Tourism and New Orleans in the Pandemic-Era

The 2014 book Desire and Disaster in New Orleans, looked at in the post Civil-War era New Orleans developed a white middle-class tourist economy that traded only on the French colonial and the antebellum history, and since 1980, has almost exclusively relied and expanded it to the exclusion of any other economy. That inertia certainly led to the emergence of disaster tourism after the 2005 levee breaks as the only plan by city leaders which increased dangerous and short-sighted construction like the doomed and deadly Hard Rock project – shockingly thrown up at the very site of the historic Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins.

From the book: “New Orleans post-Katrina tourism has promoted the type of political inactivism common with other forms of do-good capitalism and grassroots privatization that undermine democratic process, perpetuate social hierarchies and inequities, and reinforce the status quo.”

As I continue to dive more deeply into Professor Thomas’ and others work on the racial politics that developed those earlier eras of New Orleans tourism, we here are aware that the next round is already emerging and will have even more troubling implications for the future of New Orleans.

I’ll be covering some of those specific indicators in these pages over the next few months including:

-City Hall allowing limitless short term rental situation by pointedly ignoring the enforcement of current rules, hampering the taxis while allowing gig drivers to operate with impudence

-the addition of beach-style amenities that encourage ever larger, more rowdy groups (such as unlicensed golf carts careening everywhere and huge loitering party buses endangering the airways of anyone within a half mile)

-the lack of official support for local musicians and buskers

-and the political pressure by the restaurant and hotel industry to end the COVID safety net for Louisiana food and service workers to get them back into the poverty wages and unrelenting schedules that is required in this current system.

Of course, the lack of concerted regional support for affordable housing, for public or human-powered transportation investments and enforcement, for accessible primary and secondary education choices, and the continuing massive prison pipeline that relies on a militarized police force using traffic stops to target black residents to fund and fill the courts and prisons, also ensure that tourism remains the choice for those few who profit from any and all of those issues.

As many locals have discussed on social media and in informal meet ups on what once were quiet residential corners, unchecked tourism is a public health killer for our residents, an ecological nightmare for the most fragile coast in the U.S., and is escalating conflicts among neighbors. Yet it also allows us to celebrate one of the few black and indigenous urban capitals left in North America, and could be a lever to increase political power and the honoring of the talents and skills among our Creole, Black, indigenous, people of color and their offspring.

With the next mayoral election not too far off, I am already hearing musings from long-time activists pondering a run, and even if not running, preparing to demand that all candidates come up with a more equitable and just plan for the future around these issues. I plan to contribute to that here and elsewhere and look forward to highlighting writers and activists leading the way.

Its gonna be a wild year folks.

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


  • 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?















On “An Open Letter to the Tales of the Cocktail® Community”

I love this balanced letter linked at the end of this post from a true New Orleans visionary asking her event visitors to use conforming guest lodging. This is a very important letter to send out to as many folks as possible.
I do believe however, (and my unscientific poll of my neighbors seems to correspond with this) that there are two versions of unregulated STR scenarios and they need to be dealt with differently: those who offer extra rooms for rent while living there and the other of absentee owners kicking out long time residents and turning their hastily purchased properties into cash cows, not really caring who their users are and how they act while they are in town.

The second STR situation needs to be done away with and the only way it can be is through detailed regulations, fines levied because the neighbors are able to register real complaints that result in action and includes penalties that jeopardize homestead exemptions.The first type should have light regulations but high fines for  anyone skirting the rules of on-site owner STRs. Looks to me that small tweaks of existing STR rules in the city can be updated to add onsite single STRS, as long as they are maxed out at a certain number of days per year.

So, as usual my post is about how I want to urge that we stop lumping in all STRs in one no-no.

