I have this memory from my childhood. I was about 9 or 10 and sitting on the stoop of our house on St. Ann Street near North Broad when a group of three or four men came up the street.
One was carrying a tambourine, and they all were singing. They weren’t costumed, though one had a handkerchief on his head with all four corners tied in knots so it would fit snugly, a neat trick that I probably tried to replicate later. It wasn’t Mardi Gras or any other special day. They were singing simply for the pure joy of doing so.
Though I would not have been using words like this at that age, I think my mental response was something along the lines of, “What a strange and wondrous place this is!”
Music is in this city’s blood and can spring up spontaneously from just about anywhere. In the last several years, however, fights have erupted over live music at local bars and restaurants. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration cracked down on establishments that don’t have permits for live entertainment or have let their permits lapse.
The crackdown was not well-received among the city’s club owners and musicians, most notably, Kermit Ruffins, who has been holding meetings of people who want to fight back. Ruffins got caught in a bind himself after leasing Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge and finding out the live-music permit for the club had lapsed. But the City Council remedied that by rezoning the club’s lot, making the music legal again.
There have been other attempts at reaching a middle ground on the issue. Clubs that had been out of compliance are trying to get back on the right side of the law. The city, meanwhile, is trying to come up with a streamlined process to make it easier for businesses to know what they need and how to get it quickly.
In the wake of all that, however, another controversy arose when the council approved a $25 permit for vendors selling refreshments at second-line parades. These vendors are individuals who sell soft drinks and snacks, and even beer and barbecue, along the parade routes. They laid claim to the mantle of city tradition and said that, as such, they should not be meddled with.
The city’s ancient ways have always been at odds with modernity. Few who were here in the 1960s will forget the major controversy over the Robert Moses-inspired plan to have an elevated expressway run along the Mississippi River in the French Quarter. And then there was the ill-fated idea to mount a “sound and light show” that would splash colored lights on the side of St. Louis Cathedral.
Now there’s a new front in this continuing skirmish, a proposal to shut down the streets on three sides of Jackson Square from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. The city wants to prevent people from lingering there, including fortune tellers who bring tables to work from, so the area can be thoroughly cleaned.
As might have been expected, the proposal has triggered vocal opposition.
There’s a lot to be said for the city’s old ways, but there’s a lot to be said for modern sanitation practices, too. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, by the way. The trick in this and similar battles will be to find a way to preserve the city’s strange and wondrous character while sneaking in a few contemporary efficiencies as well.
Dennis Persica is a New Orleans journalist. In his weekly column, he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.