New Orlean's French Quarter residents try to keep tourist development in community perspective
THE French Quarter, with its narrow streets, lacy iron balconies, and Old World ambiance, epitomizes what's different about this city, which in many ways seems more European than Southern. For generations, the quarter, or Vieux Carr'e, as it's often called locally, has been a vibrant neighborhood -- home to the city's original French settlers, to Spanish colonial rulers, to Creole gentry, and in this century, to artists, writers, and Italian immigrants, among others. Families, a school, grocery stores, and hardware stores have coexisted here with Bourbon Street bars, jazz clubs, and strip-tease joints.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
At present, some 7,000 people live in its tightly packed blocks.
It's this quality of being a variegated, yet functioning neighborhood that's at the heart of a current debate over the future of the French Quarter. The central question, says Ann Masson, a French Quarter resident and an active preservationist, is ``whether the Vieux Carr'e is going to be a neighborhood where people work and live, or a commercial tourist center.''
To her and others wrestling with this question, the issue has relatively little to do with protecting the quarter's unique architectural heritage. That battle has been fought, and largely won, over the years. The Vieux Carr'e Commission (VCC), set up in 1936, keeps a close eye on construction work in the district. Such things as building height (maximum of 50 feet), the use of commercial signs, and even paint color are tightly regulated.
Instead, concern revolves around a collection of things that could fray the quarter's neighborhood fabric -- the spread of T-shirt shops (now restricted by city ordinance) and other cheapening types of retailing, persistent problems of drunkenness and prostitution, and the rather glossy kind of tourist-oriented development going on near the riverfront, to name some.
And there's also the bleak local economic outlook. The city's reliance on tourism has grown, as many of its traditional industries -- notably those connected to its port -- have declined.
Concurrently, real estate values in the quarter have shot up, bringing a rapid turnover in ownership and hastening a trend toward absentee ownership.
``There has been some explosion of prices locally, but it's really hit the French Quarter,'' says Woody Coppel, a realtor and local school-board member. ``Families just can't afford it at all.''
The quarter has seen an exodus of families and of the types of retail establishments that serve families and other permanent residents, says Jerah Johnson, a history professor at the University of New Orleans and member of a citizens' panel that recently put together a report on the future of Vieux Carr'e.
Professor Johnson would like to see the city find ways to keep high rents from forcing out traditional merchants.
A case in point, he says, is the city-owned and newly refurbished French Market, which used to house meat, fish, and vegetable stalls.