Dear Mayor Landrieu and Councilmember Palmer,
Please allow me to applaud you on your recent efforts to address the growing health and safety issues on Jackson Square. Our city’s “old square” is a rich symbol of its cultural identity and deserves the critical attention being given to it by city officials. It is as relevant now as it was when it was literally the center of the city.
However, I can not overstate how filthy the Square is most weekend mornings. Puke, feces, urine, fights, drunks, people passed out, assaults, trash, yelling, drug use – it goes on and on. Sunday mornings in particular. Artists trying to set up have been beaten several times. One was in the hospital for weeks with a brain injury. Another went to the emergency room earlier this year. The past few weeks have seen a rise in these incidents. Action on this has been sorely needed for some time.
So, thank you for addressing this. The proposal to close the Square between the hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. is a step in the right direction. Though I have concerns that it is heavy-handed. It’s a quick fix. Sure. But it may end up causing more issues than it solves.
One thing that almost immediately occurs to me is the experience a visitor to New Orleans may miss out on by being prohibited from the Square during those hours. For many years, profits and incomes ballooned as the city was portrayed as a raucous, say-anything, do-anything, drink-anything party destination. But as well all know, we are so much more than that. There is more to New Orleans than “Huge Ass Beers.”
Jackson Square in particular is an area where people can sit in an open space without being in a bar. With the Square (and the Moonwalk) being closed in the early morning, and with very few restaurants or cafes open at that time, the message seems to be, “Be in a bar drinking or go back to your hotel.” I understand that’s not what the message is but, with no open spaces, where else are people to go?
Other issues would be the enforcement of any law based on the interpretation of the term loitering. Would a Jackson Square Artist setting up for the day be considered loitering? Someone texting on smartphone? A tarot card reader telling fortunes? Hopefully these will be addressed before any vote.
I of course am very anxious to hear if this will affect the Jackson Square Artists, an integral part of the culture on the Square since the 1950s and a group with their own representative group, the Jackson Square Artist Association of which I am a member. We provide straight-from-the artist art pieces and contribute a bohemian atmosphere to the Square on weekends. People get to meet the artist they are purchasing a piece from and speak about the art and often even pose for pictures with the artist. At any given moment, hundreds of conversations about art are taking place. Thousands of visitors to New Orleans take home original art from this group each year and quite a few locals do as well.
We too have been affected by the depiction of New Orleans as a party destination and are on the front lines of the fallout every morning on the Square. Because competition for spots is great, artists will often be setting up for the day during the proposed hours of shut down. Where do we stand in this? We are primarily being victimized by the belligerence and the filth and are concerned that we will be victimized by the solution as well.
A proposal to consider would be one in November 2010 by the Jackson Square Task force convened by Councilmember Palmer. The wording in the proposal was:
“Security – there should be dedicated security to patrol the Square at all hours. Such a person(s) could ensure that cars are not illegally parked; that vagrants are not causing health problems; that tarot card readers are abiding by existing or proposed rules; that any music is not amplified; that garbage is being addressed; that mules are being properly managed; and that all other regulations are being enforced. Such a person would not only be an enforcement mechanism, but would also serve as a deterrent to other illegal or nuisance activities.”
I think a dedicated police presence in the Square would greatly improve the conditions there and wouldn’t force the City to throw the good people out with the bad or, put police officers in a position where they would have to selectively enforce a law and thus lead to potential litigation down the road.
Thank you both.
I am posting this letter and your response on my blog, TheChicory.com
Lance “Varg” Vargas
Jackson Square Artist