Annette John-Hall: Dispute between Jamaican Jerk Hut and Symphony House escalates

Lisa Wilson of the Jamaican Jerk Hut wonders whether her quarrel with the Symphony House complex, in the background, is personal.
Lisa Wilson of the Jamaican Jerk Hut wonders whether her quarrel with the Symphony House complex, in the background, is personal. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 28, 2011

OK, this is really getting ridiculous.

When last we polished off a plate of oxtails at the Jamaican Jerk Hut, the venerable Caribbean eatery at 15th and South, owner Lisa Wilson was still waging a David-and-Goliath battle with residents of Symphony House, a 32-story luxury condominium complex at Broad and Spruce.

Never mind that the Zoning Board of Adjustment and Common Pleas Court had both ruled in the Jerk Hut's favor: Namely, that Wilson could play live reggae music for her customers on the lot next to the restaurant on weekends in spring and summer.

Oh, but a lowly court ruling was not about to stop Goliath. Last month, Symphony House filed yet another appeal to Commonwealth Court.

Meanwhile, Wilson - who, according to the South Street West Business Association, has complied with every regulation and has gone out of her way to accommodate her neighbors - is running out of stones for her slingshot.

"The economy is tough, and these legal fees are killing me," said Wilson, who makes 75 percent of her revenue from her summer business.

With the way the dispute has dragged on - three years and counting - Wilson can't help but wonder whether it's personal.

"I'm not trying to throw anybody under the bus, but the nightclub across the street plays outdoor music every weekend until 2 o'clock in the morning, but nobody complains," said Wilson, who stopped hosting live music in September. "It's like they're trying to put me out of business."

Agreement by mediation

To its credit, the court decided that rather than a full-blown hearing, the case would be assigned to mediation.

Which makes sense. The court is bogged down with 8,000 appeals a year. It doesn't need one more, especially such a petty one. Both parties should resolve this before a court-appointed mediator and save everybody a bunch of time, money, and aggravation.

Joseph Beller, Wilson's attorney, said mediation should favor the Jerk Hut, and not just because it has won every round so far. "It's an indication that the court thinks there should be some way to work out our differences," he said. "But if you want to know the truth, I'm wondering why in the hell do we have to argue a case that's been argued already?"

Good question. One worth asking Gary A. Krimstock, attorney for Symphony House, but he doesn't return my calls anymore.

I'd also ask what exactly his clients want. Sound barriers around Wilson's yard? Would that be enough to placate her high-rise neighbors, who presumably live in the city to enjoy "the rhythm of the city at your feet," as the Symphony House website gushes?

You can't ever say Wilson hasn't tried. The zoning board ruled she could play music until 11, but in a attempt to be a good neighbor, she makes sure it's off by 10, even though a lot of her customers don't come out until after 10 on Friday and Saturday nights.

Still, for some of her Symphony House neighbors, it's not enough.

Intrusive noise

"When I'm in my bedroom, I feel like the band is sitting in the room with me," said Sharon Spinrad, a Symphony House resident whose 29th-floor balcony faces the Jerk Hut.

Spinrad said the everyday noises of the city - sirens of ambulances en route to nearby Jefferson Hospital, the blaring traffic on Broad - don't bother her.

But reggae?

"The volume of this noise is so intrusive, I can't concentrate. You have no idea how loud it is," Spinrad said.

Well, actually, I do.

This summer, my husband and I had dinner outdoors at the Jerk Hut. We dined with at least 100 others who had reserved part of the yard for a wedding rehearsal dinner. We were all entertained by a three-man reggae band, which, by my watch, finished up a little after 10.

I have to say, the crowd and the music certainly were not an assault on the ear. In fact, I mentioned to my husband that the volume (gasp!) could be turned up a little louder.

Look, I don't live in Symphony House. Maybe Spinrad is right, that noise travels up.

But I wish she'd explain why a business that has been a mainstay for more than 20 years and had never had a complaint from a neighbor would be steamrollered by Symphony House three blocks away by folks who have lived there all of four years.

All I know is reasonable neighbors should root for a speedy resolution, especially knowing they have to co-exist.

But Goliath never said anything about being reasonable.

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986,, or @Annettejh on Twitter.


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