Is the embattled nightclub Slim’s seizing the chance to claim victim status? Are its irate neighbors mega-NIMBYs? Or do both sides’ claims not quite hold water?
By Joe Eskenazi
I flagged down the hipster with the too-tight jeans in the doorway of his apartment on Juniper Alley, a minuscule, quasi-industrial block a guitar pick’s toss from the nightclub Slim’s.
The rain was coming down at a rate somewhere between “torrential” and “head for the hills,” and when I asked the hipster if noise from Slim’s was a problem, he shook his head so rapidly the water whipped off his blond hair and into my eyes.
“No, no. It’s not a noisy block. It’s really not,” he says rapidly. “It’s just one couple who likes complaining.”
That until-now-anonymous couple was the subject of an engrossing article by Kim Chun in the Jan. 30 edition of the Guardian, which described them as, essentially, the NIMBY pair from hell, deluging Slim’s with noise complaints to the point that the venerable nightclub faces the possibility of a boarding up its windows and doors.
Well, Jodi and Kirby Watson take offense at that. “I think it’s very helpful for Slim’s to make this out as a witch hunt against them” Jodi Watson told me. "It’s not. It’s about us not being able to enjoy peace and quiet in our home whenever it’s loud."
The Watsons, incidentally, put their $859,000 condo on the market in November. Jodi Watson said the noise situation didn’t prompt that move; she landed a job in Seattle.
“If we were really set against [Slim’s] and trying to do deliberate and malicious harm, we’d be suing them for money,” she adds. “And we’re not asking for one cent.”
Instead, last month Slim’s owners and lawyer, Mark Rennie, and the Watsons and their lawyer, Stephen Williams, entered mediation. In a tentative “settlement,” the warring parties agreed to bring in acoustics expert Charles Salter to assess possible upgrades to further soundproof the club (upgrades that Slim’s, of course, will finance).
“We’ve set this procedure up to see if [Salter] can find a solution to this situation they find unbearable,” says Slim’s co-owner Dawn Holliday. She pauses and takes a deep breath.
“They’re the only people who find it unbearable.”
Holliday repeatedly emphasized to me that the Watsons are the sole complainers who ever quibble about her club’s decibel level. She estimated they’ve been ringing the cops several times a week for two years now.
Watson, not surprisingly, disagreed. She admitted to calling the police multiple times a week on several occasions, but she claimed “hundreds” of complaints have been made against Slim’s by other angry parties.
Well, I checked those numbers with Carol Bernard, the woman who handles statistics and records at San Francisco’s dispatch center. If anyone calls the police with a noise complaint against Slim's (or anywhere else), it ends up in Bernard's database. And you know whose claims are accurate? Nobody’s, apparently.
According to Bernard, from January of 2006 to Dec. 31, 2007, Slim’s received ...
a total of 42 noise complaints. Since April of last year, 13 noise complaints were phoned in from the Watsons' address and Slim’s received a total of 30 (though some of those were anonymous and could have been from the Watsons, at least theoretically).
Assuming the statistics are accurate, what does this mean? Well, if Holliday would like to portray the Watsons as a pair of paranoid lunatics who have nothing better to do than call the cops on her hundreds of times a year, the numbers don’t seem to bear that out. And if the Watsons want to claim Slim’s is the audible equivalent of the spaceport cantina in Star Wars, that doesn’t seem to hold water, either.
What is incontrovertible, however, is that on a December night Jodi Watson took the short walk from her front door to Slim’s and performed citizen’s arrests on a manager and two club employees.
Watson told me she felt justified in her action: “We were advised by the police and DA that the only way they could enact any sort of change and help us is if there was a record. … Because we were advised by the DA’s office and the police, that made us move forward.”
Charges were dismissed against a Slim’s manager and two other employees have court dates pending. But the city did indeed “move forward” as Watson wished -- also pending is a Slim’s hearing before the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. And beating the ABC’s claim that Slim’s is violating the terms of its permit may require the exhumation of Johnnie Cochran.
The (International) Noise Conspiracy plays Slim's in December of '05, shortly after Jodi and Kirby Watson moved into the neighborhood.
Slim’s original permit, issued in December of 1986 by the San Francisco Police Department, unambiguously states that the club is responsible for “containing all sound to the premises.”
The Entertainment Commission has since taken over the task of monitoring clubs’ sound levels from the cops -- and, notes Holliday, Slim’s is in compliance with the EC’s current standards. Alcohol Beverage Control, however, is moving forward with its hearing using the 1986 police standard – not the current Entertainment Commission one.
All of which raises the question, just how damn loud is it on Juniper Alley anyway? Bob Davis, the Entertainment Commission’s executive director, told me that multiple readings have been taken in the Watsons' home or directly in front of it. The needles barely moved.
“You walk down the street and you hear nothing. I’ve driven by at night, gone back into the alley, and I haven’t heard any noise coming from Slim’s,” he said.
Watson claimed Entertainment Commission members visited on quiet nights and were unresponsive when called on noisy ones.
I spoke to several people who worked and/or lived on Juniper. All were perplexed by the Watsons’ behavior.
Angelo Garro, a blacksmith who has been living and working in a building next door to the Watsons for 25 years, said he’s never been bothered. Randy Kuwatani, the proprietor of a nearby Mercedes-Benz repair shop, adds, “I never hear any noise from Slim’s. And I’m often here very, very late.”
The Watsons’ neighbors, in fact, claimed the couple complain about far more than just noise. One employee at a van touring company in a garage next door to the Watsons’ building said the couple had complained about his co-workers washing cars on the street or parking their vans in the block’s few spots. The employee claimed Kirby Watson had called the Department of Parking and Transportation to tow away his vans several times.
“They keep complaining. It’s just everything. Parking on the street, street cleaning, homeless issues, noise issues, even the lighting,” says Kuwatani.
Adds Garro, “I know perfectly well this whole block and nobody ever complains about anything here –- except them. But they are perfectly friendly with me. They say ‘Hi, how are you?’”
Lawyer Stephen Williams, though, said he visited the Watsons during a mid-afternoon Slim’s practice session and he did hear the music.
“I know my clients aren’t making this up. They are not crazy.”
But why does the noise filter into the Watsons’ windows -- on which the couple vainly spent $5,000 to "soundproof" -- and nowhere else on the block?
“I can’t explain it,” says the lawyer. “Noise [experts] tell me noise does some strange things.”
Sometimes, so do people.
Photo of (International) Noise Conspiracy | Courtesy of Mickpunk.com