The Big Easy's big face-lift

Tarnished image forces New Orleans to go from city of vice to city of virtue.

It's a slow day in the fortune-telling business, but John Morgan is planted at his post in Jackson Square. His small folding table is draped with a scarf, and crystals are placed at each corner; a stack of worn tarot cards sits neatly in the center.

Mr. Morgan prides himself on foresight, but he never saw this coming. He's one of dozens of psychics trying to predict their futures - and survive - as New Orleans cleans up its image.

Under a new city ordinance, tarot-card readers, palmists, and magicians have been moved to less-visible spots in back of the square, leaving their old shady corridors for artists with permits. It's part of a new campaign to transform the Big Sleazy into the Nice and Easy.

But as a capital of vice weighs tourists, tarot cards, and tolerance, it's also gauging the cost of transforming itself into a metropolis of virtue.

City leaders say the change is imperative. New Orleans consistently tops rankings of corrupt and crime-beleaguered cities, and lags behind in education spending and employment. Its politicians wind up in prison with surprising regularity, and CEOs rarely launch new businesses here. It's one of the few US cities actually losing population. If New Orleans is to prosper, leaders say, it needs an overhaul - not just in decades-old practices, but in its reputation, too.

Enter the city's new mayor, Ray Nagin.

He was elected last year on a platform to shake up the city by attacking public corruption and improving the quality of life. And he's getting broad support from the city council - especially Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, who's leading a campaign to clean up the French Quarter.

To that end, authorities have begun enforcing long-ignored ordinances on unlicensed businesses, filling in tens of thousands of potholes, and deterring homeless people from sleeping in Jackson Square by adding iron rails to the middle of park benches. Mayor Nagin even changed the Mardi Gras tradition of measuring crowds by the trash they leave behind: He thought it encouraged littering.

"As a result, the world is seeing us with different eyes these days," he said at his state of the city address in July. "We are no longer considered just a great place to party. People are starting to realize New Orleans is a great place to do business."

Ultimately, that's what this face-lift is all about: attracting businesses to diversify the economy. Up the Mississippi River in Minneapolis/St. Paul, for instance, there are 20 Fortune 500 companies. New Orleans has one.

But some critics worry that the city's recently adopted mantra, "A new day, a new way," means losing old charms.

"This administration is trying to whitewash New Orleans by weeding out the funkiness and bringing in the franchises," says Douglas Brinkley, a historian at the University of New Orleans. "Everybody agrees the city is in need of help, but the question is how to provide it while preserving the unique character of New Orleans."

Some preservationists are concerned about the new trend toward mega-hotels, casinos, and franchise restaurants. They worry it contributes to a loss of architectural charm and authenticity in the French Quarter, the only intact French Colonial and Spanish settlement left in the United States. The Quarter was begun in 1718 and today is home to about 4,000 residents.

After petrochemicals, tourism is New Orleans's largest industry, with 8 million visitors a year. Most of them head to the Quarter.

But what used to be a quaint, civil neighborhood has devolved into a raunchy playground, says Councilwoman Clarkson, whose district includes the Quarter. She wants it to once again be the safe. fun family environment she remembers from childhood.

Critics like Morgan, the psychic, say it's too late. "This area is downright sleazy, but that's how the city promoted it back in the '90s. And now they are trying to backpedal and make it into some family destination? They've already laid down the wrong groundwork for that," he says, shifting in the hot afternoon sun.

Across Canal Street at Café Du Monde, a group of friends in their 20s are rallying after a late night. They've come from all over the US to meet for a few riotous days in New Orleans. Asked what draws them to the city, they blurt out: "Party."

Licking his powdered-sugar fingers after a greasy beignet, Matt Larson, from Minneapolis, adds that he thinks the city needs some serious cleaning up. "But the good parts [of the city] are so good, you overlook the rest."

With attitudes like this, the city has its work cut out for it. Changing its allure may take more than municipal improvements.

"Trying to change the image of New Orleans is like trying to change the cities of Sodom and Gomorra to Topeka," says Dr. Brinkley. "This is not a family destination. The entire point of the place is adult tourism. People come here to indulge in the decadent lifestyle not found in Ohio or Oregon - to eat fattening foods, partake of the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week mayhem on Bourbon Street, the drive-in daiquiri shops, the strip clubs."

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