Party Time or Quiet Time? French Quarter Residents Fight a Losing Battle Against Street Entertainers
By Brett Martel
There have been firebombings, an increasing flow of lawsuits, and pressure placed on the state legislature to deal with the matter.
"It's way too polarized, and it's going to lead to bad things," said Scott Kirby, a ragtime and jazz pianist who plays in the square.
The residents behind the lawsuits say they're trying to hold the line against an encroaching tide of commercialism in one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in a North American city.
"If the city wants the residents out and wants to develop this neighborhood into a Disney-like movie set, they should tell us to get out instead of doing it insidiously by ignoring our concerns," said Stuart Smith, an environmental lawyer who leads a group suing over quality-of-life issues.
Each year, more than 11 million tourists visit what is officially known as the Vieux Carre (the Old Square), an area less than one square mile.
The nonstop party turns charming, narrow streets with iron-lace balconies into noisy, crowded corridors. It also provides lucrative opportunities for musicians and other street entertainers.
"The other day there was a guy on stilts, two tarot card readers, two palm readers, a guy who plays an instrument he makes from glasses, a hillbilly band on the corner and a guy who juggles, and they were all fighting for space," says John Finnegan, an antiques dealer. "It was a circus out there, and I wanted to close down and go home."
Others say New Orleans, renowned for its music and partying, can't afford to disappoint tourists, a vital source of income.
"One of the gifts of New Orleans is its music, the improvisation and spontaneity--musicians coming in off gigs during down time and playing outside," says Mary Howell, a civil rights attorney who represents performers. "It's one of the few places where you can hear traditional jazz music that's free and accessible to families."
Howell has argued in court that First Amendment rights to freedom of expression protect street performers. She has won permanent injunctions against past city noise ordinances and against a new state law creating quiet zones around hospitals and churches.
The state law, struck down last month by a federal judge, was the idea of parishioners at the historic St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. They complained that musicians and other performers in the park were disrupting Mass.
Backed by residents such as Smith, parishioners say they will return to Baton Rouge next session to push for a more enforceable measure.
"This is not about free speech," said Vincent Booth, a lawyer who represents parishioners. "These performers are there to make money."
Artists in Jackson Square, several of whom have aligned themselves against street performers, have been regulated and charged fees to work there since 1954. They want the same rules to apply to others.
In the past decade, the neighborhood's permanent resident population has dropped from 7,238 to 3,296, according to MetroVision, a nonprofit entity that works with the city on development issues.
Smith, a lifelong New Orleans resident who moved to the French Quarter in 1997, blamed the decline on the city's refusal to enforce noise and zoning ordinances.
But city officials said their hands are tied.
"Every time we come up with a resolution, we're sued by one side or another," said Councilman Troy Carter.
Mayor Marc Morial, who had all performers cleared out of Jackson Square when he was married there, has been otherwise reluctant to get involved. "A lot of what the complaining is about really has to do with the comeback of the entire city," Morial said. "The Quarter is not a suburban neighborhood."
The stance by Smith and his allies has at times drawn an aggressive response.
When Smith tried to stop the city from issuing a music license to an outdoor bar around the corner from his 5,000-square-foot home, Molotov cocktails scorched his Mercedes-Benz and rained down on his roof and into his courtyard. His home was not badly damaged.
The bar's owner, George Mellen Jr., and an associate, Richard Jones, pleaded guilty to conspiring to plant firebombs.
Meanwhile, the music plays on at the bar, as it has since the 1970s. Mellen sold it to Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens, City Assessor Claude Mauberret and a third person.
Those new owners won an entertainment license over objections from Smith and another nearby homeowner, who intend to sue, claiming that the city can't break its own laws by allowing entertainment on property not zoned for entertainment.
Smith and friends may be fighting an uphill battle; they have yet to win in court. Some city residents have little sympathy for them, reasoning that moving to the French Quarter and complaining about loud music is like moving near an airport and complaining about the roar of jetliners.
"A lot of people who live in the French Quarter are not originally from the city. They have paid a lot of money and see their investment being threatened," said Raphael Cassimere Jr., a history professor at the University of New Orleans. "Some want to lease the property and believe the music may be a deterrent."
Photographer Louis Sahuc, a French Quarter resident since the late 1960s, doesn't want the musicians to go entirely but believes there are too many, playing too long and too loud.
"Thirty years ago there were two or three musicians that did it and they were respectful, and it was special," Sahuc said. "They would never play in front of a historic church and make it into a circus-like atmosphere."
"There needs to be a balance here between rights and responsibilities, and that goes for musicians as well," said Kirby, the pianist. "Some bands come out and play really loud all day. A couple of jugglers performed right in front of the cathedral for 150 people who are cheering during the church service. It made the rest of us look bad, and the residents got peeved, as they should."
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press