The Inertia of a Tourist Economy: Does it help or hurt during a crisis?

in•er•ti•a

  • n.
    Resistance or disinclination to motion, action, or change

On March 11, the city decreed a state of emergency over COVID-19. Too many scofflaws ignored that and so on March 16, Mayor Cantrell closed the bars and restaurants at midnight to shut down the expected all-day and night partying that St. Paddy’s day brings to cities across the US. Not everyone paid attention but a lot stopped immediately and then over the next week as the hotels emptied, so did most of everything else. On March 20, the city issued a firm, scolding stay-at-home mandate and on March 23, the state followed suit.

My social media post on March 26:

Its been 10 days since New Orleans shut down dine-in restaurants and bars and 6 days since the city stay-at-home order.  Since then, watching the wheels of commercial life slowly grind to almost a complete halt here in the French Quarter has been absorbing and sobering. At first, most places tried to stay open even though the bulk of their business had always been visitors, both those visiting from other places as well as the daily visitors who work in shops, in offices and seem to have so many lunch meetings. Some places did their best to drum up local take-out business via social media and word of mouth, but one by one, almost all in my quadrant have closed. Boards across windows and doors started going up at shops and galleries first, and then hotels and bars and cafes followed. It’s startling the first time you see the dark lobbies and gated locked parking lots 24 hours a day of a hotel normally lit up and staffed. You think about those workers that you saw 5 or 6 times a day for months or years and wonder if they will be back. (The bell captain at the little hotel down the street told me he had 120 days of PTO to use, but was still angry that he had to go home.) Yet even when the businesses began to shutter, some street traffic continued, albeit lighter than normal for a few more days. Then one day this week, I walked to Jackson Square and there was not a single person there.

At 2 in the afternoon. In sunny, 85 degree weather.

You’ll still see people walk a few times a day with their happy dogs, (saw a guy with his leashed ferret a few days ago), evening get togethers on carefully-spaced chairs on the street, a few tourists, and always some street people. The Mayor is slowly moving the homeless into hotels; the guy who lives in the window recess of the Presbytere Museum told me today that he had just missed the cut off to get in the Hilton Garden Inn by 6 people. I’d say the best way to describe his reaction was slightly stung. I told him they’ll find a place for him soon; he seemed to brighten at that. I think he looks forward to that mostly because he misses talking to people, he misses the hustle.  I mean, even the silver guy’s paint is almost entirely worn off. The musicians who are staying in the apartment across the street come out to the balcony in the afternoon and play music quietly but seem to have little of the animation and long jams that they offered in the first days. You make eye contact with strangers, but there is a bit of a hesitation in being too chummy; you don’t want to encourage them to slow down and stay around here. Some neighbors have chalked “Go Home; Be Safe” on the sidewalks; but those who get it are already home, and those who don’t get it, won’t. It’s odd to see the energy seep out of these entertaining streets, but at least we have a strong reason to believe much of it will return. In the meantime, we can save ourselves, our friends, and our neighbors by killing as much of it as possible. #nolacorona

Since that post, I have thought a lot about these silent streets since this post as the days tick by and wondered more and more about how and even if it will recover. Then, something my clearly exhausted but happy pal who owns a cafe in the Marigny said to me (as he bagged up order after order for folks patiently and happily waiting outside his place) struck me:

my business mantra right now is adapt or die.” 

Or as Arundhati Roy brilliantly said:

this pandemic is a portal.

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” 

That portal can be hard to see in this anachronism of a neighborhood, charmingly designed for 17th and 18th-century living, and then made into a stage for visitors from other places to get a quick taste (and purchase) of that earlier time before heading back to their modern world.

