Mayor Mitch Landrieu's no-nonsense approach collides with New Orleans laissez-faire

Mayor Mitch Landrieu's no-nonsense approach collides with New Orleans laissez-faire
April 24, 2011
By Bruce Nolan

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Fifty years ago writer, A.J. Liebling famously described New Orleans as the northernmost city of the Caribbean, a daughter of Port-au-Prince bearing the additional cultural legacies of Genoa, Marseilles and the Mediterranean coast.
mitch_landrieu_mardi_gras_indians.jpgView full sizeMatthew Hinton, The Times-Picayune archiveMayor Mitch Landrieu was photographed singing 'Indian Red' during a Hurricane Katrina anniversary event on Aug. 29, 2010, with Big Chief Alfred Womble of the Cheyenne Uptown New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians tribe, left, and Brian Nelson with the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians tribe.

He saw an exotic and permissive community distinct from the neighboring South of the Scotch-Irish, and even further removed from the square-cornered rigor of the German Midwest. A sensual world sloganeers later compressed to lure potential tourists from Mobile to Hamburg: The Big Easy.

But in recent months, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration has set about the delicate task of bringing some enforcement rigor into the traditionally lax commercial, cultural and community life of New Orleans.

The evidence is accumulating across a broad front:

In renewed efforts to crack down on absentee owners and their blighted housing; in efforts to regulate traditional brass bands' playing outdoors in the residential French Quarter; in efforts to eliminate off-the-books French Quarter guest houses that undercut legitimate businesses; in weekly traffic checkpoints to crack down on drunken driving; in efforts to streamline the city's own permitting processes, and in efforts to generally untangle a City Hall organizational culture that a team of management consultants last month described as the worst it had ever seen.

Inevitably, Landrieu's tighten-it-up initiative has caused occasional flare-ups -- for instance, in the recent case of a clutch of artists selling funky hats and beaded bras in a once-a-year event out of a Marigny music club.

According to City Hall officials, the controversial shut-down of the NOLA Designer Costume Bazaar on Feb. 27 outside the Blue Nile demonstrated first the administration's ambition -- the bust occurred on a Sunday -- and later its willingness to work with artists who contribute to New Orleans' vibe.

Although it was only a costume bazaar, organizer Cree McCree at first pronounced it "a dagger in the heart" of the city's cultural economy.

City officials soon apologized for misinterpreting their own sometimes vague rules, and later helped the designers and the Blue Nile figure out what permits they really needed, said Scott Hutcheson, Landrieu's adviser to the cultural economy who provided both the apology and the guidance, to McCree's satisfaction.

In a recent interview, Landrieu said the challenge is to strike a balance between imposing order and fairness, without cutting too much across the grain of New Orleans' laissez-faire culture.

The problem, he said, is the more difficult because the public message to City Hall is quite clear: New Orleanians want it both ways.

Put simply, everyone loves a brass band -- except, perhaps, the exhausted tenant or homeowner whose stoop they're using as a stage.

Matter of fairness

For the moment, though, Landrieu said the balance is tipped off-center such that the push must be toward more rigor, not less.

"We need more consistent, rigorous enforcement," said Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni, "because people want it. People want us to enforce permitting."

Landrieu says it's a matter of fairness.

"I think if people want to operate a business, they have to get a permit and pay taxes because it's not fair to people that don't," Landrieu said. "So I know that this sounds really elementary, but we don't do that really well here. And people aren't used to somebody coming up saying, 'You have to do that.' "

On the cultural front, which is just one element in that initiative, Hutcheson, Landrieu's cultural deputy, describes participating in two major efforts.

One is an internal review of City Hall permitting processes or ordinances to see what can be improved and how the process can be made easier for small businesses and nonprofits to navigate.

Hutcheson said the other initiative is external, as when after the Blue Nile debacle, his office helped clear up early misinformation about what the artists and their venue needed -- and later distributed to small nonprofits and individual artists a one-page paint-by-numbers guide describing what permits they needed to operate and how to get them.

Rolling with Plan B

About the same time, Hutcheson helped another enforcement casualty, the New Orleans Community Bike Project, reopen just a few blocks away.

The bike project, also called Plan B, operated in an old Marigny warehouse as a shoestring nonprofit helping the poor and near-homeless acquire and repair old bikes.

Plan B is partly a ministry and partly an artists' collective stuffed with bike parts; its unfinished raw walls are decorated by hand; it reserves Tuesday-night repair clinics exclusively for women and the transgendered community.

It would not be mistaken for the Walmart bike department.

Although it was fully chartered by the state, Plan B operated for 12 years without city paperwork until Victor Pizarro, its current head, closed it for a month in the face of a local police crackdown on unlicensed businesses. Police said they were acting on a complaint from an unnamed City Council member, who presumably received a complaint from a constituent.

Today Plan B is open again. Pizarro can show off a framed temporary occupational license that he said Hutcheson helped him collect after sorting through a tangle of requirements and clarifying what Plan B did and didn't need.

Regulating street life

In a similar vein, Hutcheson is also part of a group of city officials, French Quarter residents, musicians, lawyers and others that will soon propose to the City Council a reworked noise ordinance that tries to better regulate, but does not outlaw, New Orleans street music.

That grows out of a 2010 dust-up between members of the To Be Continued Brass Band -- some of them young musicians whose training in traditional New Orleans music came after 8 p.m. on a Canal Street sidewalk -- and nearby French Quarter residents who complained that, while the music lured visitors from Hamburg, it made living in the Quarter a trial.

And on yet another front, last month, Hutcheson and Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas were part of a meeting with leaders of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tribes, those unique icons of the city whose unmapped street processions on Mardi Gras and St. Joseph's Day have often sparked run-ins with police.

The result this year, all sides said, was a smooth St. Joseph's Day on March 19, unmarred by significant confrontations.

In the offing, said Bertrand Butler, of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians Council: a major meeting among Indians, Landrieu, Serpas and City Council members to hammer out a permanent understanding of Indians' role in bearing New Orleans tradition and their limits on what they can or can't do in the interest of public safety.

In a city as culturally rich, but as relaxed, as New Orleans, with densely populated neighborhoods teeming with cultural crosscurrents that have to be sorted out, there's a lot of work to do, Landrieu said.

"The idea of being culturally sensitive is not a bad idea," he said. "It's about balance.

"It's about trying to figure it out."

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