Street vending, in one form or another, has always had a place in New Orleans. Zella Palmer, chair and director of the Dillard University Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture, has described (via 64 Parishes) a pre-Civil War “street-food economy” created by “primarily enslaved women who were allowed to sell products on behalf of their owners” at stalls at or near the French Market. One of their most prominent representatives was the famous Rose Nicaud, who purchased her freedom selling coffee and calas to churchgoers as they were leaving Mass. A number of the French Quarter’s earliest photographs show street vending—there is even footage of a child that is likely a young Louis Armstrong selling newspapers on a bustling Canal Street in 1915. Though street sales provided a notable avenue for marginalized populations to do everything from meeting their basic needs to achieving social mobility, Palmer notes that by the mid 20th century the once ubiquitous street vendors began to be deterred by new fines and restrictive ordinances.
While crackdowns on street vending have persisted for some time, the past decade or so has been especially active, with a series of enforcement actions leading to multiple new regulations and permitting processes. In August 2011, the Landrieu administration announced that it would begin citing unlicensed vendors, including those at second line parades. The outcry was swift and significant, largely driven by the fact that the City code had no applicable permit for mobile vendors—which meant that there was no way for any second line vendor to operate legally, and vendors selling at a parade could be subject to a $500 fine or jail time. In this case, the community pressure largely worked. Mayor Landrieu’s advisor for the cultural economy, Scott Hutcheson, met with vendors and the Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force off and on for roughly a year, and a $25 annual permit for second line vendors was created and unanimously approved by the City Council. Since that time, vending at second line parades has continued more or less unchanged.
In 2013, the focus shifted away from barbecues on neutral grounds to larger trucks posted up outside of businesses and barrooms. Around the country, food trucks were surging in popularity, and New Orleans was not immune. However, a series of archaic, half-century-old laws created serious limits on the operations of food trucks and severely limited the number of available permits. Drawing from the burgeoning national movement, a campaign to expand the legal rights and number of allowable permits for food trucks was launched. Unlike most other instances, this was not driven by top-down enforcement, but rather proactive lobbying from The New Orleans Food Truck Coalition and the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based libertarian nonprofit law firm known for opposing business licensing. Food truck owners found a champion in then-Councilmember Stacy Head, who spearheaded an ordinance that lifted many of the 50-year-old restrictions and nearly doubled the number of allowable permits.
Fast forward to August 2020. With the city reeling from the onslaught of the COVID pandemic and most businesses shuttered, street vendors started showing up in increasing numbers, filling a gap for needed services and providing a source of income for residents who found their financial safety net rapidly depleting. Citing adopted COVID mitigation restrictions, a crackdown from the City soon followed, with a particular focus on the popular vending area under the Claiborne Avenue bridge. One vendor, in possession of the aforementioned second line permit, was issued a $300 ticket. Though he had a permit, he was told that it only allowed him to sell at second lines, but nowhere else. No parade, no sales.
By late 2021, this effort to shut down unlicensed “pop-up” businesses was set to expand citywide, with both New Orleans East and, once again, Claiborne Avenue, cited as illegal vending hotspots. Public debate swirled around the difficulty vendors—many of whom would have liked to become licensed but found themselves unable to—faced when dealing with the Department of Safety and Permits, whose myriad regulations often created an almost insurmountable barrier. In response, the City Council, led by Councilmember Helena Moreno, passed an ordinance streamlining the permitting process for pop-up food vendors, eliminating some of the red tape, and lowering fees for both vendors and brick-and-mortar businesses that hosted periodic food pop-ups.
Despite these new regulations, vendor crackdowns have continued, most recently made evident by widely publicized enforcement activity on St. Claude Avenue and Bourbon Street, locations that have both seen a significant increase in unlicensed vending as COVID restrictions have eased.
So, how can this cycle be broken? Most importantly, the City should prioritize stewardship of vending hotspots rather than relying on punitive crackdowns. While some types of vending—alcohol sales, for example—will likely (and rightly) continue to face a higher level of scrutiny, other activities—like late night food sales and small jewelry, clothing, or trinket vending—could and should be normalized and encouraged. It is imperative the City develop solutions that do not simply rely on overbearing “sweeps” of hotspots, particularly as street vending has a long history of providing economic opportunity for communities that have been otherwise largely shut out of the city’s tourism economy. This has become even more urgent with the recent election of Jeff Landry as Louisiana’s governor, as his dogwhistle-filled campaign has made it clear that he is committed to policies that will criminalize predominantly Black people and people of color—the same populations that have always benefited most from vending, both formal and informal. While the past decade has shown that crackdowns often lead to new policy, there is no need to continue this punitive cycle that prioritizes punishment and enforcement over compliance and stewardship of public space. We need a vending policy that unlocks the potential for economic development and creates equity of opportunity; one that has been created in conjunction with the vendors that want to play by the rules but have been stymied by outdated regulations and an inhospitable bureaucracy. There is a better way, we just need the continued leadership and advocacy to get it done.
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.