Apr 7, 201409:44 AM
The Editor's Room

Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde

Quarter Flipping: How Political Appeasement Created a Festival

The origins of French Quarter Festival

There are many reasons why festivals are started: an appeasement for ticked-off merchants is one of the less romantic explanations. Yet, because of anger that spread three decades ago, locals are being lured to dance in the streets of the Vieux Carre this weekend.

If a year could have an inferiority complex, a case could have been made for 1983: The year everyone in New Orleans was looking past in anticipation of 1984 and the World's Fair. Eighty-three was the year for primping; '84 was the year of the prom.

Some of that primping took place in the French Quarter where ancient streets were torn up and redone. The work was necessary but it was also horribly destructive to business. Merchants suffered as would-be customers, unwilling to leap barricades and to negotiate the mud piles that lay in the paths of the streets, shied away.

Just as music echoes off the Quarter's old buildings, so too do complaints. The grumbling was so loud that it was heard in City Hall where Mayor Dutch Morial searched for a solution. He could not stop the construction but he could offer to help the merchants get business back, some of which had been in decline even before the street construction. Morial proposed an annual French Quarter festival with the twist being that the celebration would be targeted not to tourists but to locals. The festival would try to show off a renewed Vieux Carre that the home town market could appreciate too. Thus, from the disorder of bull dozers and jack hammers a festival was born.

Celebrating its 31st anniversary this year, the French Quarter Festival has become the biggest event staged exclusively in the Quarter. Because it is held in April some locals think of the festival as a tuneup for the Jazz Fest, though organizers note that there is no admission to the French Quarter Fest and that the event celebrates a neighborhood as well as its music and food. With entertainment spread across stages throughout the Quarter and also a jazz brunch at Jackson Square, the festival has become a mammoth event. The first French Quarter festival was produced by a volunteer group of 12 with administrative help from City Hall, now the festival has its own staff and hundreds of volunteers.

As for its goal of bringing locals to the Quarter, the effort has apparently been successful. According to the festival's figures, by the time of its 20th anniversary approximately 300,000 people attended the weekend long event. Its surveys show that nearly half of the attendees were local; nine percent were from other Louisiana towns; 39 percent came from out of state. The remaining nearly 3 percent came from out of the country.

Festivals also have a way of drawing comment about the product that they promote. To us, because of the festival, April has become “let's look at the French Quarter" month. What we see is a neighborhood in which residents tell us they now feel safer than they used to, in fact the neighborhood has become one of the city's safest. Bourbon Street still reeks each morning from the partying the night before but now the streets are being cleaned better than ever. We wish that there were fewer absentee owners and more families in possession of the area's homes. Daiquiri bars have become the sort of ugly neighbor that T-shirt shops were in the '90s. Dining and jazz remain stellar experiences in the neighborhood now known for the annual "Stella!" shouting contest.

Life goes on. The festival’s organizers boast that the event is "The largest free music festival in the south" and they are justifiably proud that just about all the musicians who perform there are local.

We hope that the festival generates and appreciation for the Vieux Carre. Its neighborhood is where the city was founded, and now the city is rediscovering the neighborhood. And may it be added to the legacy of Dutch Morial that the neighbors were appeased.
 

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The Editor's Room

Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde

about

Errol LabordeErrol Laborde holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of New Orleans and is the editor-in-chief of Renaissance Publishing. In that capacity he serves as editor/associate publisher of New Orleans Magazine and editor/publisher of Louisiana Life magazine.

Errol is also a producer and a regular panelist on Informed Sources, a weekly news discussion program broadcast on public television station WYES-TV, Channel 12. Errol is a three-time winner of the Alex Waller Award, the highest award given in print journalism by the Press Club of New Orleans. He also received the National and City Regional Magazine Association Award for Best Column for his New Orleans Magazine column, beating out 76 city magazines across the country. In 2013, Errol received the award for the "Best News Affiliated Blog," awarded by the Press Club of New Orleans.

Errol’s most recent books are Krewe: The Early Carnival from Comus to Zulu and Marched the Day God: A History of the Rex Organization. In his free time he enjoys playing tennis and traveling with his wife, Peggy, to anywhere they can get away to, but some of his favorite spots are the Caribbean and historic locations around Louisiana. You can reach Errol at (504) 830-7235 or errol@myneworleans.com.

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