A Texas border city battles to stay loud
On May 23, 2016 the City Commission in McAllen – a city of about 140,000 people at the southern tip of Texas – voted in a 3-2 decision to ban amplified outdoor music in the city’s 17th Street Entertainment District, and prohibit people under the age of 21 from going to bar venues in the area. The vote was made unexpectedly, after venue owners believed the proposals had been taken off the plate, and it dealt a major blow to city’s burgeoning music scene. Venue owners, musicians, and patrons scrambled to organize against the bans. Within a week, a petition started by musician/activist Andres Sanchez had garnered over 2,000 supporters united in opposition to the Commission’s ruling.
“We didn’t expect to have 100 signatures,” says Sanchez. “Attendance at shows fluctuates and we didn’t have a gauge on how many people would find this, but it had hit 1.000 by the end of the first day.”
The petition was addressed directly to the city government, educating officials on the importance of supporting the arts community, and showing them how the ordinance would create far more problems than it would solve.
“McAllen no doubt values its cultural development as much as it values its economic development,” the petition read, “and we can assure you that if you were to bear witness to these events, to this community, you would swell with pride at what has been birthed and sustained within our city limits.”
Sanchez got together with friend Patrick Garcia – who books shows at Yerberia Cultura, a venue located in the downtown entertainment district – and printed out all 80 pages of the petition’s signatures to deliver to City Manager Roy Rodriguez. According to Sanchez, Rodriguez was responsive and amenable to their complaints, acknowledging that the situation required a more nuanced solution than a blanket ban. After their meeting, the city government agreed to hold a public workshop to discuss the issues in a larger forum.
A Unique Community
McAllen is a predominantly Chicano city located in the Rio Grande Valley on the Texas-Mexico border. The median income of a household in the city is $33k, and 24% of the population lives below the poverty line. In recent years, the city has fostered a vibrant scene filled with talented local bands mostly fronted by people of color, including Pinky Swear, Digi Boys, Jesika, Super, Idle Vision, and many more. The city has also become a destination for touring bands as varied as Speedy Ortiz, Yumi Zouma, PRAYERS and Voivod. Garcia works with bands to convince them to make the trip out, as the city is located some hours to the south of most touring routes. While a crowd in McAllen may not match the size of one in another Texas city, the dedication and enthusiasm of the audiences encourages bands to make the trek out.
“That we don’t have the geographical or socioeconomic privilege of places like Austin or Houston makes the fact that when we do get shows, it’s that much more exciting,” Garcia explains.
The city’s venues are concentrated in the 17th Street Entertainment District, an area built up over the past 10 years through tax incentives and regulatory treatment to try and create a destination for the city. As Garcia puts it, these economic incentives produced an area so oversaturated that bars had to offer progressively cheaper deals to attract customers: “They’d have to sell 50 cent shots or dollar beers to stay alive.”
Ignoring the community being built on 17th Street, the city government recently began blaming it for problems like fighting, underage drinking, and drunk driving. Roughly four months ago, the city held a workshop where they first proposed the ordinances that were eventually passed in May, but venue owners complained about the language. Vague wording such as “outdoor amplified music” led to concerns, as bars with large patios that played the radio over speakers were wondering if they would be subject to the same regulations as venues that hosted live music.
Because of those concerns, by the time the ordinances were brought to the City Commission this May, the controversial proposals were crossed out of the agenda until a more reasonable measure could be negotiated. Venue owners and musicians felt they were safe.
But at the May 23 meeting, Commissioner John Ingram, who is in charge of the area the entertainment district falls under, decided to hold a vote on the ordinances right then and there, insistent that his constituents had levied complaints about the noise caused by the music. The ordinances passed, and the community erupted into action.
“The state of our future had been placed on a table, and we weren’t aware that this was even going to happen,” says Garcia.
The Kids Are Alright
Garcia says that he and venue owners would have been amenable to a compromise that included some sort of curfew on outdoor live music that would require shows to end at a certain time each night. He and Sanchez went on walks around the area and found most homeowners did not have complaints about the noise coming from clubs downtown, certainly not to the extent that politicians suggested. But articles from The Monitor did provide multiple examples of individuals with concerns. Residents on both sides seemed willing to reach some sort of middle ground, somewhere far from the extreme bans the city tried to implement.
