May 192014

Owen Courreges

The City of New Orleans has targeted a nefarious, rogue activity that has been transpiring beneath our very noses down in the French Quarter.  These fiends brazenly peddle their poisonous wares out in the open, boldly daring the authorities to stop them.  Their actions infest our streets, fly in the face of common decency, and corrupt our youth.

Drug dealers?  Pimps?

Worse.  I’m talking about T-shirt shops.

Last fall, in response to complaints made by the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents, and Associates (VCPORA), city zoning inspectors swept across the Quarter and cited a total of seventeen small retailers for illegally selling t-shirts and souvenirs.  Many of these shops are still wrangling with the city.

The city’s regulations of t-shirt shops have gotten increasingly complex over the years.  The municipal code regulates the placement of t-shirts as a misdemeanor crime, while the zoning code effectively prohibits new stores from using more than 35% of their showroom space for t-shirts.  VCPORA’s clout is readily evident.

For those whose sarcasm detectors are on the fritz, I’m not in favor of this crackdown or these restrictive laws.  It’s yet another effort masterminded by a monied elite in the Quarter who don’t like poor people and the cheap souvenirs that those “low-class” types buy.

The trope goes that while a Royal Street antique store selling gilt Victorian mirrors for several grand suits the French Quarter, a small shop selling t-shirts and miniature statues of St. Louis Cathedral is an unsightly abomination that must be stopped.  Merchandise that only rich people can afford is thus “genuine,” while stuff that’s cheap constitutes a cultural cancer.

In truth, these souvenir shops are no more or less authentic than any other business in the Quarter that attempts to serve a market fueled by tourism.  The only difference, I suppose, is that the well-to-do residents of the Quarter don’t like stepping out of their million dollar condo to see a t-shirt in the window across the street emblazoned with the message: “I GOT BOURBON-FACED ON SHIT STREET.”

So let’s call this what it really is – an effort by Quarter residents to get rid of something they consider gauche.  There’s been no equivalent backlash here in Uptown by the recent proliferation of t-shirt shops, but that’s largely because the t-shirt shops that have opened in Uptown tend to be more upscale and cater to residents as much as tourists.

Thus, VCPORA’s concern doesn’t encompass higher-end t-shirt purveyors like Fluerty Girl, Storyville, or Dirty Coast.  It isn’t about t-shirt and souvenir shops per-se; rather, it’s about cheap t-shirt shops that do a volume business off the mass of tourists that come through New Orleans.

Irrespectively, the law applies to everyone.  Fleurty Girl opened a location in the Quarter after new t-shirt shops were banned from the Quarter in 2011, yet it was not among the seventeen shops cited in the City’s sweep.  This was ostensibly because Lauren Thom, the owner of Fleurty girl, diversified her inventory enough to keep on the right side of the law, according to the Times-Picayune.

Conversely, other store owners maintain that that they likewise kept a sufficiently diverse inventory but were nonetheless cited.  And to make matters worse, bigger fish didn’t receive the same treatment.

“Jax Brewery has a whole second floor full of T-shirts,” boutique owner Ed Azemas told the Times-Picayune. “Walgreen’s has a pharmacy license and they’re allowed to sell a whole row of New Orleans stuff. H&M sells T-shirts. The city isn’t pursuing the big guys, just the little guys like us.”

Mr. Azemas is correct, and it’s no accident.  It’s part of a concerted effort by the City to preserve a romanticized vision of the French Quarter that never existed in reality.  The cold truth is that the low-end T-shirt shops are actually more authentic than anything that would replace them because they reflect the actual reality of the Quarter, not a deluded fantasy.

Moreover, the City has more pressing concerns than VCPORA’s latest outrage-of-the-week.  Property taxes are poised to skyrocket, the murder rate is still excessively high, and much of our infrastructure is still crumbling.  Why, with all these problems, is the City choosing to waste resources fighting purveyors of T-shirts?

The answer is VCPORA, and the City’s legendary inability to say “no” to that petulant, spoiled brat.  Accordingly, I have little doubt that many of these t-shirt shops will be shuttered, even though it is blindingly obvious that they should simply be left alone.

