END OF AN ERA?

Is it Closing Time for Bourbon Street?

Just as Mardi Grad gets underway, a controversial proposal threatens to change the DNA of New Orleans’ French Quarter.

Skip Bolen/Getty

It seems pretty innocuous: a proposal to close the doors of all New Orleans’ bars—including those along its notorious Bourbon Street—at 3 a.m. every night. That doesn’t mean the bars have to, you know, close close—they can still stay open and serve customers 24 hours if they choose—but they’d have to literally close their doors to the street. The idea is to prod drinkers to go home and thus make city streets safer and quieter.

The door-closing idea is just one part of a larger public safety initiative the city recently put forth in response to several recent high-profile shootings. Other measures included making Bourbon Street a 24-hour pedestrian thoroughfare, a change from its current status that allows cars during the day. Another component of the plan is to require bars to install security cameras that are then patched into central police command.

But of all the proposed measures, the 3 a.m. door closing—which was little more than a throwaway sentence in the draft plan—has caused the biggest ruckus. Bar owners cried foul, since closing doors might not matter on most weekdays, but on weekends and during the city’s many special events like Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras (which just got underway), keeping the doors open and the scene hopping until dawn is baked into their business proposals. Closed doors aren’t exactly an advertisement for hospitality, and open doors and street drinking effectively expands a bar’s capacity. (In NOLA, there are no open- or empty-container laws, so you can buy a beer and enjoy it on the sidewalk.)

Critics also noted that few crimes were actually committed after 3 a.m. “There hasn’t been a reported shooting between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. on Bourbon Street in at least six years,” reported the New Orleans Advocate. So if the goal was public safety, city resources could be better deployed.

Others saw a Trojan horse. The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO), a local advocacy group, issued a statement that, in part, noted that what wasn’t spelled out in the plan was as concerning as what was. So what exactly happens at 3 a.m.? While the draft didn’t get into specifics, city officials suggested that people on the street would then be “encouraged” to go inside or go home.

“What does ‘encourage’ mean for law enforcement, and what does it mean for different groups of people?” asked Ethan Ellestad, executive director of MACCNO. In other words, will a trio of Ohio bridesmaids with tiaras face the same sort of “encouragement” as a trio of locals? Will it be used in outlying neighborhoods as a defacto curfew to deny people their porches?

It’s still unclear how this proposal will play out, or how many of the elements in it will be officially adopted. But for many who love the city as it is, this is a serious threat to the city’s DNA. The door-closing idea has been viewed much like the 2015 ban on smoking in bars. For decades, New Orleanians have claimed the God-given right to smoke inside, drink outside, and listen to music everywhere, anytime.

Especially on Bourbon Street.

Bourbon Street essentially became Bourbon Street—the nation’s most famous outdoor mall of drinking and debauchery—fairly quickly and fairly recently. (It’s a story told in colorful detail in Richard Campanella’s 2014 Bourbon Street: A History.) After World War II and up into the 1960s, Bourbon Street was a stable stretch of racy jazz clubs and burlesque joints—places that served as actual destinations: You arrived at a club, you stepped through doors, you were seated at a table, and you watched a show. Like cities everywhere, it was something you might do on a date, and something guys would definitely would do when in town for a convention. (Today, there’s only one spot where you walk into a vestige of that past: Chris Owens Club.) Bourbon Street was full of such places, with doors closed to the street and respectably well-dressed people inside.

Then, like a lumbering, shaggy beast, the 1960s arrived. Now you had two forces that altered the street’s character. First, a generation came up that thought only squares and The Man went to night clubs. Know what was cooler? Getting a drink, smoking some weed, and hanging out on a stoop and watching people walk by.

Another force was local District Attorney Jim Garrison—yes, that Jim Garrison, the one who “solved” the JFK assassination—who felt that Bourbon Street had become a magnet for sketchy activity.

Starting in 1962 he campaigned against prostitution and drinking scams in the fleshpots, peel parlors, and skin mills (all actual words used in the 1960s). When club owners lost these profitable side ventures, they sought to make it up in other ways. Among these was the selling of drinks to stoned hippies and counter culturists walking past the club.

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And, rather swiftly, Bourbon Street turned inside out. In 1967, the go-cup first surfaced, which was the chief tool of what was then called “window-hawking.” In 1971, the city decided to close the street to cars in the evenings. And thus Bourbon Street became the place we know today: a place where the borderlands between street and bar were blurred if not eliminated.

If the city’s proposals for getting a grip on the the French Quarter move ahead as planned, this moment could mark the beginning of the inversion of Bourbon St. as several generations have known it.

Closing doors on bars won’t make the city safer or empty the streets. But it will certainly put hedonistic New Orleans another step closer to the rest of puritanical America.