Yet, even though it is primarily a stage, many things about this Quarter still work: the scale of it, the design of small apartments set above small storefronts, small well-run hotels, its nearness to the city center safeguarded behind massive well-engineered earthen levees instead of poorly-designed concrete walls such as those found in 9th ward or in Lakeview, utilities underground,  the highest ground, neighbors dealing with each other in shared alleys, on sidewalks and via on-street parking and so on. And because it is usually spared damage because of the care taken to maintain its facades for the tourists, it can quickly become a gathering place once again when hurricanes or floods devastate much of the city. Last but not least, this tourist center requires thousands of daily workers who become as dear as next-door neighbors, many of whom residents see more than their family, often relying on more than they do on far-off relatives.

Still, now as I venture out to the other parts of the city during this shut-down to get items, I see what I do not see here: restaurants and stores that have quickly adapted. From distilleries selling hand sanitizer or cocktail kits for homemade happy hours, cafes selling quarts of cold-brewed coffee or working with farmers to sell just-harvested items alongside their prepared items,  even fine dining places pivoting to offer a family meal (and 1/2 price bottles of wine) by drive-by pickup, they all seem to know what their neighbors would pay for and how often to serve them. Those businesses have bulletin boards,  funny, aspirational chalk signs for passersby and have become eyes and ears and care for their neighbors.

Orange Couch set  up for physically-distanced ordering at the side door

In these 90 or so blocks, enough locals live here so that we actually do have many neighborhoody things like drugstores, veterinarian offices, postal emporiums but it has become clear during this moment that even much of THAT relies on the millions of visitors who also come to these blocks, or it relies on the pockets of workers who, currently unsure of when or if they get to return to their store or will put that apron on again, are saving their bucks. Or maybe it doesn’t rely on those dollars at all but the business owners just think that it does. For whatever is actually true, what is clear is that almost all of them are closed. And they closed fast.

A few businesses tried to use social media to convince local folks to get items, but locals from other parts of town have been penalized and confused far too often by the parking rules here to dare to drive in. And even if they do brave it once in a while, most are not able to afford or stomach the majority-rule visitor-obsessed restaurants often enough to be familiar enough to check in with the others now.

As for residents: even though numbers have climbed steadily in the last 20 years, now at around 4,000 with around 1000 at or below poverty-level they mostly divide into the worker/residents of the Quarter (although far fewer than when I was one) now without income and the very very rich who have everything they need delivered by Amazon living behind their gates and private driveway.  Since 2000, owner-occupied units have risen from 24.6% to 48.2% with renter-occupied down from 75.4% to 51.8%;  fewer of us renters and therefore likely less of us remaining who seem to live here because we love it and not because we depend on it for work or because it is a family inheritance or peccadillo hideaway. As a result, those able to go get items from the restaurants who tried to offer food is even a smaller group than those other areas of town.

The other obvious issue clearly seen now that the Quarter is only serving its residents: it is so very very white which wasn’t the case when I moved here as a teen. And even though it has become clearly whiter in terms of residents since the pre and post 84 World’s Fair development furor,  on a normal day the cross-section of tens of thousands of workers, hustlers, and visitors allow the FQ to be as diverse and energetic as any place in this city, pound for pound, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Not right now though. The only faces of color or heard talking in other languages here during COVID-19 have been the sanitation folks, grocery workers and security personnel. The usual Quarter workers and artists who represent the diversity of our city are home in their own neighborhoods which since 2005 are far far from here. (Which ironically, also means that the multi-generational food entrepreneurs offering good, culturally appropriate food to a cross-section of New Orleanians are also now far from here.) That diversity is the heart and soul of what makes New Orleans interesting and important. And when we reopen, it’s possible that many culture bearers and much of our indigenous knowledge base may just not care to keep fighting their way back here this time – or the next.

All of this calls into question the future through this portal: what will an economy only based on tourism offer our city, once disruptions come again and again, as we have to expect they will?

More simply and directly, what will remain alive after just this one shutdown? And what if the US opens up later this summer just as we hit the height of hurricane season?