The cultural inquisition is now the norm of New Orleans politics, the grand, unassailable means for cherry-picking winners and losers.  The best anybody can hope for is not to become a target, because once you’re “inauthentic,” you’re gone.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  22 Responses to “Owen Courreges: I got Bourbon-faced on T-shirt Street”

  1. Yes!

  2. Agree 100%. And honestly, what are these businesses doing to encourage what they believe are higher quality retailers to open up shop and displace these “low class” T shirt shops? LIkely nothing, because they wouldn’t want that competition either.

  3. “So let’s call this what it really is – an effort by Quarter residents to get rid of something they consider gauche.”

    I do not care for the VCPORA in the least, especially in regards to the noise ordinance. However, I disagree that this is somehow a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise “poor” tourists. Personally, I support some regulation of the t-shirts. Maybe that flies in the face of unrestricted capitalism and maybe people do have a constitutional right to proclaim their relative intelligence by wearing “Idiot 1” and “Idiot 2” shirts. But I’m not even a FQ resident and I wouldn’t mind seeing less of the obnoxious t-shirts. Perhaps the city should consider a requirement that t-shirts be printed here rather than overseas. Instead of t-shirts costing $5, maybe they cost $15. “Poor” people who are dropping nine bucks on a Hurricane or Hand Grenade aren’t going to have to choose between getting a second mortgage on their trailer or purchasing a t-shirt.

    City Council did a similar thing with the requirement of artists in Jackson Square to sell original artwork, not prints. I realize that isn’t comparing apple to apples but do you have heartburn with that too?

    • Craig,

      >>Perhaps the city should consider a requirement that t-shirts be printed here rather than overseas. Instead of t-shirts costing $5, maybe they cost $15.<>City Council did a similar thing with the requirement of artists in Jackson Square to sell original artwork, not prints.<<

      That's different from discriminating based on content or place of manufacture. The supposed goal behind banning prints on Jackson Square is that the city wants to foster an "artist's colony" for cultural-whoseyouknowhatsit. I don't see how you argue cultural preservation with t-shirt dealers.

      Part of living in a free society is tolerating expressions that you find obnoxious.

      • I’m sorry but calling me elitist doesn’t sound very tolerant.

        There’s nothing elitist about encouraging local commerce. On the other hand, making some kind of silly populist case for the right to buy underpriced shirts made by Chinese slaves sounds pretty materialistic to me.

        • Craig,

          “Encouraging” local commerce by restricting non-local commerce is protectionist and therefore illegal. The basis of the law has to be something other than protectionism.

    • Craig –

      Are you quoting from Meg Lousteau’s Mystical Manifesto of Manners and Morals? The real rules?

      NOLA Council has a talent for turning law into a dog’s dinner. Are you comfortable with putting people out of business or into unemployment based on “law” that says a. No T-shirt shops; b. They must be 600 ft. apart; c. They may not sell Saints shirts, but Falcons or Texans shirts are okay; d. private souvenir shops are banned; Walgreens however may happily sell T-shirts all day and night.

      There may be a case for limiting or controlling sales of perfectly legal merchandise, but current law has not made it. There should be a difference between legislation, enforcement and the VCPORA hunting pack chasing intruders from its retirement home. Don’t even accidentally enable the classist misery. Encourage good law, not selective enforcement of junk.

    • Sorry for splitting. I think Disqus doesn’t like my OS.

      Another link:

      Safety and Permits should be the official charger in the T-shirt persecutions. However, Jared Munster, Director, has gone underground, will not respond to questions. Maybe he is scared of VCPORA, especially Meg and her boss. They write the briefs against the shop owners. Michael Martin on behalf of VCPORA/FQC, not the city, runs the prosecution. What is that about? A crypto-government imposing the taste standards of one little clique, class or caste. A couple of hundred people belong to the club, but even they do not get to vote. Over nine million visitors last year, city population pushing back toward 400,000, and a grouchy kaffeeklatch not even directly encroached upon by these shops gets to dictate all the terms. Argghhh. Come on, New Orleans – take your city back.

  4. There is a HUGE difference between T-Shirts sold at shops like Fleurty Girl and Walgreens.

    The T-Shirts sold at Fleurty Girl are actually WORN in public AND private retail places.

