A Jan. 31 press conference about the Bourbon Street infrastructure redevelopment turned cacophonous when a group of gentlemen's club workers and their allies staged a demonstration, drowning out city and tourism officials.
Holding signs that said "Why the celebration?? Strippers are out of work," "We are workers, not political pawns" and simply "Can you not?", a group of at least 70 workers gathered behind officials on the 300 block of Bourbon Street, blocked by a few scattered New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers. As the conference began (and cameras rolled), workers began to chant, rendering officials' statements almost inaudible.
The conference, which was announced late Jan. 30, was called to celebrate progress on the ongoing construction on Bourbon Street and to "remind residents and visitors that [Bourbon Street] is open for business," according to a city press release. But as Department of Public Works director Dani Galloway cited project developments, including completion of major construction on the 100-800 blocks of Bourbon, enhanced water pressure in fire hydrants and other developments meant to improve public safety on the street, workers broke in with chants of "Worker's rights are women's rights," "Their body, their choice" and "Sex work is real work."
[jump] Tourism officials, including New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation president Mark Romig and Kristian Sonnier of the New Orleans Convention & Visitor's Bureau, also gave remarks, which were difficult to capture against the rowdy auditory backdrop.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu was scheduled to attend the event, according to the event announcement, but did not appear to be in attendance. An emailed inquiry about his whereabouts was not returned by press time.
Workers have organized a series of demonstrations following ATC and NOPD investigations that culminated in raids of eight clubs earlier this month. Following the raids, clubs' liquor licenses were suspended, leaving workers uncertain of when they would be able to return to their jobs. At a press conference Jan. 29, ATC Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard said there is a possibility of some clubs' licenses being permanently revoked.
Sable Mongold, an entertainer and representative of Bourbon Street worker advocacy group Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers (BARE) who attended today's demonstration, said club closures create an environment of scarcity for dancers. With each club closure, there are fewer venues available in which dancers can seek employment. Meanwhile, the women can lose as much as $700-$1,000 a night as they compete for an increasingly limited number of jobs.
"Every time a club closes, dancers get displaced," she said. "It makes less money to go around ... and hurts the most economically vulnerable of entertainers."
She also said the raids have had a negative impact on tourism in the city, in which tourists may shy away from the atmosphere of controversy currently surrounding the clubs.
"Overall our business is entertainment and hospitality. We want to make sure we take care of people appropriately," she said.
After the conference petered out, dancers and their supporters gathered around a microphone in front of Cafe Beignet to give testimonials about the way dancing has economically empowered them and provided some with a sense of community - and how the abrupt loss of their jobs has put them at risk.
Several workers spoke out against the perceived "Disneyfication" of Bourbon Street, saying gentlemen's clubs are part of what make the area special. "The makeover missed a couple of key components of what makes Bourbon Street excellent," Lyn Archer, development director for BARE, said.
Others said they have enjoyed a safe, lucrative environment in New Orleans gentlemen's clubs, and vowed to keep making noise in an effort to preserve the workplaces they know well. A follow-up demonstration is scheduled on Bourbon Street at 9 p.m. Feb. 1.
"If the New New Orleans looks like unemployed strippers, I don't want to be a part of it," Alison, another dancer, said.