In only a month, I have already seen 1-2 brand-new commercial For Rent signs, talked to business owners who are mulling the idea of not reopening their storefront that cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars per month, and have heard of a few neighbors who are moving away to live with family or to cheaper cities to replenish their savings. One has to imagine that restarting the tourism wheel will take a while, especially when rumors (and logic) have it that JazzFest will likely not operate in 2020 or if it does at all, be a much smaller and leaner version. We’d have to assume the same will go for French Quarter Fest and others as they depend on sponsors as much as visitors. Connected to that is the outcome we have to expect if the seasoned staff of the past few decades that ran our best places like clockwork will not return intact.

So the question is how will we look once through this portal? Will the French Quarter adapt as it always has, or will it finally “die”- meaning become smaller, less lively, maybe owned by more out-of-towners with deeper pockets who move more to the middle in terms of what they present as New Orleans? That could mean losing what had been a critical mass of authentic experiences and becoming too small to entice enough visitors to hold this city together.

Or maybe – just maybe – this old city will just adapt as it has so many times previously.

In 2008, the book Building the Devil’s Empire offered the intriguing analysis (via many years of archaeological digs around the old city) that by the mid-1720s due to the failure of New Orleans as a tobacco exporter and the effect of Law’s Mississippi Bubble bursting,  France had basically given up on this colony, although not turning it over to the Spanish until the 1760s. Yet those digs show lively trade and activity in those 40 years, proving that New Orleans became a smuggler’s capital by turning its attention to the Caribbean to find its own opportunities even though that was against French law. That “rogue colonialism”, as Dawdy names it, she believes was mirrored in 2005 when the federal government did its best to thwart returning residents and stymie small businesses yet many found a way around that to survive and even some to thrive.

That rogue colonialism is clearly an adapt or die portal which could be vital for whenever the country opens back up for business. Do we have another one in us here? And if so, what will that version center on: regional food?  port activities? design for climate challenge places?

And maybe to help that, possibly commercial rents in the FQ will come down to reality. Maybe people will see the need for downsizing their place to something smaller and more communal as only the Quarter can offer. Maybe my idea of Canal Street and Pontalba being offered tax credits to become rent-controlled to entice residents to move upstairs into all of those decaying camera shops will happen.

I hear bike shops around town are doing bang-up business right now; maybe we’ll see a few open in FQ again.

Maybe less crap made in China will be for sale in our shops and more useful services for all residents can return. Shutter repair? Seamstresses? Metalwork? Mule-driven delivery around the city?

Maybe the French Market can add a splash park on the concrete pad, a storefront library, citywide compost drop off and community or senior services along its many block span to serve the entire city in some manner?

In any case, the way through this portal does seem to require a push to something new even if it might actually resemble something old and tested.

The question is: can we begin to turn in that direction?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STRs

