Sensory Overload in New Orleans?
Posted on March 2, 2012
Recent days and weeks have seen the latest round in a long, storied struggle over the essence of New Orleans’s biggest attraction – the French Quarter. Shopkeepers have protested efforts to curb storefront advertising that some say mars historic integrity; residents have railed against amplified music blaring from courtyards behind Bourbon Street nightclubs; and some worry that sanitation efforts fall short of the cleanliness that the city’s top destination needs.
New Orleans’s famous Vieux Carré has long staked its reputation on sensory experiences at odds with mainstream America. Even in the nineteenth century, Americans understood the old French district of the Crescent City as a place apart where sights, sounds, and smells bespoke an exotic flair. Variously likened to an American Paris or Cairo or the northernmost outpost of the Caribbean world in the exclamations of travel writers, literary figures, and journalists, the old Quarter was a place where one might see “picturesque” representatives of the world’s peoples thronging the French Market, hear the calls of fruit peddlers echoing in the narrow streets, or smell the pungent mixture of creole spices, semitropical flowering plants, and the muddy Mississippi.
Travel writers, bohemians, and eventually affluent and middle-class residents and tourists found the Quarter enchanting. In the 20th century the idea of the Vieux Carré as an almost foreign cultural artifact in the middle of a modern city brought growing conflicts over which sights, sounds, and smells were alluring or offensive. Residents wanted a Quarter where they could live in historic digs and live amid artists, writers, musicians, and eccentrics; entrepreneurs (both business owners and street vendors and performers) preferred a Quarter where they could tap the growing profits to be had from wooing tourists. With increasing regularity, as tourism moved toward centrality in New Orleans, residents chafed at garish and sometimes lewd window signs, loud club barkers and itinerant brass musicians, and the stench of spilled beer, discarded corncobs and crawfish heads, and whatever else collected in street gutters.
Protest and layer upon layer of regulation became fixtures in the French Quarter. The Vieux Carré Commission, a municipal agency chartered in 1936, found itself in the middle of debates over how to balance competing visions for what the Quarter should be. Quarter watchdogs rung their hands when in the late ’40s, a Bourbon Street business skirted a VCC window-sign ordinance–part of its control over exterior surfaces of buildings – by painting topless female figures on the inside of the glass or, in and after the 1980s, when T-shirt shops sprouted behind Quarter storefronts like mushrooms after a spring rainstorm. City officials at various times have pirouetted between clashing parties: artists, palm readers, musicians, tour bus operators, residents, club operators, storeowners, and others. Thus, the latest news is hardly surprising. As long as the Quarter holds value for citizens and tourists and occupies such a vaunted position in the city’s economy, it will remain a cultural battleground.