Aural Fixation

City Sights 'n' Sounds, Phoenix's noontime nod to the muses in Patriots Square, is under siege. By Oscar the Grouch.

The daily one-hour serving of live music is the only regular, cheap cultural alternative to dirty-movie houses within miles of downtown. But someone in that swarm of high-rises surrounding the park is griping to city officials that it's too much.

Seems Oscar and a few workaholic lawyer pals are distracted from working through their lunch hour by the strains of jazz, blues and rock that occasionally ride the updrafts past their hermetically sealed windows. Certain judges in the nearby County Court Building say their courtrooms are disrupted by the din.

"Unfortunately, people here work on a billable-hour type basis," says Mark Wilson, manager of the nearby Luhrs Office Center. "If they don't work, they don't get paid. They aren't afforded the opportunity to take lunch." Wilson admits he's no acoustical engineer, but he believes that the city is not monitoring the sound levels closely enough. He emphasizes his tenants are not opposed to the music program itself, but that on some days, they feel it makes too much racket.

"The vast majority of comments we get are very positive about the music program," says Irene Stillwell, who supervises the city's Office of Special Events and City Arts. "But there are some people who are vociferous in complaining."

City officials have trudged up to the offices in question to lend a sympathetic ear. But all they hear is barely audible music in the distance, Stillwell says.

It may as well be Chinese water torture to the complainants, though. When asked whether the program is in jeopardy, Stillwell hedges. "The program is there for people's enjoyment. We don't want to make people unhappy, and if the majority of people didn't like it, we would shut it down in an instant."

Most people love the program, she adds. Most people think it's the best thing about the park, or downtown Phoenix, for that matter. In fact, as soon as word hit the street of this effort to shut down the music, petitions mysteriously appeared in support of it.

The lunchtime concerts' timing has been tightened up, beginning at noon sharp and ending exactly at 1 p.m., so as not to intrude on courtroom proceedings, Stillwell says. But it's proving a bit trickier to placate lawyers, she admits. "When we turn the music down, people in the park can't hear it. When we turn it back up, the lawyers start complaining."

Stillwell says the city hopes its new sound system, which will be installed by late summer with speakers pointing inward and downward, will resolve the problem. But she's not certain. "The sound bounces around those [concrete] canyons in funny ways; it's not always possible to predict where it will go," she says.

Good golly, Miss Molly! Forget the technology--why not just make all the lawyers break for lunch and a beer in the park?

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Kathleen Stanton