 Dear Councilmembers,
I wanted to give you my input once last time on STRs and thank you for your interest in hearing from everyone.
• I am in favor of limited owner-occupied or one listing STRs by on-site renters (with written approval of the owner) capped at 4 per calendar year for owner-occupied listings and 2 per year for one listings for on-site renters.
• I believe that STRS can be linked to property tax records,  especially to homestead exemptions. I believe penalties for multiple listings should result in massive fines to discourage scofflaws.That money should be set aside for a off-site (not at CH!) STR center for managing inspections and regulation to be housed. Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative may be a good location for this; I have no relationship to them, but think they could manage this well. This should be a public office and have a system for managing complaints against STRS including using affidavit system similar to taxi complaints.
• I am not in favor of whole house STRs under any circumstance.
• I do not believe that any neighborhood- including the Quarter or the CBD- should have any version of different allowances for the number of STRs than any other. I live in the Quarter and have friends that live in the CBD and we all deserve protection. The population of my area has risen in the last 15 years and is a world-class example of “mixed-use” done right. Allowing any version of unlimited STRS is death to any neighborhood held dear. It ain’t all rich folks and second homes. Please do away with unlimited STRS in commercial “zones.”
•I believe that this city could influence STR sites like airbnb to pin abutting neighbor reviews to the main page of any  legal hosting listing to encourage good neighbor STRs.
• To paraphrase Abigail Adams, I’d like you to consider the small hotels. I live across from one of these in the Quarter and it is  a great neighbor. Not only do they maintain their property very well, they are generous to their neighbors and offer 24/7 “eyes on the street” They need to be encouraged to remain by limiting any STRS within some distance of their site. Their hotels should also be allowed to be listed on any NOLa-managed STR site without needing to be licensed as such. The skyscraper hotels are bad for neighborhoods and for crime levels, (and for jobs, having worked in a few!) Limit any more of those in favor of small hotels in neighborhoods on main streets.
• I believe that every neighborhood organization should map their area and find 1-2 areas for zoning of boarding houses for long-term visitors. These folks often become permanent residents.
• The city should incentivize these efforts with small business assistance, business prep and tax forgiveness.
•A new program to incentivize residential rental should begin to encourage long-term leases (3 years or more).
 • Areas long undervalued should be given tax incentives and construction loans to add more affordable residential units, directed to certain sectors like the upper floors on Canal street for service industry workers.
• The issue that has risen with STRs points to the issue with rentals and renter rights in all versions of contracts and needs to be undertaken by a regional task force designed and led by this Council.
Thank you for your efforts.

Community Architect: The Future of Public Markets and the Case of the Lexington Market in Baltimore

A very good description and some simple rules for revitalizing public shed markets written by a Baltimore architect. He focuses his attention on the Lexington Market (which I have visited when in the area for farmers market business) that he seems to work near enough to observe regularly. I remember on my visits being impressed by the vitality of this market even though the quality and quantity of healthy goods seemed low. I actually still think about this market regularly, because it was a particular kind of anachronism that reminded me of visiting the old West Side Market in Cleveland in the 1960s/1970s; in other words, it still seems exactly like those dark and chaotic largely forgotten shed markets that were sprinkled throughout many American cities back in the mid 20th century. He points out that Lexington already has regular shoppers and acts as a food hub in what is largely a food desert, which is a significant point. It’s interesting that he seems to think that finding ways to attract tourists is one key to making this market really work, which may or may not be true in my estimation. I’ll leave that discussion for another time and post.

In any case, as pointed out by the author, the attention paid recently to many of these markets has often led to one of two outcomes: either successfully engineered spaces full of event activities and local color/products, filled regularly with proud residents on the weekends and eager tourists during the week, OR badly re-designed ones with ridiculous lighting and signage telling us of their authenticity with wide empty aisles and too much of one thing. Unfortunately, the French Market (especially after its hot mess of recent equally overdone and underdone renovations) is more of the second with chunks of the Lexington Market’s structural and place-based issues to solve, but I do believe that it is due for its renaissance. However, it has always seemed to me that the job of French Market director may require someone with the letter “S” on his or her undershirt. Last time I checked, I believe that the job included: maintaining a significant number of historical buildings for the city,  being landlord to the uptown side of the Pontalba building/apartments, overseeing the anarchistic artist and reader colony space in Jackson Square, recruiting and serving the permanent storefront tenants from Jackson Square to Ursuline, and creating and managing events constantly. Ad oh yeah- somehow revitalize the 2 open shed markets at the Barracks end so that locals will come too. Honestly, having watched the last few eras of FM leadership closely, it seems that these open sheds take up 75% of the time and goodwill in that job, while supplying little of the income. What must be understood by the FM board and city officials is that these sheds are now difficult to access for most downtown residents, especially with no quality public transportation. And now with the management of the linear Crescent Park also on their to-do list, I’d say that the sheds and the park are one big problem all on their own, but also the most likely path to winning the hearts and minds of locals and savvy tourists too.

