The Third Battle of New Orleans* is raging, as reported in yesterday’s Times-Picayune. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and New Orleans tourism interests are concerned that the city’s French Quarter and its immediate surrounding neighborhoods and downtown as tourist destinations have failed to rebound as completely as hoped after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The inflow of tourists, 8.75 million last year, is less than the 11 million before Katrina and a far cry from the city’s ambitious goal of 13 million by 2018, which marks the tricentennial of the city’s founding. Landrieu’s father, Moon Landrieu, was mayor forty years ago and was instrumental in creating a much tighter partnership between the municipal government and the tourism industry, but today’s pro-tourism effort builds upon a much more powerful base of tourism interests who have invested mightily in the city.

The current battle swirls around the city’s proposal to create a state-chartered “hospitality district” that would encompass, at a minimum, the Quarter, the Central Business District, and the Warehouse District. The idea is to levy taxes on hotel rooms and parking, restaurant meals, and drink tabs to fund more tourism marketing and improved sanitation, security, and tourism infrastructure. The state bill (SB 573) is accordion-like, enabling the zone to expand to any additional neighborhoods or be subdivided into smaller zones for specific purposes.

Neighborhood residents and watchdog groups like Vieux Carré Property Owners and Residents Association (VCPORA) worry that giving too much power to tourism interests will upset the delicate balance between tourist zone and neighborhood. The New Orleans French Quarter, it seems, is a perennial battleground. It has been so for at least the past half century. Residents and business interests have redefined the balance many times and, from residents’ perspective, each time the French Quarter as a neighborhood has had to yield yet again.

In the 1950s-60s, the major concerns included demolition, insensitive uses of historic buildings, vice and obscenity, a freeway threat, and the proliferation of hotels. As tourism moved toward center stage, additional concerns emerged: noise from businesses and street performers, inconsiderate acts by walking-tour operators and participants, large tour buses navigating narrow streets, T-shirt shops, timeshares, illegal bed-and-breakfasts, and loss of affordable housing. It is well known that the French Quarter lost much of its capacity to serve as home to a wide range of residents as buildings rose in value. Ethnic, racial, and economic diversity dwindled along with the permanent population (from 11,000+ in 1940 to less than 4,000 today).

Bourbon Street six months before Hurricane Katrina. Photo by J. Mark Souther. All rights reserved.

It is, then, hardly surprising that the current bid to rebuild tourism as a pillar of the New Orleans economy is so hotly contested, with opponents arguing that “My Neighborhood ≠ Your ‘Hospitality Zone.’” Prior to World War II, preservationists usually saw tourism as nothing but a plus for the Quarter because it brought new interest in the historic neighborhood. Home and courtyard tours were a point of pride. As tourism evolved into a large-scale industry, however, preservationists began to see that it was something of a double-edged sword, or a “devil’s bargain” (to borrow the late historian Hal Rothman’s language). By the 1960s some worried that soon the tourists would have nothing to see but other tourists. Nearly 50 years ago, Mary Morrison, a pioneering preservationist who moved to the Quarter in the 1930s, lamented that in saving the Quarter from widespread demolition, preservationists had “saved the calf and fatted it for the ultimate slaughter.” Many who have come after Morrison would likely agree. In a city that is terribly dependent on tourism dollars, the Quarter is the proverbial “goose that laid the golden egg.” How much the egg can be tapped without cracking is a question that each new generation is forced to confront.

* The first Battle of New Orleans was, of course, in 1815 on the tail end of the War of 1812. Many have referred to the Second Battle of New Orleans as either the fight to desegregate the city’s schools in the 1960s or the freeway revolt that stopped a state plan to run an elevated highway along the riverfront side of the French Quarter.