It is true that most STRS are currently illegal as they are not permitted. It is not criminal, but instead, a violation of city code or of zoning, just as the illegal use of a home for a pop up snowball stand or neighborhood tire repair or those side windows where folks sell poboys would be dealt with. I think this is important as some of the conversation has become slightly overwrought and angrily denounces the neighbor who offers a single room in their home.  A couple of other examples of illegal activity commonly seen in the city that few people know about: it was illegal for fishermen to sell seafood off their truck in Orleans Parish for many, many years. Every other parish allowed it (meaning they did not pass laws against it) but Orleans went through a time when seafood houses lobbied that they should be the ones selling seafood and shrimpers standing in the hot sun should not. This ordinance was passed for food safety reasons, but hurt occasional fishers and our ability to access really fresh shrimp and bycatch. It is also true that someone growing food under a few acres in New Orleans is not allowed to sell that produce on site. It is also true that farmers market vendors are not permitted by City Hall if they do not live in the parish. In most of these cases, the city has worked out some sort of agreement to allow it, but it is still non-conforming or illegal use.

And if it seems odd to think of some of that as not allowed, I like to think it will one day to seem odd that my neighbor or friend was not allowed to let her extra room out a few times per year.

Of course, when I bring up shrimpers selling off their truck, or poboy windows as examples of illegal behavior, there are those who go positively frothy at the mouth at the comparison. I do understand that there is a much larger danger in the unchecked nature of STRs that has never been equalled with shrimpers or cooler beer sales at a second line, but I think any of these ordinances can often have unintended consequences on entrepreneurial activity and so we need to consider all of it carefully as well as the ability of our city hall to enforce what is passed.

(I’d like to comment on the argument often heard that STRs don’t pay taxes when in fact they do receive a 1099 and must pay income tax. Of course, they also pay their property tax on their property as well, so let’s just not overstate that issue. It is true they don’t pay hotel tax, but the city website seems to indicate that many smaller b&bs don’t have to pay hotel privilege or sales tax if under a certain number of rooms or without private baths. Yes those b&bs pay many fees, taxes and have other costs, but collecting added taxes for a room or two over a few nights is a nonstarter of an argument in my book.)

Another topic that also makes some look at me as if I announced a ban on go cups and/or king cake: it is that I believe while we must examine STRs openly and critically, we should also look at the effect of hotel zones too and see if we can discourage the addition of more massive development of these and instead encourage more small hotels, b&bs and boarding houses across the city, owned by locals. I get that some people think this will become a giant loophole to drive STRs in to, but I believe that incentivizing small hotels and b&bs will have the opposite effect. The massive skyscraper hotels are detrimental to neighborhood life and offer very low numbers of good jobs. I myself worked in a few of those behemoths and was glad for the work, but to do so, I went to an area devoid of street life and locals and made a very low wage.  Let’s face it: most of these large places are owned by far-off corporations that take as many opportunities to reduce their costs as they can, including low pay and few taxes and offering less for their buck.
So one reason that many of these visitors are choosing STRs is because the hotel industry has not evolved to include the type of layout or amenities that visitors increasingly want. Whether it is for pleasure or for business, people travel differently than they did two decades ago and want to be able to avail themselves of more types of experiences. More people travel with their friends or extended family and need shared space for cooking or lounging that hotels do not yet provide. Or they would rather not be at the mercy of lowest denominator tourist traps or beholden to a small group of taxi services who, if you have ever tried to register a serious complain against one, often have little regard for their customers comfort.
My point is when we get rid of the majority of STRs, an action that I fully support, we also need to reconsider what hospitality means in the 21st century and how New Orleans can offer it without losing our neighborhoods. I want more locals making a little money off tourism as long as it is managed so as not to drive our residents away.

The rental market also needs incentives to reboot itself, such as one time tax credits for adding decent long term rentals, technical assistance to homeowners to become good landlords and fair sublet regulations for students and residents who travel for part of the year. The best kind of housing advocacy is being done by folks around town like Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative. This is the statement they added today:

JPNSI is concerned that thousands of housing units are being removed from residential use, particularly in our service area of Mid-City, which has seen a jump from 73 STRs in 2015 to 276 STRs in 2016- an increase of 278%. While we spoke out about how whole-house rentals are contributing to the housing crisis and displacement of residents, we also called for a strengthening of New Orleans’ notorious weak tenant laws that make it easy for landlords to evict tenants from housing, and recommend that a percentage of the monies generated by the permitting and regulation of STRs to be directed to the Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund to support the development of affordable housing.

