Today in Property we discussed how nuisance is shaped by racial attitudes of the day. We are using Al Brophy, Alberto Lopez and Kali Murray’s Integrating Spaces: Property Law and Race case book as a supplement to Dukeminier. One of the cases we covered today was Truehart v. Parker, 257 S.W. 640 (Tex. Civ. App. 1923). The case involved an Jazz Hall in San Antonio, Texas and a white property owner adjacent to the operation. As Amy Leigh Wilson suggests in her article A Unifying Theme or a Path to Degregation: The Jazz Influence in American Property Law, 55 Alabama L. Rev. 425 (2004), jazz was commonly feared. As one writer said, Jazz was – among other things – a century-long political conversation between Black Americans and White Americans. It was a musical, intellectual and spiritual conversation within a highly politicized social context whose axes were language, race and power. Thus, the court’s describes of the sounds emanating from the Jazz Hall is this fashion:
No self-respecting citizen with a home in which lives his wife and children could fail to be disturbed by the proximity of a place of assemblage at night of men and women, who to the accompaniment of screeching pianos, high keyed violins, and blaring saxophones, emitting the strains of barbaric jazz, more discordant than tom-tom or Chinese gong, transform rest and slumber into a nightmare, and render hideous the hours set apart by nature for their enjoyment.
This passage draws on a larger point made by Lawrence Levine in his article Jazz and American Culture, published in The Journal of American Folklore (Vol. 102, No. 403 1989). There he argues that the words Jazz and Culture became at the turn of the twentieth century negative referents for each other:
One could understand what culture was by looking at the characteristics of jazz, and reversing them. Jazz was, or at least seemed to be, the new product of a new age; Culture was, or at least seemed to be, traditional — the creation of centuries. Jazz was raucous, discordant; Culture was harmonious, embodying order and reason. Jazz was accessible, spontaneous; Culture was exclusive, complex available only through hard study and training.
Jazz was openly an interactive, participatory music in which the audience played an important role, to the extent that the line between audience and performers was often obscured. Culture built those lines painstakingly, establishing boundaries that relegated the audience to a primarily passive role, listening to, or looking at the creations of true artists. Culture increased the gap between the creator and the audience; jazz narrowed that gap. Jazz was frequently played in the midst of noisy, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, dancing and gyrating audiences. Those who came to witness culture in art museums, symphonic halls, opera houses, learned what Richard Sennett has called “silence in the face of art.”
Jazz obtained a particular association as dissident music. From Wilson’s comment:
In 1931, F. Scott Fitzgerald dubbed the twenties “the Jazz Age,” a title that succinctly expresses the post-war revolt which typified the decade. This revolt occurred primarily in the homes of middle-and upper-class white Americans, where jazz was drawn on to cope with evolving lifestyles. More specifically, white youths used this music to champion social rebellion and critique stringent adult standards. While this movement eventually changed Americans’ identity and values, it did not go unchallenged. The prohibition of liquor sales in 1920 signaled that reactionary opponents would counter the “jazz movement” throughout the decade. Fearful of the emerging behavior of emboldened youths, Americans “condemned jazz as a symbol of the violation of tradition and morality.”Jazz’s appeal to the white youth of the 1920s coupled with its aggressively irreverent and suggestive sounds made it a topic of controversy. Jazz music “was condemned by conservatives as the downfall of America’s white youth.” Newspapers, magazines, and outspoken leaders of the day made quite a case for the corruptive effects of jazz: A minister declared that “in 1921-22 jazz had caused the downfall of 1,000 girls in Chicago alone.” Henry Ford attacked “the waves upon waves of musical slush that invaded decent parlors and set the young people of this generation imitating the drivel of morons.” John McMahon, writing in the Ladies Home Journal, condemned “The Jazz Path to Degradation,” asked “Is Dance Ruining Our Youth?” and yearned for a return “Back to Pre-War Morals.”
The dance was known as the Silver Leaf Club. No one swore that the music and voices in the hall could not be heard in the home of appellant. Several witnesses swore that they could be heard., and there was ample testimony to show that the street in front f appellant’s house was nightly almost blocked by automobiles and that their honking and other noises were very disagreeable and disturbing. All of the witnesses for the [dance club] were either patrons of the dance hall, or women there to control the female dancers and others interested in the affairs of the dance hall. They were not disturbed of course. They went there to dance, to hear the roar of the drums, and the music of the fiddle and the saxophone. It was either their business or their pleasure to be there and they were not disturbed. The people who lived in their homes in the immediate vicinity , however, swore, and no one contradicted them, that until the din and noise had died out because the dancers had dispersed, sleep was driven away and the night robbed of its rest and comfort. To those that business or pleasure had lured to the dance, it was a terpsichorean dream of pleasure, while to the unfortunate denizens of the homes nearby, it was a terrible nightmare, and while the dancers chased the fleeting hours with flying feet to the sensuous strains of dance hall music, the residents tossed upon sleepless beds.
So perhaps, nuisance, like culture is merely a referent for the things we accept or don’t accept. One student this morning described nuisance as “anything I don’t approve of, as long as enough people agree with me.” That does not seem to be too far off.
Image curtesy of MassCommons.