The more divisive issue was the proposed all ages ban. Many clubs in the area don’t have live music, and banning patrons under the age of 21 wouldn’t affect their business, giving them little incentive to fight against it. For others, it’s the more integral issue. Bert Guerra, who runs the venue Cine El Rey, wrote a column in The Monitor speaking on the venue’s 70-year history of being inclusive to all ages. Cine El Rey currently hosts concerts, comedy shows, and wrestling, and in its long history it has hosted legendary Mexican-American performers like Carlos Guzman, Laura Canales, Ernesto Guerra, and Wally Gonzales. Guerra’s letter spoke on the importance of creating a space where youth can participate in culture and art, noting that his venue has never received a citation for an incident involving minors.
“We believe in the power of art,” reads Guerra’s column. “We have dedicated our lives to it and we have historically seen the dividends that come when you invest in the arts. Our theatre is a testament to the rich culture and respect that local residents and artists have for this theatre.”
While defenders of all ages show acknowledge that a physical space is less important than the overall community, the problem is that after so many years of the city encouraging growth in this district, pushing music venues to other parts of the city isn’t feasible.
“If I had money to play around with of course I would move [to elsewhere in the city]” says Garcia. “I’ve been throwing shows for 10 years without a venue space at bars, hotels, and houses. I wouldn’t stop throwing shows, but the financials would prevent me from the idea of being able to move the venue somewhere else. For most of us downtown, it’s not an option.”
A Show of Power
Hash tags such as #Keep17Amplified emerged, multiple petitions circulated, and from the community and neighboring cities came together to speak out.
“We’ve all been underage before, and for some kids, all ages shows are all they have,” notes Garcia. “There’s not a lot to do in South Texas, and the alternatives aren’t great.”
The public workshop to discuss the ordinance was held on June 13 at 4pm, immediately before a City Commission meeting where a vote would then be held on the bans. In a room that typically holds 60 at most, roughly 100 individuals showed up wearing all black, carrying signs to protest the ordinances.
“The room is shaped like a half circle, with the line where the council sits,” Sanchez explains. “From right to left the whole back wall was covered with people in black shirts staring at the city government, and the commissioners were sweating.”
“It’s clear they were shocked with the turnout,” Garcia says of the city government.” I don’t think they were anticipating the amount of young people in the community to show up because they are so horrendously out of touch with what’s going on with the creative community in their own backyard. They weren’t aware what they were doing when they passed these ordinances.”
Mayor Jim Darling was visibly agitated with both City Manager Rodriguez and the protestors, cutting people off and acting impatient to get everyone out of the room. The workshop ran from 4pm to 5pm, and once the Commission meeting began at 5pm the decision on the ordinances was moved from towards the end of the agenda to become the first item discussed. Garcia says Mayor Darling made a comment along the lines of getting the “kids” out of the room quickly so they could go do their homework.
Despite their condescension, the city government was forced to yield to such overwhelming pressure. As a result of the workshop, the city staff recommended to the Commissioners that they “continue enforcement based on the original ordinance and not the modifications adopted by the City Commission at the previous meeting,” according to the minutes. The Commissioners voted unanimously against enforcement of the bans. While it was a victory, many still feel uneasy. The city government made it clear they would revisit these proposals in the future. “A lot of businesses are still alive, but now we have this dark cloud that we know is going to rain hovering over, but we don’t know when,” says Garcia.
The city had issued a stay of execution instead of coming up with a real solution, which was the supposed intent of the meeting. Businesses are uncertain about their future, and while live music and all ages shows continue, few feel confident of a solid future. “They had two hours and didn’t come to a compromise,” says Garcia, “and what that communicates to a lot of people is that they’re going to figure out a way to make these bans real, but need more time to figure it out.”
A Fight Worth Fighting
McAllen’s status as a haven for people of color to foster their own identity through music and art is at risk from an out of touch government attempting to curb that progress through harsh, short-sighted measures. Garcia sees the ordinances as another step in trying to make McAllen more like bigger Texas cities, in turn dampening the qualities that make the city special to begin with. “They are trying to facilitate this bougie Austin aesthetic,” he says. “We have the Mexican-American food capital of the United States, and the people are excited about a fucking Chipotle opening up? It’s so weird.”
For Sanchez, having an all ages space for live music is of personal significance, as he began playing music at the age of 19, finding a community alongside his peers that he hadn’t felt before. In a city where many musicians feel they need to go to Austin to find success with more venues and labels, the local scene must be actively fostered to promote organic growth. “It gave me a home,” says Sanchez. “There is a stigma about leaving the valley and going to a bigger city, but to say you cannot find success here is not true. It requires more work, but if you lose this you may lose your community. This is where we are.”