On Monday night of this week, the New Orleans Police Department forcibly subdued and arrested “Little Eugene,” a mentally-challenged young brass band member, after being contacted by the owner of the F.A.B. Bookstore, David Zalkind. The arrest was witnessed by many on Frenchmen Street and was also captured on video.
Social media went berserk and the “pitchfork mob” ranted about boycotting and even attempting to shut down F.A.B. Bookstore, claiming that the bookstore owner “hated the brass bands.” Last night, there was a small demonstration outside the bookstore.
Social media is not known for presenting good straight facts. Usually all it’s been able to do is to rile people up and cause division and toxic polarity. This is the case with this event.
So let’s talk about what really happened and make the picture clearer.
The F.A.B. Bookstore has been located on Frenchmen on the corner of Chartres Street since 1978, under at least four different owners. The last was Otis Fennell, who, due to illness, was no longer able to operate the store. He sold the business to David Zalkind and his wife, Gretchen. Zalkind is a current New Orleans resident, who has lived here off and on for many years and who also has practiced real estate here. He saw a good opportunity to continue the operation of the bookstore on the thriving Frenchmen Street and purchased it from Fennell. The store had been closed since September 1, 2018 due to Fennell’s illness. Zalkind began renovations on the bookstore in early January 2019 and re-opened the business on March 1. So essentially, F.A.B. has not been open since September.
During that period of time, the Young Fellaz Brass Band started playing on the corner in front of the bookstore at Charters and Frenchmen (with Zalkind’s permission and blessing, since the bookstore was undergoing renovations and was closed).
OffBeat’s offices have been on Frenchmen Street at the corner of Decatur for over 20 years. When we moved on the street, the only bars/clubs that were open were the Dream Palace (now the site of the Blue Nile); Café Brasil (now occupied—fairly recently—by Favela Chic), Snug Harbor and Rubyfruit Jungle (now Marigny Brasserie).
To put the brass band “issue” into perspective: a lot across the street—now occupied by Dat Dog—was vacant for many years, and this is where the brass bands set up to play at night on Frenchmen. There was plenty of room to attract a crowd off the street onto the lot. Note that the level of noise there was a problem for the owners of a small restaurant on Chartres Street. They complained about the brass band’s loud music, and contended that it kept customers from not only patronizing their restaurant, but the decibel level interfered with dining. They ultimately closed the restaurant.
After it closed, Rubens Leite, who had a taco pop-up within Café Negril, took over the Chartres Street restaurant space and called it Brasil Taco Truck. By this time, Dat Dog had opened on the corner in the “brass band lot.” The brass band moved and set up their performances at the corner entrance to Café Brasil (Brasil had been closed for several years at this point). Leite had the same problems with the brass band and contended that they blocked the sidewalk and prevented customers from finding his restaurant around the corner, and the volume of the music was too loud. He did everything from taking a boom box to drown out the brass band to accusations that the brass band members were urinating on his sidewalk. Didn’t stop the brass band, though, who “claimed” the corner…and ultimately, Leite also closed Taco Truck. The Young Fellaz (and variations thereof) continued to play on the Café Brasil corner. They played there because it was the center of the action on Frenchmen Street, so there was much foot traffic and many more fans who tipped the band. In other words, that corner of Frenchmen and Chartres is dead-set in the middle of all the action on the street. It’s lucrative for the band to be there.
Other venues on the street did complain sporadically about the brass bands, as the volume of music was actually so loud that sometimes if their doors were open—and sometimes if they were closed (which they are supposed to be according to the zoning on Frenchmen)—the brass band music could still be heard in the venues.
But no one really made much of a fuss: the brass band helped to create the ambiance on Frenchmen Street and to continue to establish “Frenchmen Street”as its brand as a music destination. So for years, the Young Fellaz (et al) has set up shop at the old Café Brasil corner.
Recently, the owner of Café Brasil allowed Rubens Leite to re-open the venue as “Favela Chic” on that corner.
So the corner entrance to Favela is now open and the brass band needed to relocate once again.
There were only two corners left: the bookstore and the Praline Connection. The Praline Connection—a legitimate and beloved soul food restaurant and candy store—was closed and reopened as a Bourbon Street-type establishment, Willie’s Chicken Shack, that sells daiquiris, fried chicken and pizza. It also has a corner entrance.
Since the bookstore was closed, the brass band set up shop there. When Zalkind reopened, the band was playing there as they had been for several months, and he asked them to limit their set to 45 minutes. “My ‘sweet spot’ for business is usually 9 p.m. to midnight,” he says, “when people are coming out of the clubs and heading home and they’re looking for a souvenir or something to take home with them. That’s when we make sales.” Zalkind spoke with Sam Jackson, leader of the Young Fellaz, and asked him to play on the side of the property, not at the entrance. But Jackson said that if the band played on the side, that they could not draw a crowd, as the street is lined with parked cars. This would be true for the side of any building; Frenchmen is an open street, and there are always cars parked on the street. Zalkind contends that the brass band is illegally blocking the sidewalk and the entrance to his place of business. After talking to the city, MACCNO and others, Zalkind felt he was not getting anywhere in being able to operate. “I did everything right, and I bought the business in good faith. I had my permits, pay my taxes, rent, etc. If I had known that the city couldn’t make a decision on whether or not it was legal for me to ask the band to move so we could operate, I would have never have done it. But no one will tell me anything and the band will not move at all and won’t cooperate. So I got fed up and called the NOPD.”
