I watched the most incredible TV show on Friday - one of those hybridprograms, sort of a mix between comedy and horror. It was a taped replay of last Thursday's St. Petersburg City Council meeting.
The show really started rockin' when the noise controversy at Jannus Landing came up. The open-air courtyard in downtown St. Petersburg, the bay area's premiere site for alternative pop concerts, has suspended programing because the city government began strictly enforcing the town noise ordinance. In December, the Landing received more than $13,000 in fines.
During Thursday's meeting, a few downtown business people took to the podium for some Jannus bashing. They ranted about how "poor" the music is, and how the bands use obscene language from the stage. The speakers built a composite of the Jannus Landing concertgoer: a drug-addled, Satan-worshiping, foul-mouthed vandal.
Some of the council members - Dr. Edward Cole, William Griswold and Charles Shorter - were particularly inspired by the oratory. And when council member Dean Staples heard all of this forthright and objective testimony, it suddenly became clear to him: Jannus Landing is a public nui sance, "and we have ordinances on the books to deal with public nuisances." Shorter had heard that the restrooms at Jannus Landing "give you the creeps," and thought that some action might be taken because of unsanitary conditions.
The hysteria heightened, feeding on itself.
Mary Cox, co-owner of the Bishop Hotel adjacent to the courtyard, said at the podium, "This isn't music. This is a chance to get the kids high, rebellious, and it causes moral decay to our youth. It has vulgar lyrics, drugs, rebellious actions."
Then she brought up satanism, one of the alarming little buzzwords that anti-rock people like to use. A few years ago, concert footage and an interview segment with heavy metal act King Diamond was shot at Jannus Landing for a Geraldo Rivera special on devil worship. (The same footage showed kids at the concert saying that their enthusiasm for the music had nothing to do with satanism.) Council member Cole was moved. His assessment: "I find it difficult to believe that any caring parent in this city could make the statement that they're delighted to have their daughter, or their children, attend concerts at Jannus Landing. I have had a video (of one of the shows) and am astonished at some of the language."
All of this would be funny if it weren't so frightening. These people are serious! And collectively it appears as if they control Jannus Landing's fate.
Amid all the moralistic bluster, a few legitimate points were made.
Cox and her husband, Paul, owners of the three-story Bishop Hotel, said that people from the concert crowd had damaged the building's roof, skylights and awning. They said that some regular seasonal tenants have quit coming to the hotel because of the courtyard concerts.
Nevertheless, it has become clear that, among some council members at least, the Jannus Landing issue is not just about excessive noise.
They are just as concerned about what is being said over the microphone as they are about how loud it is being said.
St. Petersburg's legal department has repeatedly reminded the council that the city's beef with Jannus Landing has nothing to do with the freedom of speech issue. (City attorneys clearly want to avoid getting into constitutional entanglements.) Jannus Landing personnel are not breaking the law because musicians sometimes say dirty words on the stage.
Yet this notion does not seem to have sunk in with certain council members.
Fighting Jannus Landing solely on the grounds of excessive noise has become a shaky proposition. The St. Petersburg noise ordinance is dated (legal levels were set in 1963); applying such strict enforcement in a downtown business district is questionable; and cracking down on Jannus Landing will require similar enforcement of the noise law at The Pier, Al Lang Stadium, the Festival of States, the Florida Suncoast Dome, and whatever else. The council pays lip service to revitalizing downtown and then squashes one of downtown's
only activities. It doesn't wash. So the anti-Landing faction has branched out, bringing up the foul
language, supposed drug use and "creepy" bathrooms. The economic side has also been trotted out. St. Petersburg Police Chief Sam Lynn told the council that the city pays overtime to officers for a stepped-up police presence during Jannus Landing shows. Fact is, the city also pays overtime for officers working traffic control at Bayfront Center concerts.
Then there's the "public nuisance" nonsense. Chief Lynn said there have been arrests around Jannus Landing for public drinking, disorderly intoxication and "I believe some drug violations."
That sounds like most any concert site. And it can get worse elsewhere. In recent years, a couple of small-scale riots have taken place near the Bayfront Center after concerts, sparking a lot more violence than anything at Jannus Landing.
Rob Douglas, Jannus Landing's manager and principal promoter, says that downtown Petersburg is a nuisance in itself. He cites a regular population of "winos and panhandlers" who pester concertgoers who are waiting to get into the courtyard. The vagrants, Douglas contends, are the ones causing most of the trouble and the ones being arrested.
It looks as if a few council members have made up their minds that Jannus Landing must go - by whatever means necessary. Yet I'm laying odds that none of them have attended a Landing show. To condemn something based on hearsay and exaggeration is, at the very least, irresponsible.
I have been to plenty of Jannus Landing concerts. Yes, the music can be loud. Some of the shows incite slam-dancing, where people bump and jostle each other to the music. A few concertgoers look drunk. But a Jannus Landing show does not have a bunch of zoned-out scum with pentagrams painted on their foreheads and syringes sticking out of their arms.
Whatever rowdiness does take place, security people keep a lid on it. And a concertgoer can always escape the slam-dancing fray by watching from farther back. I have never felt in danger at a Jannus Landing concert but have been a little uneasy downtown when there's no show going on.
Another misconception is that all of the shows are highly charged and volatile. Fewer than a third of the courtyard's 1989 shows were of the sort that incite slam-dancing or send expletives flying through downtown. And even if a show does push noise and taste limits, it will be over no later than 11 p.m. Jannus Landing management has steadfastly observed such a curfew.
At a distance, the Jannus Landing imbroglio looks like a small-time struggle between opposing downtown concerns. But it's bigger than that. It is a symbol of the discord between those who want St. Petersburg to grow up and be a real city, noisiness and all, and those who want to keep it the sleepy little town it has long been.