Frenchmen Street and the Changing Scenery

My office overlooks the intersection of Decatur and Frenchmen Street. I’ve had this fabulous view for going on 14 years now, but since we first moved in the street has changed considerably.

When we moved into the second floor of 421 Frenchmen, the first floor was occupied by the Lambda Center, which used to host AA and NA meetings. Often, we’ d have people come up to the second floor looking for a meeting. Once we had to turn away a homeless guy who had taken up his domicile on the landing on the second floor in front of the OffBeat front office door. Poor guy.

Over the years, the Lambda Center moved out and the first floor was vacant for years. It’s been occupied for the past few years by an “antique” store that uses our lobby as their display window.

When OffBeat first came on the street, there was the Dream Palace, which by then was almost defunct, Café Brasil, the “Faubourg Center,” a vegetarian café called Old Dog New Trick (the first vegetarian restaurant in the city, to my knowledge), Snug Harbor, Bicycle Michael’s and the Faubourg Marigny Bookstore. The Electric Ladyland tattoo parlor came a bit later. The Apple Barrel was there too, and Rubyfruit Jungle, on the corner of Frenchmen and Royal Streets. Dr. Combs and Lutz’s physicians’ office had long been on the corner of Frenchmen and Decatur across from my window (it’s now Downtown Tattoos).

We’ve seen a lot of places come and go: Belle Forche (a high-end restaurant that failed,  turned into the Hookah Café, and transmogrified into Vaso); Mona’s (still here and going strong); the Faubourg Center became “Ray’s Room” (and several other joints) before it reopened in its current incarnation as Maison. Old Dog New Trick is now Monaghan’s 13. The Dream Palace became Café Istanbul for awhile, and then another club, until new building owners purchased the property and created the Blue Nile. The Praline Connection serves up soul food on the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres, just across Frenchmen Street from the now-vacant Café Brasil (what a waste of a great venue).

Marigny Brasserie stands where Rubyfruit Jungle used to operate. Café Rose Nicaud was the first (and so far the only) coffee shop on the street. The Spotted Cat  opened, then Café Negril, and the Apple Barrel took on new operators (who have since departed). Adolfo’s upstairs used to be Alberto’s. Three Muses was created from scratch and brought not only local musicians to the street, but classy cuisine too.

So the street has changed a lot.

Frenchmen Street clubs and the music here was a far cry from what’s available in the rest of the French Quarter, and were a stark contrast to the tourist atmosphere, adult entertainment and music-for-the-masses mentality found on most of Bourbon Street. It was the “local’s music street.”

But in the last two years, the Frenchmen Street-as-destination bug has caught on and everyone and their brother is jumping on the bandwagon of a little street in the Marigny that used to be known only to neighborhood people. Bamboula’s  opened next to Maison about three weeks ago. It was formerly the old Laborde Printing building, which was operational when we first moved here, but closed years ago. The building’s owner leased it to the current operators, who also own and operate bars in the French Quarter and on the Florida/Alabama Gulf Coast. Considering the fact that they’ve never really had much interaction with the other businesses on the street,  and their first three weeks of operation (which included Bourbon Street-like barkers and fishbowl-sized glasses of mixed drinks and a large theater in the rear, most of the Frenchmen business owners look on them as the beginning of the end of the Frenchmen Street that was.

That’s not all. Smack-dab next door to Bamboula’s is a vacant lot that is also owned by (another faction of) the Laborde family. Ground broke recently on a three-story property that’s rumored to be a “pizza restaurant/jazz club” with three residential units on the third floor. And the long-vacant corner of Frenchmen and Chartres that used to be the site for the brass bands who played every evening on that corner is now being developed into a Dat Dog restaurant (“a two-story hotdog stand with a titty balcony,” grumbles one current Frenchmen Street business owner).

So the Frenchmen Street that was is definitely no more.

But will it become “Bourbon Street West”? That question remains to be answered.

Unless the city can figure out how to legislate the type of music and the bands that play, and find a way to keep beer-guzzling frat boys from frequenting the street, the tourist cat has already jumped out of the bag and is ready to take over Frenchmen. There’s obviously a market for it. But I have to say, the old street was nice while it lasted.