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November 28, 2017

Philly City Council considers limits on outdoor drum lines

Proposed by Mark Squilla, city looks to beef up rules over noise

He won’t write about Philadelphia politics since he moved to the burbs, he said.

He ceded the standing he had to do so when he became a non-city resident, he said.

Yeah, yeah, he – meaning me – said both of those things in the not-too-distant past. Whatever. Even suburbanites who pay their wage tax dutifully can get triggered by a Tweet like I did this week.

This rant, er, column centers on a bill introduced by not-my-Councilman Mark Squilla two weeks ago. It’s designed to amend the city code governing “Noise and Excessive Vibration.”

Per the words on Bill No. 171005, it would provide “for a prohibition against the use of drums and cymbals and devices and objects used as drums and cymbals outdoors in certain areas of the City audible at a certain distance from the activity, all under certain terms and conditions.”

It continues as such:

No person shall produce percussive sound using hands, sticks, or other devices in combination with any type of drum or cymbal, or with a device or object utilized in the manner of a drum or cymbal, such as a news box, bucket, can, or metal plate, outside of a structure in the area bounded by the Delaware River, the Schuylkill River, Washington Avenue and Spring Garden Street, which sound is audible at a distance greater than one hundred (100) feet from the location of such drum, cymbal, device or object, unless such drum, cymbal, device or object is being used in connection with a permitted or licensed activity or event.

Here’s what I take all that to mean: The city government is eyeing a crackdown on drumlines and outdoor performers the likes of which is comparable to the fictional movie based loosely on a move in Elmore City, Oklahoma to ban dancing and rock music.

(Yes, I’m taking about “Footloose,” which featured local legend Kevin Bacon in the heroic role of Ren McCormack and banging tracks from Kenny Loggins.)

I’m someone who often enjoys the percussive soundtrack of the city. I’m sure many of you are, too. That’s why I wanted to make sure you knew that the measure was tentatively slated for a hearing next Monday before the Committee on Public Health and Human Services.

Granted, that hearing wouldn’t formalize Squilla’s amendment but it does make passage a possibility.

On Tuesday, I reached out to Squilla to delve into his motivations behind the sort of measure that I think would chip away at what makes a vibrant city more vibrant.

He said it’s about more than street drummers. It would give police and the city’s Air Management Services (AMS) division more clarity regarding enforcement over all sorts of loud noises.


Loud music from cars.

Delivery trucks.

Those sorts of things.

“The initial complaints came from hospitals concerned about late-night drumming,” Squilla explained, noting that the bill would deem noise over a certain decibel level as worthy of a violation. “With Center City becoming more residential, people moving in don’t expect to be in the quiet suburbs, but quality of life is still important.”

"Some of it comes from people who are out trying to raise money, which is something we all support when it’s done within certain timelines...." – Councilman Mark Squilla

But doesn’t quality of life also apply to people out performing in the streets?

“I understand some of it comes from people who are out trying to raise money, which is something we all support when it’s done within certain timelines and at a (decibel) level that’s not a problem,” he continued. “It’s already in the code. This would clarify the rules.”

Ok, fine. Nobody really wants a drumline parading past a hospital (or their home) when they’re trying to sleep. City Council needs to walk a fine line with this piece of legislation, though, and they need to hammer out the specifics before this gets codified, if that’s the direction things are heading legislatively.

Squilla noted that such performances are fine during the day when the hustle-and-bustle of city life is at maximum volume. But, people “driving down South or Lombard Street with excessive noise at late hours … sounds a lot louder than it sounds during the day.”

He wasn’t surprised to hear that people object in the fashion I did. He noted that those concerns will be taken into account and admitted that the hours in question are still up for debate.

“With much of the legislation proposed in the city, there are unintended consequences that we figure out afterwards,” he said. “If there’s a concern from a certain constituency, we will listen.”

So, keep an ear on this one, folks. 

If it sounds like the restrictions proposed will limit someone’s right to bang a drum to raise money for their youth-football program (without having to get a permit beforehand, of course), make sure Council hears your voice loudly and clearly, just not outside their windows when they're trying to sleep.