The city is grappling with change
IT WAS supposed to be a triumphant announcement, made only days before Mardi Gras, New Orleans’s signature celebration. A long-awaited repaving of the busiest blocks of Bourbon Street, the city’s most famous thoroughfare, was finally complete. But the news conference organised by city and tourism officials on January 31st was hijacked by a band of strippers and their supporters, protesting a crackdown on clubs at what is usually the busiest time of the year.
In recent months eight of the 13 strip clubs around Bourbon Street have had their liquor licences taken—temporarily, in most cases—after authorities said they discovered violations such as prostitution and drug-dealing on undercover visits. Three clubs have closed permanently.
The dragnet comes as the city wrestles with several changes. They include a law that requires strippers to be aged at least 21 and a plan to shrink the city’s number of adult-entertainment venues. Residents are also debating a new security plan proposed by Mitch Landrieu, the outgoing mayor, who wants to create a city-wide network of about 1,500 video cameras that would be monitored by law enforcement. Every bar room in the city would be required to have one. The city has begun installing dozens of cameras along the parade routes for Mardi Gras, which falls this year on February 13th, and other heavily trafficked areas.
These changes have given New Orleans, which is justifiably proud of its libertine nature, something of an identity crisis. In this freewheeling city the giddy brass-band anthem “Do Whatcha Wanna” serves as unofficial civic motto alongside the more genteel “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”
It is also one of America’s most dangerous cities. But campaigners say that authorities are eliding efforts to make New Orleans safer with a cosmetic clean-up that will strip the city of character. In 2014 a Carnival parade dubbed “Dizneylandrieu” sent up the sanitised vision of New Orleans that some believe the mayor and other leaders would like to present to the world. Critics discern a plan to imitate New York’s makeover of Times Square, once a haven of peep shows and adult theatres, and now the most family-friendly of destinations. Hence the banners waved by strippers at the protest in January reading, “It’s Bourbon Street, not Sesame Street.”
The strippers and their allies also argue that the crackdown is fraudulent. Though authorities frame it as a strike against sex trafficking, the strippers note, correctly, that no one has yet been charged with that crime. Instead, police and regulators cited club operators for offences that hardly shocked most New Orleanians—allowing drug-dealing and inappropriate touching on the premises and allowing strippers to parade around half-naked while not on stage. The strippers say that a move purportedly made to protect women is instead depriving them of their living. As one, writing under her stage name Reese Piper, put it in a recent opinion piece in the Advocate, Louisiana’s biggest newspaper: “Many see strip clubs as a symptom of the city’s dark underbelly, a place of exploitation and abuse. But to me, they represent student loan payments, education and freedom.” Some dancers have said putting them out of work may have the unintended consequence of pushing them into prostitution.
Lyn Archer, a leader of the Bourbon Alliance for Responsible Entertainers, says strippers would support a genuine effort to crack down on human-trafficking. But this crusade, she says, means that topless dancing and isolated acts of prostitution will be conflated with trafficking in the public imagination.
Richard Campanella, a geography professor at Tulane University and author of a history of Bourbon Street, says there is truth in the view that the sex trade has been intrinsic to New Orleans. But the city also has “a long history of trying to curtail it. Both are part of the city’s culture, and my bet is that both will continue.”
Peace without dignitySchumpeterButtonwoodThe Economist explains