but they haven't given me any tickets."
But on Nov. 16 (the day after DNAinfo.com visited his shop and called the city's Department of Environmental Protection to question the speakers' legality) the city issued a summons, a DEP spokeswoman said.
"A notice of violation was issued...for operating any sound reproductive equipment for commercial business or business advertising purposes or for attracting attention to any sale or display of merchandise," she said, citing section 24-244(b) of the city's Noise Code.
The penalty, she said, was up to $700 in fines.
Millan claimed he had been unaware of the law prohibiting outdoor speakers.
"I was under the impression you could have speakers 3 feet to your property line at a certain decibel level," he said.
He maintained that the 46-year-old speaker was intrinsic to the block's identity, much like the neighboring Moore Street Market with dozens of local produce and food vendors.
"There are generations of people who come to this community to obtain food, music and other goods directly tied to their Puerto Rican culture," he said. "The people who decide to join our community should consider that this has been a Puerto Rican community for over 75 years and it's not the community that needs to adjust to them but the opposite."
Across the street from San German the owner of Johnny Albino Records also defended his broadcast of CD tunes on the sidewalk.
"Eighty percent of what I sell is what I play," said Manny Rivera, 43, whose father also opened his shop 47 years ago. "If I have to turn my speakers off I think I'll go out of business," he said, noting that the decline in CD sales due to online music downloads had already wounded his family business.
Rivera said he had turned down the music but that it can be difficult to monitor the noise level since some CDs play more loudly than others.
Rivera claimed he did not believe he was breaking the law, and that new residents should have been prepared for the music on the block.
"I asked them, 'Did you hear the music?' They said yes, and I said 'What did you think you were going to change?'" Rivera claimed of his conversations with new neighbors who had complained about the noise. "It's just like if you rent an apartment with a Chinese restaurant underneath it — you're going to smell soy sauce."
Williamsburg Councilwoman Diana Reyna's Chief of Staff Antonio Reynoso said the speaker debate has existed for years, but he emphasized the music's importance for the local Latino community.
"I know it's illegal...I don't condone it," he said of the outdoor speakers. "But I understand the businesses' perspective...The culture and identity of that block was defined by stores like those."
Reynoso also said he feared that the loss of the speakers would harm the street's character.
"You have to be very aware of the community you're moving into," he said of new residents, and claimed that the loss of the street's traditional culture "starts with the music being turned down."
Reyna declined to comment about the controversy.
Meanwhile, Esser maintained that the stores were operating unfairly.
"It may be a part of the culture but it's also a violation," she said of the noise level. "It's a law, and if they're not going to abide by the laws, what about everybody else?"