- - Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Almost everything goes on Bourbon Street, the famous New Orleans tribute to hedonistic excess. Bars are open all night, booze is allowed in the streets, girls gone wild strip to invite a shower of Mardi Gras beads from passing cars, and robbers find the side streets easy pickings when midnight gives way to the wee hours of the morning.

But not quite everything goes. The powers that be think T-shirts have become an abundance of excess. The property owners in the French Quarter — the Vieux Carre — say 66 T-shirt shops is too many, and they want the city to crack down. A city ordinance adopted in 2011, requires shops in the quarter to limit to no more than 35 percent of the display space to T-shirts, souvenirs, novelties or gifts “which serve as a token of remembrance of New Orleans.” Offenders can get 90 days in jail for displaying certain kinds and quantities of T-shirts, posters and artwork on the doors, windows and facades of buildings. T-shirt shops may not operate within two blocks of each other, though shops now stand door-to-door on some streets. The ordinance, like so many restrictions on behavior in New Orleans, is widely flouted.

“It’s one of the most common complaints we hear in the French Quarter from people who live there, visit there and work there,” Meg Lousteau, director of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, tells The New Orleans Times-Picayune. “They can’t understand why this beautiful historic gem [of a city] allows the proliferation of T-shirt shops. We have yet to find anyone who thinks they add anything of value to the French Quarter.”

Obviously, a lot of people do, however; hence, the proliferation of the shops. The defenders of the shirts argue that the city is criminalizing local pride and killing entrepreneurship. The city has so far issued shutdown orders to owners of 13 shops, some of whom have been paying taxes and furnishing jobs since 1980. Ten of the 13 shops won a court injunction to enable them to remain open while they try to overturn the prohibitions.

The owner of one women’s clothing boutique closed shop rather than fight City Hall. She decided that breaking out a tape measure to count and document the quickly changing inventory, to convince inspectors that less than 15 percent of the store was devoted to T-shirts, was not worth the hassle.

The City Council says it only wants to “clean up” the Quarter, and the disagreement between souvenir shops and municipal-culture monitors is a familiar one. It’s just because a city like New Orleans — or Washington, San Francisco or New York — is charming, fascinating and historic that visitors want to take home a piece of it, whether a Mardi Gras T-shirt, a fleur-de-lis key chain, a miniature Washington Monument or a little plastic cable car. That’s why there are so many souvenir shops. Such cities have a right to regulate excess, too.

Some shop owners in the French Quarter have a final chance to save their businesses next month when the Board of Zoning Adjustments considers grandfathering a number of long-standing souvenir shops and T-shirt shops. Cleaning up excess is always a good thing to do, and New Orleans, while looking for opportunities to do good, could improve its reputation with a focus on eliminating the drugs, prostitution, robbers and other evildoers that plague “the city that care forgot.”

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