So I vigorously applaud the above and TOTC’s statement in favor of our gorgeous Monteleones, Roosevelts and Valentino-owned small Quarter hotels, but let’s try to get some balance and fair play to those neighbors who have the ability to offer a room or in wanting to legally add a small property for visitors along the Canal Streetcar line or out by the lakefront and legislate these uses for a small responsible number.

Source: An Open Letter to the Tales of the Cocktail® Community | Tales of the Cocktail

MAC-Notes on the elephant

Excellent input from one of the city’s great clarinetists, himself a transplant albeit decades ago. So as he says (and represents) it is not that all comers are unwelcome. It is that it is vital and brave to truly comprehend what it means to support the complex dynamics of the formal and informal cultural activity that has held our place together. And that actively working for useful and manageable ordinances and zoning that discourage a “monocrop” society has to be everyone’s goal.

Let’s get serious about this damn elephant. He’s being too well-fed by our civic leadership, which continues to march toward a goal of 13 million annual visitors by 2018. Though they are beginning to listen to the bearers of their culture, they mostly try to measure our contributions in terms of “cultural economy.” And, given their attentions to the tourism lobby and neighborhood associations, it seems they still regard us more as an extension of the service industry than part of our city’s lifeblood. The resultant clashes between policy and organic culture are exacerbated by ham-handed and selective enforcement of our sound ordinance and an unwieldy process for amending the Comprehensive Zoning Order and “Plan for the 21st Century.”

Those of us who are truly committed to our community’s cultural vitality need dialogues that reflect appropriate ambivalence from all stakeholders and respect the issue’s complex dynamics.

Source: MAC-Notes: Everyone Sees the Elephant. Now What? | NolaVie – Life and Culture in New Orleans

and this truly accurate response:

I moved from Uptown in 2001 to Burgundy Street in the Marigny. My immediate neighbors consisted of a nice (African-American) family in the double on one side and a Honduran woman, Miss Consuela, who barely spoke English on the other side. Across the street was a corner bar, a Section 8 double, and a long-time resident (Caucasion) who works at a hospital. An old man on the other corner lived behind his long-closed, 1930(ish) gas station. We were a diverse bunch to be sure. But we all knew each other. We all helped each other out. We were neighbors. After the storm, the only ones of us left were us, the bar, the hospital worker and Miss Consuela. Then someone bought the double next door. They completely rennovated it, flipped it and sold it as 2 condos to some really wonderful people who live there now. The Secton 8 house was sold after a brief stint as a crack house. It too was sold and rennovated. It is now a long-term rental. An expensive one. Miss Consuela fell ill and died. Her home was sold at a tax auction to a doctor who took it down to the studs, added a camel back, renovated the entire thing and hasn’t spent a single night there. It is an illegal short-term rental. Less than 3 feet from our home. It sleeps 10. At least that is what the Airbnb ad says. Sometimes the people are very nice. We try to engage all of them. Sometimes they are gaping assholes. The group two weeks ago who were blaring bad disco music at 4:30 in the morning into the top of the line outdoor sound system come to mind. All this while the doctor takes his homestead exemption on this place. We have complained to City Hall. They don’t care. I could go on about the slumlord rental on the block that smells like ass, and rents for $1275. It was $500 pre-K and housed a loveable ‘OZ dj who can no longer afford to live here. Or the house next door to that, which housed a local band, then a young family, and finally turned Airbnb. Or the hordes of bicycle tourists who block the street like a particularly large school of minnows and shout “car!” whenever an automobile approaches, all while gawking at the neighborhood like we are in some kind of bizzaro, New Orleans, performance piece. Don’t get me wrong. I am happy that these buildings around me are being “rebuilt, renewed and restored”. I just wish we could find a balance that allows us to look toward the future without completely losing the past. Sorry this is so long. But it does feel better to write it.