Up until maybe three or four years ago, Frenchmen Street was the place where “the locals went to hear great music.” Back then the ratios of locals to tourists was maybe 90 to 10. In that short period of time, the numbers of tourists and locals has probably switched to 90 percent tourists and 10 percent locals. Too bad.
I’ve had so many friends and local people tell me that they no longer want to go to Frenchmen because it’s become too crowded and the nature of the people that go to the street has changed drastically. This crowd isn’t necessarily into music, first and foremost—the way it used to be. They are there to drink and party: like what’s done on Bourbon. Music is no longer the commodity; alcohol is. Music is now simply the draw that gets people into bars, which means that the quality of the music goes down; the managers don’t necessarily care about the musicians and bands who play there (since the music is only there to get more beer pours).
This has happened before. On Bourbon Street.
I was in an interesting meeting today with Jim Peters, of the Sociable City Network/Responsible Hospitality Institute. Peters’ company specializes in working with partners, cities and communities throughout the US and the world to improve and sustain “nighttime economies.” What Peters does is create better models for hospitality sustainability and to share information that will improve everyone’s city in all aspects of the hospitality industry. He had a conference here in 2008, and says he’d like to return to New Orleans in 2018 (CVB and Mayor’s Office…are you listening?)
At one point in time, people went to Bourbon Street for its music and entertainment. It was a street that people walked down, while at the same time vehicular traffic still went down Bourbon. What this means is that the people who went to Bourbon Street were going there to hear music (okay, sometimes maybe The Oyster Girl, too). Music (and entertainment) were the draws, not the street scene, the party scene that Bourbon developed into.
Peters mentioned a few factors which probably contributed to the demise of Bourbon Street as a music destination. One is the closing of the street to vehicular traffic. While one might think that closing the street made it safer for pedestrians, what in effect happened was that the party and entertainment moved from inside the bars and music clubs and into the street. Cover charges did exist at music venues in Bourbon at one time. Now entry into most of the bars and clubs on Bourbon is free; after all, the party has now moved outside because the street has been turned into a pedestrian mall. For the most part, the venues and bars leave their doors open and try to entice passers-by into their venues through the use of obnoxious barkers (now also beginning to appear on Frenchmen) and by trying to crank up the music as loud as they can to attract people to come inside (and we know what problems this causes with loud music).
Bourbon is within walking distance of many, many hotels. It’s developed into a street party rather than a music and entertainment street. Frenchmen is not necessarily a safe walk from many hotels. This is one reason why it was it was easier for locals: they could park in the neighborhood and walk. Frenchmen Street was still a music destination.
That’s obviously changing, as the crowds on Frenchmen are now getting so large that at times it’s almost gotten dangerous to walk on the sidewalks. So the crowds spill out into the street—still open to vehicular traffic.
Jason Patterson and Wesley Schmidt of Snug Harbor are adamantly against closing down Frenchmen Street to vehicular traffic as they see it as the next step towards the “Bourbonization” of Frenchmen. There are already many clubs that do not have a cover charge; they are free for people to hear music. While this is great for patrons, it may not be so good for the bands who have to depend on a payment fro the venue or a percentage of the bar, or a tip jar, in order to be paid.
So what’s the solution to keeping Frenchmen music-centric?
First, we need a convenient, inexpensive, safe place for local people to park to go to Frenchmen. The best option would be to convert the French Market Corporation-controlled parking lot between Decatur and Chartres (bordering on Elysian Fields) into a multi-story parking garage. At one time there were plans for a garage at this location, but the neighborhood association killed it because it violated Marigny height restrictions.
The parking garage can be paid, but at night, Frenchmen Street patrons should have to show proof that they were patronizing Frenchmen music clubs.’
Second, doors to music venues need to be closed, and all venues need to charge a cover charge. It could be a small cover, but it would certainly raise the quality of the music on Frenchmen, the bands would have a more secure income, and it would prevent a further Bourbonization of the street. Frenchmen Street would instantly become a music destination once again.
Third, the street should not be closed to vehicular traffic, but the sidewalks on either side should be widened to allow for a single lane of traffic down Frenchmen and to give the music venues some leeway in dealing with crowds. Restrict delivery times to daylight hours, preferably morning, and provide a curb cut or two for a delivery vehicle (even though there is reserved commercial parking on Decatur Street already for delivery trucks).
Fourth, there should be a permanent police presence on Frenchmen. Why not a satellite Eighth District location (like the police station at the Healing Center)?
Fifth, absolutely no strip or gentlemen’s clubs or burlesque.
This is going to take a change in mentality for some of the clubs, and participation by the Mayor’s Office and District C Councliperson Nadine Ramsey, as well as the French Market Corporation and neighborhood to get the parking lot constructed. It’s about time.
My 25 cents.