Currently, New Orleans has very few real music and entertainment districts.
Locals know where the hip bars are, and where there’s some music in places “where locals go” (that used to be Frenchmen Street).
NewOrleansOnline.com, the online presence for the city’s hospitality industry touts “13 Streets You Need To Visit When You’re in New Orleans.”
But music is only really mentioned on Bourbon, Frenchmen and Oak Streets (which apparently only made it because of the Maple Leaf). St. Claude Avenue didn’t really make it into the “music” arena, unbelievably.
Isn’t it odd that we don’t have more recognized music districts in a city where music literally “bubbles up from the streets”?
Despite what visitors to New Orleans perceive, presenting live music is not really condoned by the city. Hosting live music in your club, bar or restaurant presents zoning challenges as well as the acquisition of a live-music permit.
It seems logical that there should be live music on North Rampart Street, the boulevard that is the southern border of Armstrong Park (and Congo Square). Nope. At one point the Funky Butt, Donna’s and other clubs presented live music. Hurricane Katrina killed whatever was left of live music on North Rampart. City zoning regulations, with the support of residents on the northern edge of the French Quarter (who just did not want nasty old music clubs in their ‘hood) squashed the return of live music post-Katrina. It’s somewhat easy to understand, given the fact that the only real police presence to regulate entertainment districts is based only on Bourbon Street.
Since Katrina, St. Claude Avenue has sprouted some music venues that seem to cater more to the newcomer/hipster denizens of the Bywater; definitely not tourists, and for the most part, definitely not the types of “New Orleans” music that’s expected by visitors. Frenchmen Street is still a great street for local music, but locals aren’t apt to go there anymore because the street has become less for local music lovers who want to enjoy music, and more a party street scene like Bourbon (albeit for a younger, hipper crowd). Locals, unfortunately, don’t like to mingle with tourists for the most part (you won’t find locals on Bourbon, and you’re hard-pressed to find them now on Frenchmen, either).
I’ve asked the question in my blog many times: where’s the next Frenchmen Street? I’m hard-pressed to come up with an answer. Bourbon and Frenchmen became music streets because of the proximity of one music venue to another (you don’t find that on St. Claude Avenue).
You need to create a critical mass of music before it becomes a “music district.” You need the proximity. But, the city’s planning and zoning apparently aren’t organized enough to determine where those districts should exist to reinforce New Orleans reputation as a music city.
Which brings me to Magazine Street.
The few blocks off Calliope on its uptown size have numerous warehouses that could potentially be converted to music and entertainment venues that could create a critical mass of music. There is residential there, but for the most part, there are several warehouses that could offer the potential for the creation of venues that could comprise a new music district. There’s a property on Magazine Street that’s currently being considered for a theater development. Ditto South Rampart Street in the area where the Eagle Saloon is located. And there’s always North Rampart near Armstrong Park. Of course, these should be tightly regulated to make sure that they are contained within an area that’s designated for certain zoning and that the areas have adequate parking, security, lighting and police protection. Music districts will not work well without this.
It seems to me that the city—with some foresight and planning—could potentially work with developers in both of these areas to create viable entertainment and music districts. Personally, I believe the city would do well to require jazz be performed in a certain number of venues that would be located in these districts. Without jazz and indigenous New Orleans music, the city loses its cultural hegemony. Let any plans for development be vetted by the city before it’s approved. Who that person, or “board” might be, I don’t know; but we really have to consider this option. We have a board that vets changes to the Vieux Carre (the Vieux Carre Commission); why can’t we establish something similar for venues in music districts?
One issue that continues to prevent anything from progressing in New Orleans vis a vis music is the laissez-faire attitude towards enforcing laws that govern existing areas like Frenchmen Street. There’s basically no enforcement, and therefore a music street that used to be attractive to both locals and visitors—Frenchmen Street—has devolved into the wild west where anything goes: unlicensed vending of food, alcoholic beverages, artwork. Illegal parking and street blockages (highly dangerous to pedestrians and damaging to businesses who are legal and pay taxes for the right to operate on the street) are a real problem that’s getting worse and worse.
I would challenge the new Mayor, her office of Cultural Economy and the City Council to become more cognizant of the opportunities and areas where music and entertainment can be developed so New Orleans can truly be a music city that welcomes and promulgates its actual culture. An unregulated street party culture is just not the best way to keep, grow and nurture New Orleans’ reputation for its music and culture. This is the very thing that makes us different and is part of the city’s lifestyle and its attraction to the outside world.
Do we really need just another street that sells more liquor than our unique culture? If that’s okay, then we need to just give it up and call ourselves Little Las Vegas.