Dianne Honoré has been a French Quarter tour guide off and on for more than 20 years; and this, she said, is the worst it’s ever been.
“My heart breaks when I walk through the French Quarter sometimes,” Honoré said sipping a coffee in Treme Café on St. Philip Street. “It disgusts me the lack of protection, the level of filth.”
Honoré is talking about the all-time high population of “gutter punks” that blanket the French Quarter. The gutter punk colonies run along the river, along Decatur Street. The 500 block of Bourbon Street is a gutter-punk haven; basically all over the French Quarter is, she said.
“You have to walk over them and their dogs. They carpet the streets,” Honoré said. “There are some streets tour guides avoid altogether. The Faubourgs are overrun with them too.”
Last week, while leading a tour of about 20 visitors from Canada, three gutter punks attacked Honoré’s group in Jackson Square. They forced themselves on several of the young students and grabbed them as they tried to escape. They badgered them for PCP and crack. When an adult, an off duty police officer, stepped in to stop the assault, he got into a fight with one of them.
Honoré used her cell phone to call 9-1-1 where she spent a minute or two going back and forth with the operator as to whether she was sure it was really a white male in his 20s with dreadlocks or a young black male in his 20s with dreadlocks who attacked the group.
She tracked down a police officer on horseback shortly after. The attacker was briefly stopped by the cops, but not arrested.
“He just stood there where he attacked us and was laughing,” Honoré said. “How bold is that? Their level of aggression is going up. Maybe it’s because they feel comfortable because of their numbers.”
Also called “crusties” and “oogles,” I remember the gutter punks from my teenage years in ‘90s. Their culture is wholly different from that of the old-fashioned beggar or street conman or the drunk bumming change to score booze.
They had matted hair and were coated in muck. You didn’t make eye contact with them. They were confrontational. You crossed the street if you saw a posse of them. You held your breath when you walked by a gang of them.
What made them so revolting was that they seemed to want to live this way. I recently heard the word “trustafarian” thrown around; trust fund babies looking for a thrill while we are forced to endure them.
It is estimated that there are 2,419 homeless people in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, based on figures from a 2013 Unity study that looked at the number of people homeless on a given night. Most of these people have hit hard times and are on the streets for any number of reasons – unemployment, lack of affordable housing, lack of mental services.
Many people can’t afford to leave the streets, but we’re not talking about that, though it’s hard to tell the difference just from looking. We’re talking about the privilege of a subgroup of mainly young white folks making a conscientious choice to live to rebuke mainstream society.
Honoré shared her concerns in a letter sent to Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the entire New Orleans City Council the day after the April 2 incident. A week later, she has yet to hear back from any of the elected officials.
I can’t help but wonder that if they looked different, if these were packs of young people of color sleeping in front of businesses, assaulting tourists, roaming around with packs of dogs, oftentimes off leashes, how would this situation be dealt with?
“It’s appalling. You walk down the street and every single musician is either a gutter punk or someone with some sort of homemade banjo or something,” Honoré said. “This is not New Orleans. This is not the history people have come to see.”
Honoré knows the history of this city. Her family ran Hank’s, a Creole eatery, a block away from John McDonogh 35 High School, for 50 years. She grew up in the Treme, however her family left the area when the tree-lined boulevard in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city was replaced with the Claiborne Overpass.
A nurse by profession, Honoré is most comfortable wrapping her soft curly brown hair in a tignon, putting on a simple white blouse and flowing skirt looking the part of a free woman of color in antebellum New Orleans to talk New Orleans.
“Tourism is our No. 1 industry, but how can they allow the French Quarter to look like this? They are worrying about the noise ordinance, but what about the sights and smells? Honoré said. “It’s scary and I’m supposed to want to go out and promote the city, yet I can’t walk down the street without being intimidated by gutter punks.”
jewel bush, a New Orleans native, is a writer whose work has appeared in The (Houma) Courier, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, and El Tiempo, a bilingual Spanish newspaper. In 2010, she founded MelaNated Writers Collective, a multi-genre group for writers of color in New Orleans dedicated to cultivating the literary, artistic and professional growth of emerging writers. Her three favorite books are Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.