What's Culturally Significant? (Part 1)

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall covers a delicate controversy brewing just a few blocks from my home:

Jamaican Jerk Hut--one of the places I thought I'd truly regret leaving behind the second time I moved away from Philly--has a new neighbor. It's a 32-story condo building branded as being in close proximity to the regional performing arts center that houses the Philadelphia Orchestra and a number of other classical music and dance companies.

When Jamaican Jerk Hut opened, I was leaving town for the first time. I moved back to Philly, and the restaurant was the one decent thing going on in that slice of the city.

The city caught up. And now that I live in Philly for a third time, I love that the center of our town has erupted into a mix of restaurants, clubs, shops, and the tiniest little music venues. (Plus a few big ones.)

So the fight to close Jamaican Jerk Hut saddens me.

I live only about a third as high up as the top of Symphony House, and I hear nothing from the street below when my windows are closed. If I open a window, I maybe hear the occasional car horn or drunken howl from the beer emporium across the road, unless a parade is going by. Am I understanding, then, that I have way better windows in my 1917 building than condo-owners have in a skyscraper constructed in 2008?

"Not everyone enjoys the music," says the condo's attorney. Despite the fact that the music had been there 18 years before the first resident moved in, and you'd have to have moved in from across the country to not know about the sound from

If the music blared all night long, I could see the argument. But they shut down by 11pm. Boom cars roll through our neighborhood all night long, but I guess they don't make as easy of a target.

On one hand, you've got a twenty-year running institution that celebrates Jamaican culture and cuisine with raucous outdoor cookouts during the summer. On the other, you've got luxury homes overlooking "proper" concert halls that happen to be enclosed by glass that soundproofs them from outside noise.

In my book, Host Your Own Concerts, I mentioned the biggest challenge facing would-be concert hosts: neighbors. If just one person on your block doesn't share your taste in music, your little house concert becomes a public nuisance. Woop-woop!

For Jamaican Jerk Hut, the process of actually going to the zoning board and getting variances for outdoor music doesn't seem to deter new neighbors.

In American culture, we have a weird way of defining significance in relation to commerce. It's not even a democratic kind of commerce, just the simple power that money brings in our society. The folks at Symphony House have enough money to throw lawsuits and zoning challenges at Jamaican Jerk Hut until the place collapses under the weight of their legal bills. Symphony House doesn't need to even win in court. They just have to outlast the venue.

Even though the restaurant is fully capable of sustaining itself, are we deeming Jamaican culture insignificant by allowing a condo development to determine that an authentic cultural experience must be replaced with something sanitized?

John-Hall sums up the argument:

The point is, urban living is made up of all kinds of tastes, sounds, and flavors. You say Beethoven, I say Marley.

That's the beauty of living in the city. You have the choice of hearing either - or both.

If our neighbors decide Jamaican Jerk Hut isn't culturally significant enough to be worth saving, will they turn their attention to the jazz cafe that's a block north?

And what if we're not just talking about the cultural significance of reggae? What if all of rock & roll were deemed insignificant? It's already happening, and that's the subject of my next post...