The New Orleans Police Department quietly altered the French Quarter streetscape last month, stowing away the barricades that ordinarily leave much of Royal Street an open pedestrian mall during the afternoon, thronged by tourists and offering musicians and magic acts.
And with no greater fanfare, police will return Royal to normal on Saturday, putting the barricades back up and again shutting the street to traffic.
Officials say the first move was prompted by the terrorist attacks in Paris last month, combined with special events that might require easier access for first responders.
But it upset many Royal Street entertainers, who found themselves trying to ply their trades in parking spots and gutters as the traffic rolled by for a full three weeks. Some said they got no information or warning from the cops.
“It shows a lack of respect for the street performers, the musicians and buskers out there,” said Ethan Ellestad, of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, an advocacy group. “It shows a lack of respect for their livelihoods.”
Royal, from Bienville Street to Orleans Avenue, is typically closed to vehicles from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends. That changed on Nov. 15, two days after the terror attacks in Paris, when the NOPD started allowing traffic on the roadway.
The terrorist attacks convinced NOPD officials that they needed to open the street to provide emergency vehicles better access to Bourbon Street and the rest of the Quarter, NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said Friday.
“The plan was always temporary and made out of an abundance of caution following the terrorist attacks in Paris and in preparation of upcoming special events in the city,” Gamble said, noting that the NOPD makes similar changes during Mardi Gras. When the street was opened in November, there was no specific timeline for reinstating the pedestrian mall, he said.
The main special event while the street was kept open was the Bayou Classic.
The pedestrian mall on Royal Street dates back to 1971, when the City Council approved a measure that closed the street to traffic for part of the day. The same ordinance also established the nighttime pedestrian mall on Bourbon Street.
Only the council can change that ordinance, but another part of the city code allows the police superintendent to make “temporary or experimental regulations to cover emergencies or special conditions” without council approval. Those regulations can remain in place for up to 190 days.
While Gamble said the NOPD spoke with some business owners prior to changing the policy, Ellestad said it caught street performers by surprise. It also took several days for the coalition and reporters trying to get information about the change to get information about the new policy from the NOPD.
Ellestad said the lack of communication was a snub to the performers who help bolster tourism in the Quarter — and are even touted by the city in advertisements.
“I don’t know how this happened, but it certainly seemed like a move to circumvent the public process,” he said.
Gamble said the department would do better about communicating changes in the future.
Street performers and the established businesses and residents on the street have not always seen eye to eye.
Bob Simms, who heads the French Quarter Management District’s Security Taskforce, said several businesses have complained that aggressive buskers have blocked sidewalks.
Alex Fein, who owns the Court of the Two Sisters restaurant on Royal, said he hadn’t initially realized vehicles were being allowed on the road but added that he does appreciate the performers who typically make up the scene outside.
“I think it’s definitely good for the vibe of the city, the guys out here with their bands,” Fein said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.