In addition, the massive size and varied uses of the French Market district presents a very different set of spatial problems and possible solutions than what was possible for the small D.C. Eastern or even its slightly more appropriate D.C. sister, the newly fabulous Union Market or any number of others that I or others have visited in the last two decades. The bad history of the last 40 years at the French Market has also meant that people actually have a negative perception, not just a neutral perception of this space and working on those sheds a little at a time is too little to change that to positive. The very serious lack of nearby farm production also needs to be acknowledged and means that simply signaling that local goods are welcome to be sold will not be enough to have enough on hand. And lastly, what to do with the dozens and dozens of vendors who exist there presently? Incentivize a product change or focus on encouraging them to move on to storefronts to make way for new ideas?

One can compare the French Market to the St. Roch Market to see how different their outcomes and the work to make it so. And yet, even with the small footprint and limited uses needed for St. Roch, look how many millions the city had to spend and how much time it has taken to just get to someone leasing it, much less actually successfully filling it with dynamic retail operator, and still, no grocery or low-income component.

from the original post:

Consultants, of course, also aim at the currently totally un-yuppified food selections, in which each baker (there are seven) has the same yellow cakes smothered in colorful oily frostings, and where there is more fried food than exotic fruit. But here, too, lingers the danger of eliminating the authentic Baltimore grit, with specialties like pigs’ feet, freshly cut veal liver (“baby beef”) that can only be had here or in some of the Asian supermarkets out in the County. Most famously and maybe most Baltimore, of course, is Faidley’s, with its seafood, oysters and crabs and, most importantly, the Baltimore crab-cakes, which are shipped on demand nationwide.

Discussions about the Lexington Market quickly touch nerves, depending on with whom one speaks, because the market serves various needs and maybe evokes even more aspirations. There are those who love its gruff authenticity and old fashioned food choices, there are those who use the market for their daily shopping because adjacent neighborhoods to the west have scarcely any stores, and then there is a growing number of people who think that the market surely doesn’t live up to its potential and needs a major re-set. Community Architect: The Future of Public Markets and the Case of the Lexington Market in Baltimore.

Experts ask if New Orleans’ ‘exceptionalism’ masks grimmer reality

Writer Katy Reckdahl covers New Orleans with her usual tact and fair approach in this article from the Advocate. I wish there was more of the story covered here, but at least the idea of examining New Orleans’ “exceptionalism” has been raised along with comparing that assertion to its massive challenges. Certainly, the larger idea of American exceptionalism and its etymology should be examined as well. In other words, only reminding ones citizens about “positive” indicators-what for us is tied up entirely in our culture-seems to blind or restrict a more in-depth conversation about the systemic inequalities that also characterize life in New Orleans. Or as one astute online commenter said : let’s not keep falling for bread and circuses.

Allison Plyer, of the Data Center, who has crunched the city’s demographic numbers for nearly two decades, said the city is exceptional “only in terms of culture.” For the few indicators the Data Center keeps about culture, New Orleans is “well above the national average,” she said.

“We’re also well above the national average in incarceration,” Plyer said. “But we’re not different than other places in other measures of hardship, and those are glaring and need to be addressed.”

For all of New Orleans’ numerical similarities to places such as Cleveland, when Plyer looks up from her spreadsheets and PowerPoints, she sees a city that is special, she said. “And because it is special, I am interested in working to address issues of hardship and well-being here,” she said.

Tony Recasner, who heads Agenda for Children, said that because of the city’s small size and tight geography, the problems of the poor are often in plain view, just like the brass bands and parades. That proximity among people of all income levels contributes to high levels of volunteerism here, he thinks.

Experts ask if New Orleans’ ‘exceptionalism’ masks grimmer reality | News | The New Orleans Advocate — New Orleans, Louisiana.

Artist colony in our midst

I think there is a lot to be discovered about self organization, itinerant communities, illegal and informal activities and much more from the Jackson Square community. There is much good and maybe some bad to this place no doubt, and the more that city officials, police and nearby businesses and residents understand it and specifically understand how the space works (or doesn’t) with new groups taking control at different times of day and events, the better.
Jackson Square artists