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.
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.
``You can't get fishmongers in there, or green grocers,'' just ``paper and candle shops,'' Professor Johnson laments. In fact, the French Market also houses specialty food shops, restaurants, and crafts stores. But the kinds of merchandise, and the upscale-tourist atmosphere, will be familiar to anyone who has been to Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace or San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square.
The same is true of the Jackson Brewery development, a short way upriver. Outside, it's an impressive piece of renovation; inside, it's a splash of glass- and chrome-encased retailing. And if the mass of humanity present on one recent weekend was any indication, it's well on its way toward being a commercial success.
It has also ``been a very successful development from the point of view of the community,'' says Linda Friedman, project director for the Jackson Brewery Development Corporation. ``Certainly we, as a neighborhood, are happy to have that development instead of the abandoned building there before,'' confirms Mrs. Masson.
Ms. Friedman, herself a former VCC director, says her firm was fully aware that, ``if you go for too much, you could end up with nothing.'' There was a clear understanding of, and respect for, the commission's regulatory role, she says.
But this state of relative harmony between developer and community could be strained in the near future as the brewery project moves into its next stage. Immediately at issue is the company's request to the VCC for a waiver of the height restriction on some of its planned structures -- a dangerous precedent, according to preservationists.
With the local economy drooping, civic leaders and businessmen are sharply aware of playing New Orleans's strong suit -- its attractiveness as a tourist destination. Which means they're equally intent on nurturing whatever it is that draws visitors to the French Quarter. The point of contention, perhaps, is just what that magnetic something is.
Is it the quarter's entertainment appeal -- everything from sightseeing in a horse-drawn carriage to some of Bourbon Street's not-so-innocent ``come-ons''? The lure of shops offering goods that range from huge ``mufuletto'' sandwiches to high-priced antiques? Or is it the feeling of stepping into what Professor Johnson calls a vibrant ``mini-metropolis,'' divorced somehow from the harried modern world surrounding it?
As the city strives to answer these questions, various warnings are being sounded. ``The city should never forget that tourism can kill tourism,'' says Patricia Gay of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans.
One thing is sure: The French Quarter, like any neighborhood, will continue to evolve.
``This is private property -- it's not Colonial Williamsburg,'' notes current VCC director Stephen Hand, indicating that change cannot be stopped by fiat. All his commission can do, he explains, is stop things that are clearly ``inappropriate.''
But whether the task is protecting the quarter's picturesque environs, or simply living in them, he says, its essence is the same: carefully and tolerantly balancing the interests of 7,000 people whose tastes may differ, but who have one thing in common -- they all love the French Quarter, ``fiercely.''