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Mailbag: Frenchmen Poet's Plea for Help

This fall, the growing safety concerns on Frenchmen Street resulted in the creation of the Frenchmen Street Patrol. While many locals applauded the move, street poet Heath Stevens is concerned that the stepped up police presence is stifling artistic expression. He explains his view in a letter to the editor.


I am writing you asking for your help as a citizen of New Orleans who is concerned with the state of the arts and tourism here.  As you probably know the dynamic arts scene attributed to post Katrina New Orleans is a great draw for tourism here.  The perception of many people in the rest of the US and abroad of New Orleans being a dynamic place  in which the arts are free and unfettered and thus much more interesting and less formulaic both drives folks to visit New Orleans... and also encourages many folks to want to live here. 


It's been my experience that people's perception of New Orleans as a city with a strong arts community is an important force in both tourism and the recent real estate boom downtown.

That being said i feel concerned about recent developments in New Orleans law enforcement and city policy.


I am a street poet who has worked on Frenchmen Street for the last 6 years.  In that six years, the police have never bothered any of the street poetry krewe or suggested that we were doing anything that was contrary to the law. But, just last week, the  Frenchmen Street Patrol, which consists of off duty police officers hired by the Frenchmen Street Business Association told us that we were no longer allowed to set up our typewriters (at least on Fridays and Saturdays when they are patrolling) and write poetry for we are "blocking the sidewalk".  This, I was told is a permanent state of affairs and all street artists are banned from Frenchmen street for eternity.


First of all, the legality of this claim seems questionable, as our poetry gear covers barely one third of the sidewalk and has caused no problems for the last 6 years that i am aware of.


Secondly, this law is obviously selectively enforced as businesses such as d.b.a. who have tables outside for smoking are "blocking the sidewalk"  much more forcefully, as as are other businesses pizza booths etc. which are on the sidewalk and may actually cause pedestrian traffic congestion.  


But i'm sure we both are aware that the issue of pedestrian traffic is not the main focus of the sudden enforcement of this issue. The purpose of this action is in my mind, a consolidation of power and public space by a powerful few to serve their economic and personal interests.


I believe these interests may not serve the best interests of New Orleans as a whole...either economically, culturally or artistically. Certainly not politically. 


I personally find Frenchmen street devoid of vendors and street artists to be a boring place and exemplify a New Orleans in which I don't wish to live. I feel that this issue is much like the proposed shut down of Royal Street to vendors and street is the manipulation of laws by a few powerful people in order to enforce their own version of New in which they feel completely in control of all live music, artists and vendors.


In other words it is extending a monopoly on who can be an artist in the public sphere and who might profit from that.   I am writing you as a citizen who is concerned with the cities future as an arts community and would like your help in preserving that. Recently, for example, there has been pressure by businesses to close down Royal Street to street artists because of a "Threat of Terrorism."  This is an absurd reason, obviously. What possible effect could old time bands and magicians have on the world state of affairs as far as acts of terrorism are concerned? How would opening up the street to automobile traffic solve these perceived problems?


The noise ordinance was/is another interesting piece of legislation, (which, in it's fine print wished to allow live music to be played only on Bourbon St...what an economic coup that would have been for somebody... and what a great cultural and artistic loss it would have been for everyone else but that small group of wealthy and powerful individuals.


I see this move to eliminate artists from Frenchmen Street as a similar power play and personally believe that this is not only illegal (selective enforcement) but contrary to the economic and cultural interests of the city.  I feel that New Orleans, by allowing street artists room in Jackson Square, Royal Street and Frenchmen Street to do their thing is greatly increasing the draw tourists have to come here. They really like it... people tell me that all the time... and they are spending plenty of money on traditional entertainment, hotels, restaurants etc. on their quest to see it. 


People move here for it and pay (seemingly) exorbitant amounts of money to live near it.


(It isn't the stunning architecture of the shotgun shack in my neighborhood that is somehow magically perceived to be worth ten times more than it was 3 to 5 years ago. That house isn't the draw is the location in regards to the culture around it that is driving those high prices.) 


I am hoping that the public can help us (meaning New Orleans street artists) on this issue. A New Orleans without a vibrant arts community and street life is a place that i don't really wish to live. I feel that buskers and street artists of all sorts add to the joy and fun of the city and I for one think that New Orleans would be a sadder and more boring place without them.  


Thank you for your time and attention, 

heath stevens 

professional poet


The text above is a letter to the editor and expresses only the opinion of the authors, not NOLA Defender or NOLA Defender's Editorial Board.

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