Sign of the Times
It takes an East Side village: Considering Cheer Up Charlie's sticky predicament
On any given week, if you look at the lineup at East Side bar Cheer Up Charlie's, you'll find a few bands, maybe a couple of dance parties, a literary event and perhaps a film screening for Cinema East.
But what you won't find any longer is an event that goes past 10 p.m. Even on a Friday or Saturday night, when the hot spot attracts its largest crowds.
"We do a lot more besides live music, we're a community of artists" explains Tamara Hoover, the owner of CUC, who has transformed the current location on East Sixth St. from a run-down biker bar with discarded hypodermic needles on the floor into a friendly, welcoming community space especially embraced by Austin's hipster, queer and bike cultures alike.
In three years, "Cheer Ups" has become one of the bars you immediately think of whenever you consider the East Side.
Venues within 600 feet of residential property have a standard amplified sound curfew of 8 p.m. on weekdays and 10 p.m. on weekends.
Last week, however, Hoover was served with a revised Outdoor Music Venue permit from the City of Austin's Music Office limiting the amount of outdoor programming she could hold at her venue during peak hours, thanks to complaints from one or more neighbors about curfew violations.
Not noise complaints, but curfew violations.
Don Pitts of the Austin Music Commission and the City Music Office told NPR that CUC has earned "a significant number" of curfew complaints, which leaves no other option than to restrict the number of hours that amplified sound can be played on the patio until the bar and the neighborhood association come to their own agreement.
"Amplified sound," in case you're wondering, is anything involving speakers, which could mean Michael McDonald on an iPod, a short story at a reading series or a live indie-rock band.
John Plyler, a neighbor who owns a house on East Seventh Street, 455 feet behind CUC, has been the most vocal critic of CUC's curfew violations. He is the vice president of the Guadalupe Association for an Improved Neighborhood (GAIN), and has gone on record to state "It's not a decibel level, it's a curfew thing."
CUC programming and sound manager Maggie Lea is also adamant that noise has not been the factor in these complaints. Even after building a sound-directing "band shell" on the back patio to reduce noise pollution, she and Hoover are "totally OCD" about checking sound levels throughout the evening to make sure they're not disturbing anyone.
But, again, the new permit is not about sound. It's about curfews. It's about rules being followed.
Specifically, it's the Sound Ordinance 9-2-14 (C), which states that all venues within 600 feet of residential property have the same standard amplified sound curfews of 8 p.m. on weekdays and 10 p.m. on weekends. However, if a venue can get permission from the tenants or neighborhood organizations that reside within those boundaries, they can extend those limits by two additional hours each night.
The caveat is that, according to the current language, if even one neighbor feels that the ordinance is being violated, a venue's courtesy to the extended hours can be revoked. That is precisely what is happening in the case of Cheer Up Charlie's.
Should the older neighbors who have owned their East Side homes since the 80s just let the young people have their fun? Or should the youngsters respect their elders and turn the music down already?
If you're wondering how the bars on Sixth Street or in the Warehouse District get away with blasting much louder music into the wee hours, consider that people moving into those fancy nearby condos and high-rises accept these terms when they move in. And the reduction of the curfew hours is only reconsidered if complaints are received.
On the East Side, however, the neighborhood residents had been living in their homes for several decades before any of the clubs set up shop or plugged in an amp.
This massive road bump for CUC is an unfortunate byproduct of the East Side's surging popularity as a unique community space and a welcome alternative to the blockaded debauchery happening on the other side of I-35. This little hamlet of queer/hippie bliss has exploded in size, and now the late night businesses are butting up against the neighborhood that has been there all along.
So, should the older neighbors who have owned their East Side homes since the 80s or longer just pipe down and let the young people have their fun? Or should the youngsters respect their elders and turn the music down already?
As in most situations involving rights worth fighting over (party or otherwise), a compromise between the two parties, as Pitts suggested, would be the preferred solution.
"Every residential area and every club has its own personality and this regulation encourages face-to-face conversations about extended hours to identify solutions that work for both residents and business owners," states Jennifer Houlihan, Executive Director of Austin Music People. "Balancing the needs of the artist, the audience, and the next-door neighbor is a delicate operation, but by no means an impossible one."
Hoover is hopeful that such a compromise will still emerge. "I'd really just like to have our weekends, Friday and Saturday, to pay our rent, pay our employees and keep everything running. That, at least, wouldn't kill it." (Plyler was not available for comment by the dateline of this article.)
As it stands now, Lea continues booking shows under the new parameters, and crowds still meander in, though slightly thinner than before.
"The bar doesn't usually get going until 10 or 11 — it's a nightlife spot — so this is really going to affect us. I just don't want it to get confusing for the bands or for the audiences," she says. "We're really hoping that the community will stick with us through this tough time."
If things don't improve, however, Hoover expressed that she is considering the possibility of moving Cheer Up Charlie's to a less contested location.
"I'm always looking around because even when we moved into this spot, we knew there were hotels coming," she says, looking to the lot next door populated with food trailers that have the luxury of mobility. "So I'm always observing, thinking about what comes next."
As new high-rises and hotels move in to the East Side's established neighborhood, we have to wonder: Could the Entertainment District classification eventually extend to the east side of I-35?
"I think if East Side venue operators review the process and requirements for being named an Entertainment District, believe that they qualify for that designation, and are confident it will benefit their neighborhood as well as their particular businesses, that's a conversation that absolutely can happen," asserts Houlihan.
While Hoover submits the appeal for her recent permit change, there a number of ways that patrons of Cheer Up Charlie's can also express their personalized support of this community-minded, multi-purpose space.
Austin City Council is open to community members delivering prepared statements at their general council meetings. Likewise, the Austin Music Commission (that provides recommendations to City Council on music-related issues) is hosting their next regular meeting on October 1. Prepared requests for City Council might include revisiting the CUC permit as well as the general Sound Ordinance to not let one individual affect so much power over a business.
Of course, you can also show support by continuing to go to Cheer Up Charlie's. Keep meeting friends, keep booking your shows, keep eating at the delicious food trailers in the lot. The shows might start and end a little earlier, but that doesn't mean you can't stay at the bar until 2 a.m. with the community that you fell in love with three years ago.
Change is blowing in the wind for East Austin. As far as when it gets here, we'll just have to wait and see.