On the night in question, NOPD showed up, disbursed the crowd and ask the band to relocate so as not to block the sidewalk, street and the bookstore’s entrance. The band started moving down the street, and the NOPD car left and circled around the corner, and went back to the corner of Chartres and Frenchmen to check to see if the band had moved. By that time, the band had set up again in front of the bookstore, and the police were apparently angry that their orders were not being complied with. And this is where the scuffle started. Trumpeter “Little” Eugene Grant somehow got involved in the fray; he may have resisted the NOPD or did not have realized how serious the scuffle would be. (Sam Jackson told me he “couldn’t discuss” the event when I called and that he would get back to me).
So the fact is that we have frustration and bad feelings on all sides. There’s a business owner who is trying to make a living. There’s a brass band that wants to do the same thing. Does the bookstore have the right to ask the brass band to move away and not block its entrance? Yes, it does.
Does the brass band have a right to play on the street? Yes it does, but not as long as it impedes access to a business or blocks the sidewalk or the street.
If the band can’t make money elsewhere on the street, what is it supposed to do?
Both of these entities are essential to the ambiance and appeal of Frenchmen Street, and the band also represents an essential part of our music culture. It’s also been established that musicians do have the right under the First Amendment to play their music.
So who wins in this situation? That’s the crux of this issue, and it’s not going to go away.
In my opinion, and through my 20-plus years of experience on the street, changes have to be made on Frenchmen Street.
Some years ago, I made a proposition in my blog that the city should consider closing Frenchmen Street at night, and prohibit parking there after 7 p.m. Some business owners had a problem with that, as it would make it too difficult for taxis (this is before shared riding services came to the fore) to drop off patrons to their establishments, and it would “turn Frenchmen into another Bourbon Street.”
Well, that ship has sailed: Frenchmen has become another Bourbon Street because the emphasis on paying for live music (even tossing a few bucks into a brass band’s tip jar) is almost gone. Only a very few venues on Frenchmen charge a cover, which means that many of the more experienced local bands won’t play there because there’s a poor pay day (tips or a percentage of the bar for bands and musicians; no door cover). Therefore, visitors to Frenchmen no longer have an incentive to pay for music because it’s against the law for a restaurant to charge a cover for entertainment—and most of the operating venues on Frenchmen are not classified as bars/music clubs; they are restaurants. Frenchmen now is less of a true music destination where locals used to hang, and now more of a tourist party street (hey, I’ve seen too many party buses in the past few years, and puzzled tourists with Mardi Gras beads looking for the action on Frenchmen.).
But it is what it is.
There may be simple solution to the brass band problem: block off Frenchmen, leaving Decatur, Chartres and Royal Street open. This way, a brass band can play on the street or in front of commercial establishment away from entrances and not block the street, sidewalks or access.
But, this may also incur the ire of other establishments on Frenchmen who don’t want the high decibel level of the brass band impinging on their entertainment. It could also potentially attract other brass bands, who know there are a ton of people on the street who will tip them. Let’s be real about this: while the brass bands are reinforcing our musical culture, they’re not on Frenchmen Street because it’s a cultural thing; they are there because they make money being on the street, especially at the corner of Chartres and Frenchmen, smack-dab in the center of the Frenchmen Street scene. So the brass bands, are in fact, thinking (as they should) like business people; they want to make a profit.
We have a clash here that has to be resolved; it’s been going on way too long. What both the Frenchmen bricks-and-mortar business and the brass bands have to realize is that they are both essential to what makes Frenchmen Street the place that it is. Both need to come to the realization that they must respect each others’ business models and both sides are going to either have to compromise and work together to improve the Frenchmen ecosystem, or there will be perpetual fights, bad feelings and bad publicity for all.
This is probably going to mean that the city will (as it should) step in and work out a method of making sure that both types of businesses prosper. Unfortunately, that’s going to mean that there will probably have to be restrictions on certain activities, permits, and times and areas where brass bands can play.
This is going to take guts on the city’s part, which frankly has been lacking.
Once the compromise has been struck, the next step is make sure that the rules engendered by the compromise are enforced, which brings us to the police department.
The NOPD did not handle the Monday night fracas well; otherwise a young musician with mental challenges would not have been subdued and arrested (even though the brass band members appear to have been in the wrong. They were asked to relocate, and didn’t). There’s nothing that says that musicians (who are playing music because they are making money) have the right to hurt someone else’s livelihood; this works both ways). I think we might agree that some sensitivity training and knowledge of Frenchmen (and its history) has to be learned and practiced by the police when handling a situation like this.
And there’s also the issue of the Black community’s relationship with the police. Let’s face it: in this community, it’s a rare white person who’s afraid of the police. Not so in the Black community, and rightfully so. There are just too many horror stories out there. So in some respects, this is also somewhat of a racial issue that has to be discussed in public and worked on.
There’s also the possibility of creating another space where brass bands can perform and make some money. In a long-ago blog, I suggested setting up a “Brass Band Alley” in the Flea Market area of the French Market. It’s deserted at night, well-lit, paved and not really near residential or other music venues (with the exception of B.B. Kings, which probably could use the traffic that would come from an “Alley”). This could also create another possible venue that could connect Frenchmen to the brass bands (this was also in an old column of mine). There’s a Jazz Museum now at the Old Mint. How about we get it involved too?
We have to address the issue on Frenchmen of business vs. brass bands. It’s not productive; either side “winning” is a negative for all involved, in one way or another.
What we need is respect, compromise and enforcement. And vision and guts on the part of the city to establish the right changes that are good for everyone in the city.