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 UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.