Nocturnal Transmissions

Nine Things I Learned from Reading the Night Mayor's Email

Back in November, in an effort to understand Night Mayor Howie Kaplan‘s role in controversial “sweeps” cracking down on unlicensed street vendors and performers—and how the public felt about it—I filed a public records request for extracts of Kaplan’s official email and text messages including keywords like “sweep,” “vendor,” “culture bearer,” and “street performer.”

In mid-February, the City turned over nearly 4,000 pages of Kaplan’s email correspondence, from noise complaints to leadership newsletters, revealing more about his $120,000-a-year role as head of the Mayor’s Office of Nighttime Economy and other aspects of life in New Orleans. A phone interview with Kaplan—a longtime New Orleans nightlife figure who also manages the Rebirth Brass Band, owns the Howlin’ Wolf music venue, and signs his official emails “Sincerely and Musically”—shed further light on some of the office’s operations.

The night mayor really is significantly involved in “sweeps,” beginning with a crackdown last July on St. Claude Avenue in the Marigny. That, Kaplan told me, focused on public safety after two cyclists were killed in traffic and residents and businesses separately reported a rise in violence and break-ins in the area. Though he emphasized to me that his office doesn’t have its own enforcement powers (“I have no enforcement power in the Office of Nighttime Economy—neither me nor my staff has the ability to write a ticket,” he said), emails show him receiving complaints from the public, working with other City and state agencies to coordinate sweeps, and using language like “the sweep my office just did.” Sweeps have taken place along St. Claude, in the Quarter, in the nightlife districts on Frenchmen Street and St. Bernard Avenue, and along Carrollton Street in Mid City. “Good evening on this beautiful night,” he wrote in one email to another official. “At the request of Madame Mayor and the Council, we are putting together a multi departmental sweep to address the proliferation of illegal vendors in the French Quarter.”

The City is working with a company called Sound Music Cities to conduct a “music census.” The survey, which Kaplan said is tentatively expected to begin with a press conference in April and run for about six weeks, aims to gather information about challenges faced by people in the culture and hospitality industries. “It’s difficult to understand how to fix things if we don’t know they’re broken, or why they’re broken,” he said. “Hearing and listening to the culture bearers is the number one way to do that.” Sound Music Cities counts other cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and Cleveland as clients, and Kaplan said he hopes to learn from their approaches, “be they through public-private partnerships, be they through legislation, it can go through a whole host of factors.” The contract will cost the City about $15,000, Kaplan confirmed.

Michael Hecht, CEO of business development organization GNO Inc., is also a DJ. In fairness, Hecht’s sideline performing as “DJ El Camino” (“The original hybrid: business in the front, party in the back”), background as a freestyle rapper for a James Brown tribute band, and passion for electronic music were already covered by the Times-Picayune a few years ago, and his mixes can be heard on his SoundCloud, Instagram, and DJ website. “Download DJ El Camino here, and get ready to have some funk placed right in your cruck!” writes Hecht. Kaplan addressed Hecht by his DJ name while praising his appearance on WWL, “talking about the sweep my office just did” and its relationship to economic development. “Sending cool thoughts your way,” Kaplan wrote.

New Orleans Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno was passing Ms. Mae’s early one morning—a time when the bar is typically more associated with overnight drinkers squinting their way to transportation home than public health—and spotted EMTs administering Narcan there. She stopped to offer employees at Ms. Mae’s training on the lifesaving overdose reversal medicine.

The Office of Nighttime Economy works with City and state health officials to train nightlife workers on using Narcan. “The goal is to have Narcan behind every bar,” according to the Office’s website. So far, the program has spent about $10,000 to place Narcan in bars, restaurants, hotels, and other sites, and works with health officials to offer training on how to use it in light of fentanyl in the drug supply. “We’re not going to sit here and make comments about people and the drugs they do,” Kaplan told me. “We’d much rather people be alive, and Narcan is an easy, relatively safe way to do that.”

The night mayor’s office has looked to other cities for thoughts on how to address street vending. “I think the goal is recognizing that some of the vending that’s taking place has been going on forever and ever,” Kaplan told me. “You’ve got the late Mr. Okra, and you’ve got Miss Linda—yakamein—there’s a lot of really great people doing a lot of great things. And I think what we’re trying to do is get a better understanding so we can assist these agencies and assist the City Council and the state delegations in how to better navigate this.” In one case, Kaplan and other officials reached out to counterparts in New York City after reading about a street vendor crackdown and a study in Corona, Queens. “We just assisted with an illegal vendor sweep along one of our main nighttime corridors (St. Claude Avenue) where illegal vending had started to get a little out of hand and we were looking at some case studies on how we could improve our permitting process for street vending,” wrote Michael Ince, deputy director of the Office of Nighttime Economy.

Multiple top officials at the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control sign their emails with the aggressive message “ONE TEAM – ONE FIGHT,” written with varying punctuation, fonts, and colors.

Kaplan’s office does try to resolve issues like noise and nightlife complaints through mediation, though it doesn’t always work. In one case, he said, a French Quarter resident complained a business held open-door events that “literally funneled this obscenely loud music into her home,” and Kaplan was able to help resolve the issue with “a few conversations.” In another case, he’s working with a Central City business that had been holding unlicensed events to get proper permits. But one Marigny couple, who wrote to City officials last summer complaining of noise, traffic issues, and litter linked to bar and restaurant parklets on Franklin Avenue, appeared to decline an offer of mediation in an email to Kaplan, saying officials had done little to address their complaints. “Given the above facts, and the fact that as a bar owner yourself, who participated in, and benefited from, the parklet program, we don’t believe you could be an unbiased mediator,” they wrote.

Kaplan was involved in drafting a proclamation to name the members of Depeche Mode honorary citizens of New Orleans around the time of their October concert at the Smoothie King Center. “With commendation for the body of work you’ve created over the last 43 years, your dedication to your craft and devotion to being a culture bearer is truly worthy of this honor,” reads a draft sent by Kaplan to another official. It’s unclear if the British new wave band ultimately received the honor, but Kaplan emphasized to me the role of touring artists, as well as local acts, in bringing visitors to New Orleans. “Our content creators are the best in the world,” he said. “Our culture bearers nobody can match. And that’s the reason why artists would love to come to New Orleans.”

Top illustration by Marcus Chapa Wilson
All others by Ben Claassen III

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