    The T-Shirts sold at these low-end shops in the French Quarter are given as “Gag Me with Spoon” Gifts for like bachelor and bachelorette parties and then quickly stored in the closet or lost (i.e. thrown away secretly out of politeness). Part of the closet industry of New Orleans like beads and throws from parades.

    It is extremely rare for people to see someone wearing these Gag Me with a Spoon” T-Shirts, even on Bourbon St or even during “anything goes” Mardi Gras. And I have NEVER seen personally, anyone wearing those shirts in other cities like New York, LA, Atlanta, San Francisco, Dallas, Miami, or even international cities.

    Perhaps some law could be voted on where it is based upon the aforementioned “actually worn in public and private places like retail, educational and religious institutions”. Perhaps, a percentage of area shopping malls and other retail establishments could be used as a yardstick for establishing a local ordinance as the LAWYERS will point out GRAY AREAS and the First Amendment.

    Then again, maybe Nola has to learn the hard way and go bankrupt as those t-shirt shops, anything goes noise ordinance, street performers and Jackson Square artists and palm readers, and bars have little to show for how they benefited Nola except to be a part of the 170 years of city rank decline of New Orleans since the 1830’s and 50 years of population decline.

    Ever wonder why all the buildings in and around the centerpiece of New Orleans are vacant, run down and are valued so low? That is, Jax Brewery, the Mill House, Saenger, Joy, French Trinket aka French Market, Municipal Auditorium and WTC are totally run down without private “donations” or public funds. Just look at the WTC with a huge 100 million valuation difference between the developers and the city.

    The CITY thinks the noise ordinance, street performers, Jackson Square artists and palm readers are OK and are colorful and give “life” to the city, including the poor, while ignoring the fact that the City has been in total decline for over 50 years and the POOR get even POORER.

    Can the City have it both ways? Locate a French GUTTER next to the World Trade Center?

    Isn’t there supposed to be zoning restrictions on locating a massive FRENCH GUTTER next to businesses and residents?

  5. I don’t see this as an elitist, upperclass, vs the “gasp!” common folk. Granted, there are some who think vulgarity is cool, but I am not one of them even when I defend the right of anyone to be vulgar.
    In my glory days of the 60s in New Orleans, there were no tee-shirt shops anywhere, at least not in such shocking profusion as now. Returning back to my beloved New Orleans in 1994 I was taken aback by the dozens of tee-shirt boutiques in the Quarter, alone. I decided to photograph all of them as a mini-documentary about the changes in the French Quarter. I ran out of film. Where there had been art galleries, clothing shops, various ethnic restaurants, printers, small coffee shops selling real coffee, there were these tee-shirt places all selling exactly the same stuff, mostly side by side on the same side of the street. A question began to form in my little brain: how do these stores make any money if they ALL sell the SAME thing? I was warned to mind my own business, that there were forces at work I did not want to investigate.
    Let’s be clear: I did not object to tee-shirt shops, just the amazing number of them in a concentrated area, occupying valuable real-estate space. Is this really what tourists come to New Orleans for?

    • best_in_show,

      T-shirts with slogans have become increasingly popular over the years, especially in New Orleans. They’ve also become a popular souvenir. As your own anecdote notes, it’s been this way for at least 20 years.

      While there are a lot of t-shirt shops around, I hardly see them taking over the whole Quarter. There are still plenty of restaurants, boutiques, galleries, coffee shops, etc. — perhaps as many as ever. However, it’s a major tourist zone and t-shirt/souvenir shops are going to be pretty common as well.

      Where I see the issue as being an “elitist” one is the tendency to focus on the small, volume t-shirt retailers (some of whom sell shirts with some crass slogans) when I don’t believe for a moment that they’d be up in arms over some of the higher-end dealers that have sprouted up in past years (Fleurty Girl is a prime example).

