How the City’s previous bad policy decisions increase inequity and restrict cultural practice

Last October in this column, we wrote about how an arts and culture overlay district on Freret Street that prioritized alcohol sales over actual arts and culture hastened both the gentrification of the area and, ironically, the demise of most of the street’s viable visual and performing arts spaces. This month, we have two more examples showcasing how bad policy decisions can entrench and expand existing inequities and inhibit cultural activity. An arts and culture overlay is once again the culprit in one of the two; but in the other, instead of cocktails, we are going to have to talk about hot dogs. Lucky Dogs, to be exact.

In February, you might have seen reporting about an existing City ordinance that creates a street food monopoly for Lucky Dogs in the French Quarter. It’s true: In late 1971, Councilman Joseph DiRosa spearheaded an ordinance that barred all street vending except by hot tamale and hot dog push carts—ostensibly to protect the historic character of the French Quarter by preventing “real estate hustlers and religious solicitors” (as described in a 1972 Times-Picayune article) from selling on the streets of the Vieux Carré. The law went into effect on January 1, 1972 and immediately put beloved Jackson Square ice cream vendor Oscar Lee Roberts out of business. Roberts ultimately sued and the lawsuit, combined with bad press, led to the City Council revising the ordinance. On April 13, 1972, the City Council passed a revised version of the ordinance that prohibited street vending in the French Quarter except for those who had continuously operated “for eight or more years prior to January 1, 1972.” That language remains in the City Code today and continues to effectively allow only two vendors—Oscar Roberts and Lucky Dogs. After the passage of the revised ordinance, another vendor, Nancy Dukes—who was still ineligible for a permit under the revisions—sued the city in a case that went to the Supreme Court in 1975. She lost. Eventually, Roberts stopped selling ice cream, and Lucky Dogs has remained the sole legal street food vendor ever since.

What’s the impact of this French Quarter food permit monopoly? First, like much of the tourism industry, it is extractive. Lucky Dogs is currently owned by three members of the Talbot family, all of whom are white and live in Jefferson Parish (one, Kirk Talbot, is a Republican State senator). Ordinances such as this further perpetuate and expand inequity in the tourism economy. While there are certainly other street food vendors in and surrounding the Quarter, they are operating without a permit and, besides working for the Talbots as a Lucky Dogs vendor, have no way to get one. In fact, independent food vendors in the French Quarter—who are often native Black New Orleanians—are not just shut out of one of the most lucrative, tourist-heavy areas of the city, they are criminalized, since violating the 1972 ordinance is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail. Want to set up a food cart on the streets of the French Quarter? Here are your options: You can either sell hot dogs for three well-connected white folks who live in Jefferson Parish, or do it on your own and risk a fine or going to jail.

A mile or so away, an ordinance crafted 32 years later—and revised 11 years after that—has been creating a different problem. In 2004, the City of New Orleans created its first Arts and Culture Overlay on Frenchmen Street in order to “sustain and promote new arts and cultural opportunities that are compatible with the character of the surrounding neighborhood.” It opened up opportunities for live music on several blocks, but included some ill-advised restrictions, including limiting the number of musicians that could perform in restaurants and restricting theaters to “theatrical productions” (though what a theatrical production actually is remains undefined).

In 2015, the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance was revised. This original Arts and Culture Overlay was reworked into the AC-1 Arts and Culture Overlay, expanded to include parts of Broad Street (and the block of Columbus Street between Broad and Dorgenois) and St. Bernard Avenue, and many of the restrictions were changed or removed. In the updated ordinance, “theaters” were redefined as “Live Performance Venues,” which in virtually all of the city are allowed to host almost all types of live entertainment—except in the “AC-1 Arts and Culture Overlay,” where they are only allowed to host plays and musicals. That’s right: In this instance the Arts and Culture Overlay actually prohibits most types of live performance in “Live Performance Venues.” The irony might be funny if the results weren’t so frustrating.

Fast forward to 2023 and the André Cailloux Center for Performing Arts and Cultural Justice has opened at the converted St. Rose de Lima Church, which fronts both Bayou Road and the one block of Columbus Street included in the AC-1 Arts and Culture Overlay. The Cailloux Center (“a multidisciplinary, community-centered arts, cultural and organic intellectual center dedicated to freedom, flourishing, and the promotion of justice through the arts, community engagement, dialogue, and sustainable arts enterprise development for Black makers,” according to their mission statement) took over the space housing a former theater (Southern Rep, which closed during the height of the pandemic), and was initially legally unable to host live music, dance, DJs, or stand-up comedy—just plays and musicals—because of their location in the overlay. Had the Center been classified as a bar or restaurant, it would have been able to host a wide variety of live performances.

It’s counterintuitive and nonsensical, an impediment to cultural practice and the cultural economy. Fortunately, through an extended process, the Center was granted a waiver removing the restrictions on June 22. But, had a different Planning Commission or City Council been in place, votes could have easily gone differently, and a Black-led performing arts organization, on Bayou Road—one of the most historic thoroughfares in the city with deep ties to Black history and culture—could have been forced, because of an arbitrary decision made by city planners two decades ago, to only present plays and musicals; no brass bands, no drum circles, no poetry, no dancing.

Bad policy can both deliberately and inadvertently stymie culture and entrepreneurship, which is why we keep putting a spotlight on examples like these—both to change the mistakes of the past and to make sure we create equitable and culturally informed policies in the future.

photo by James Cullen

The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) is a broad-based coalition and registered 501c3 non-profit corporation that collaborates with, organizes, and empowers the New Orleans music and cultural community to preserve and nurture the city’s culture, to translate community vision into policy change, and to create positive economic impact.

This space is provided to MaCCNO as a community service and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or editorial policies of ANTIGRAVITY.

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