Instead of trying to keep things out, we need a dialogue over what we want.

t-shirt art

Recently, C.W. Cannon wrote at The Lens:

We need to accept that the explosive downtown cultural renaissance that Frenchmen Street presides over is the result of a romantic vision of what New Orleans should be, more than a continuation of how it has been. Frenchmen Street represents a recreation of New Orleans in a particular version of its own image. Change, yes, shaped by myth. 

Just days before, a family member of a French Quarter T-shirt shop owner wrote me, saying

The attempt by VCPORA to reproduce and force "Royal Street" onto Bourbon and Decatur Street would destroy the tout ensemble of the French Quarter as we know it. 

T-shirt shops, especially my family's stores which have been in the French Quarter for three decades, can be considered part of the tout ensemble of the French Quarter.

Shortly after that, I traveled to San Diego, where I stayed on the perimeter of the historic Gaslamp Quarter. It has elements unlike the French Quarter - development spurred by the building of the home of the Padres, Petco Park, and condos - but it is, like the Vieux Carré, where the city points tourists for a good time. And if they want to eat or drink, they’ll succeed, but there are few locals-oriented retail businesses, nor are there many accommodations for residents. You don’t get any sense of how San Diegans live if you stay in or near the Gaslamp District. 

The VCPORA’s efforts to stave off that sort of locale neutrality is understandable; it should be all of ours. If Frenchmen Street has become a tourist haven, at least it’s a haven dominated New Orleans music. And, it’s a haven that civic leaders have pointed visitors to for an “authentic” experience for years. We can’t complain if tourists finally paid attention.

I have no love for T-shirt shops, and those that opened after the 2011 ban on additional T-shirt shops in French Quarter were taking their chances. But New Orleans has proven itself to be epically bad at enforcing noise and zoning ordinances, so it’s no surprise that there are now numerous stores selling souvenirs that feel hard done by with the new threat of enforcement. The problem, like many in the city, is a byproduct of slack, occasional enforcement, and creating new regulations to be haphazardly enforced is unlikely to produce meaningful change.

Cannon and the T-shirt merchant talk about visions of New Orleans and the Vieux Carré, and a more productive way forward is to envision what we want them to be like. What sort of businesses should be in the French Quarter? Print and poster shops or art galleries selling Michalopoulos knock-offs are not an improvement on T-shirt shops to my mind as they’re largely selling souvenirs at a higher price point. Do we want more national clothing chains, or is a Riverwalk full of them enough? There are similar anxieties about national companies opening on Magazine Street, but do we really feel a need to protect the countless stores selling antiques and objets d’art? What notion of New Orleans do we want to offer tourists? A place that will chase a cheap dollar by offering a bigass beer, sell three T-shirts for $10 or tell you where you got dem shoes can’t be any New Orleanians’ idea of the image we want to present, but if not that, then what? A street that serves as a one-stop for those with a mansion to furnish? A conversation about what we want would be far more useful than one about what we don’t.

An equally important question is what sort of businesses does City Hall want in the French Quarter and on Magazine Street, and how will they help them open? When the Frenchmen Street Arts Overlay was conceived, there were plans to use tax breaks to encourage the development of businesses that would attract neighborhood activity to Frenchmen in the daytime as well as night. That didn’t happen, so businesspeople went with the most reliable business - selling booze to tourists. If entrepreneurs are going into high rent spaces in the Quarter and on Magazine Street on their own, no one can be surprised if they choose paths with proven profitability like bars and T-shirt shops. 

These aren’t easy or obvious conversations because different parties will have very different visions for what these spaces should be like. It’s easy to say that the the Quarter should be tourist-friendly and local, but as someone who has made an effort to go to parts of town in Vancouver and Toronto because they have a Fluevog shoe store, I see the value of the international chain opening in the French Quarter, as is planned for some time this year. I'm sure that those who don't have an H&M in their town are thrilled to find one on Decatur Street and don't feel that the Quarter is compromised by its presence. Others will understandably want to try to draw a hard line and stay as local as possible, and there’s obvious value in that too.

The Internet ended the isolation that for so long allowed New Orleans to exist in a state of benign national neglect. We were a six hour drive from Houston and Memphis and three or more by plane from New York and Los Angeles. Now, we’re nanoseconds apart online, and that distance will only get smaller. If we don’t decide the character of our most vital spaces, others will be happy to do it for us.