  6. Great article but please remember that most of the French Quarter residents don’t agree with most things that VCPORA does.
    By all means say “VCPORA” but don’t mix “french quarter residents” in the same breath. Interestingly, the Mr Azemas quoted in the article, runs a women’s clothing store on Decatur and doesn’t sell T-shirts yet somehow he was cited. Neither Safety and Permits nor VCPORA will admit they made a mistake so he’s forced to spend money on legal fees to defend himself. That’s just not right. Many of the other T-shirt shops are well run and comply with the rules. T-shirt and souvenir shops are a prime element of any tourist destination – Disneyworld is a great example – people want to take home a t-shirt or souvenir and enlightened cities and major tourist attractions know that and cater to that demand…………and make money for the city. As you stated we need to focus our energy on the bigger issues facing us.

    • FQ Resident,

      Fair enough. I do understand that VCPORA doesn’t represent all Quarter residents, and perhaps not even the majority.

      • Owen, VCPORAs membership numbers are a secret but its probably less than 400 residents. The Quarter has almost 4000 residents so at best they represent 10%

  7. O.K.,Owen, let’s get down to the reality: It is a money-laundering operation from the git-go. NO one can make money selling the SAME things right next door to other shops selling the stuff YOU are selling. Where is the honest “competition”? No restaurant wants to open NEXT DOOR TO THE SAME RESTAURANT serving the SAME food! So, the fact is, there IS no competition. No need for any. Money is funneled into the shops and hidden as “profits”.
    You have to sell HUNDREDS of tee-shirts every hour to pay the RENT!

    • On Bourbon Street, you have bars, strip clubs, daiquiri shops, beer outlets, and restaurants next to each other; often you have bars next to a daiquiri outlet or adjacent to another bar/liquor shop. On the 300 block of Bourbon, you have three strip clubs right next to each other across from the Royal Sonesta.

      T-shirt shops are not the most numerous type of business in the French Quarter. I also find it hard to believe how t-shirt shops can impinge directly on a resident’s quality of life.

      I am not surprised that there are so many t-shirt shops in the French Quarter. T-shirt and souvenir stores carry what ordinary people & families demand and can afford; they are rooted in free enterprise. We have carried items like Saints merchandise, affordable t-shirts, and memorable gifts for three decades because they promote the city and help visitors enjoy their experience more. Similarly, many high-end retail art galleries and antique shops on Royal Street cater to wealthy tourists. The Quarter’s allure is based on a mix of affordable retail options and upscale boutiques; its energy comes from an environment that is diverse and expressive–not authoritarian and joyless.

    • It may be too late to get a reply, but if you see this, can you clarify the mechanism? What money is being laundered? How do they do it? Where is it going? Why do they choose the format of T-shirt shops rather than jewelers or antiques, or bars or casinos? Can you explain how a retailer with average spends of perhaps $20 or $30 is efficient enough at money laundering to be a better option than $20,000 chandeliers?

  8. The only difference you’re citing is content, which the state cannot legally regulate.

    • Well, I just wanted to mention that not only is it content, but also that people, customers, actually wear the shirts from like Fleurty Girl as many in the public arena said t-shirt shops like Fleurty Girl were the same as those in the French Quarter.

      Hence, it’s not just content, but the future action of the merchandise, e.g. actually wearing the t-shirt, that is also the difference.

      • AhContraire,

        That’s making assumptions about future use of the product based on its content, and thus still comes down to content.

        • Assumption, yes. But the “general” future use can be factually proven.

          Content for now, yes.

          But can there be public discussion on a NEW ordinance that takes into account “factually proven” uses?

        • Aren’t Movies, CD’s, and now, Video Games RATED for content by the MPAA?

          Why not have these T-Shirt Shops “Content” also rated so the public, parents and TOURISTS can know what’s really on Bourbon St and in those T-Shirt Shops?

          Some of the these Tourism Guides can say, “95% of the t-shirts sold at his certain shop are rated NC-17 for sexual material, etc.”

          And then for some t-shirt shops it could say 100% of the products sold at this store are rated G for this T-shirt shop.

          And then these national and International Tourism Guides can write a summary that says 98% of the T-Shirt Shops in the French Quarter sell t-shirts where the vast majority of products sold are rated NC-17, sexual material, etc.

          And then how about Jackson Square? Couldn’t the live performance also be rated? Like the card and palm readers should be rated R or higher since the “predictions” are kinda of seedy and very “adult” in nature?

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