I’ve only been to New York City once in my life, on a family vacation when I was in my early teens during the notorious reign of Mayor David Dinkins. We stayed in a hotel on Times Square rising high above the debauchery below.
After we arrived, I ventured off briefly on my own to see a smattering of strip clubs, peep shows, purveyors of adult materials and the like. There was virtually nothing I could legally enter. I finally caught sight of a video arcade, which seemed wholesome enough. It was wallpapered floor to ceiling in pornography.
“Yup,” I mused. “This is the Times Square I’d heard about.”
Since my visit, I understand that Times Square has been changed. As Slate puts it, “[i]n recent decades Times Square has famously turned from a den of sex perversions and pornography into a mecca of family musicals and buying stuff for your kids.”
Put another way, Times Square went all the way from an “R” to a “PG” rating.
There are prudish elements in New Orleans who see Times Square as a model to be emulated. Earlier this month, erstwhile French Quarter Councilwoman Kristin Palmer began circulating an online petition aimed at reducing the number of strip clubs in the city by a whopping 65 percent.
“We believe that the existing number of strip clubs leads to an increase in overall French Quarter crime including violence, prostitution, lewd/improper acts, petty crime and drug dealing – and therefore does not promote the public health, welfare and safety of the City,” Palmer wrote in a Facebook post.
Palmer’s petition was preceded by a number of recent restrictions on strip clubs, ranging from a state law raising the minimum age for exotic dancers to 21, to a one-year moratorium imposed on new strip clubs in New Orleans earlier this year. The regulators seem to be cracking down.
Just this past Thursday, the hammer dropped. The City Planning Commission endorsed Palmer’s position, advocating a reduction in the number of strip clubs in the Quarter from 19 to 14. Rather than amortization, the number would be gradually reduced by attrition, with the city using code enforcement and other measures to force clubs to shut their doors.
The same treatment is intended for the four strip clubs operating outside of the city. Basically, except for one club per block face for seven blocks of Bourbon Street, strip clubs will be verboten in the City of New Orleans.
Predictably, this modern-day Puritanism has draped itself in the mantle of feminism. For her part, Palmer claims that strip clubs promote a “culture of abuse against young women.”
However, some of those same “young women” disagree and find Palmer’s patter to be patronizing. One comment to Palmer’s Facebook post from a self-described adult entertainer argued that “shutting down clubs will push women into the arms of sex trafficking when there’s an over saturation of the market and they have no place to go but to the streets or private parties.”
“We are capable adult women making our own choices, and I am against being treated like a subhuman incapable of making rational informed decisions for myself.”
This makes sense. Working in a regulated, brick-and-mortar establishment is better for the exotic dancers themselves than the unregulated alternatives. Unless Palmer would prefer the vices of an underground economy with a far greater capacity for abusive exploitation, it stands to reason that there are other forces at work here.
Let’s turn back to Times Square. With the closure of adult venues, a major new avenue for adult entertainers has been street performance. Topless woman called “desnudas” paint over their nipples and charge for photos with tourists. Predictably, nudity went out of the defunct strip clubs and into the streets.
This state of affairs was counter to New York’s vision for a family-friendly Times Square. Accordingly, the city passed new rules in April that just went into effect this month, rules that restrict all expressive activity in pedestrian plazas to certain very limited zones. Basically, the First Amendment is dead in Times Square outside of a few tiny spots of 400 square feet a piece. Outside of that, the NYPD will haul your keister to prison for doing or saying the wrong thing.
This is comically unconstitutional, of course, but New York doesn’t care. After all, they’re prudes fighting the scourge of smut. They’re not going to let people’s fundamental rights get in the way of that.
And here we come to the true motivations behind limiting strip clubs in New Orleans, and it isn’t civic-mindedness. It’s not because the city has too many of strip clubs – on a per capita basis, we don’t rank highly. It’s not for the sake of protecting women – forcing adult entertainers to go underground isn’t going to improve their situation.
No, the reason is control. The city wants to segue New Orleans from a freewheeling adult entertainment capital to the newest attraction at Disneyland, abetted in the meantime by a handful of well-established rent-seekers who see personal gain in shutting down their competitors. It’s a Faustian bargain between the repressed and the corrupt, and it’s happened before.
If you want to see the future of the French Quarter, go to Times Square. Just don’t make the mistake of stepping outside of your designated zone.
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.