- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2001

NEW ORLEANS — In the heart of the French Quarter, Jackson Square was once an inspirational studio for hundreds of classically trained artists, known for their paintings of the city's colorful streetscapes and bougainvillea-draped courtyards.
In the past two decades, however, the scenic park has taken on an increasingly charlatan air; fortunetellers, magicians, musicians, acrobats and other oft-costumed street performers have realized the potential profits from tourism.
The transformation has driven away many artists; it also has turned the few who remain into little more than a sideshow.
"It's just terrible," says Dottie Cooley, 80, of Detroit, who visited earlier this year.
She grew up here. Before she moved away in 1946, she spent many afternoons watching the artists work in the square.
"The artists have always been there. They're beautiful people, and now they're almost gone," she says.
In the late 1970s, about 400 artists were licensed to work and sell in Jackson Square. Today there are 125, although there are rarely more than 10 on a typical day.
Lee Tucker, who has painted in the square since 1971, says the square's art colony is endangered.
"People identify a place with whatever the major activity is, so if they see mostly jugglers and tarot cards and there might be a few artists thrown in, they won't take the artists seriously," Mr. Tucker says.
Residents who live in the high-dollar neighborhood side with the artists. They complained to police who, in June, invoked a rarely enforced sign ordinance, yanking the signs of half a dozen palm readers.
City law allows licensed artists to post their signs only on the square's iron fence. But the crackdown on card readers propelled the readers straight to federal court, where they won, at least temporarily, with a free-speech argument. The card readers do not charge for their services, so, technically, they're just expressing themselves. But they do encourage donations, and some card readers earn enough to pay the relatively high French Quarter rents.
"Jackson Square is a lovely place that everyone else wants to share, and the artists want entirely for themselves," said Eric Goza, attorney for the card readers.
The palm and card readers, who easily outnumber the artists and others, say the throngs of tourists in the square have welcomed their increasing presence over the past two decades. Their enemies, they say, are cultural elitists who conveniently forget the prominent role that voodoo and mysticism have played in New Orleans' history.
"We're outside the mainstream and there's an attitude that we're hustlers," says palm reader Mike Howells, who has a doctorate in political science from the University of New Orleans. "The vast majority of readers are very committed to what they do, and many aren't out there just to make a living but to express themselves."
In the temperate months from fall through spring, the palm readers, some in black, gothic robes and others in colorful retro-hippie outfits, line the square with tables and parasols, from morning until late into the night.
Many younger residents can't remember the square any other way and like it the way it is, and many tourists seem to expect a wide range of street attractions.
"I don't have any problem with the tarot readers. I think it's kind of neat," said Christie Luczak, 20, of Alexandria, La.
Meanwhile, the residents of the neighborhood say they have had no luck offering alternative proposals to the city, such as moving the street performers to a nearby riverside park.
Mayor Marc Morial and City Councilman Troy Carter, whose district includes the French Quarter, have complained that they are weary of the lawsuits that follow every attempt to resolve disputes in the quarter.
The property-owner groups remain dissatisfied. Says Stuart Smith, one of their attorneys, "The circus atmosphere in front of the cathedral and in the square is a disgrace to all Louisiana citizens who love the real French Quarter."


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