As Leon Clark walks the French Quarter, using metal tongs to pick up trash, he hears one question over and over.
“Where is Bourbon Street?” people ask him.
During his first job, as a doorman on Bourbon, he saw people spending their entire vacation on the city’s most infamous strip, proud to carry a drink on a public street in one of the plastic go-cups he now picks up in high numbers off the same street. He finds the most napkins, go-cups and pickpocketed, discarded wallets around French Quarter Festival, Southern Decadence and Mardi Gras, when both visitors and locals flock to the Vieux Carre (literally “Old Square”), as the Quarter is called.
Those busy times wring out the Quarter’s workforce: hotel maids, waitresses, bartenders, musicians and store clerks. Erin Flashner, 30, who works at Fifi Mahony’s wig, hair, and glamour shop on Royal Street, said she could barely even remember the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. On a typical day, at least a dozen people would be waiting behind a velvet-roped stanchion to get into the storeâ€™s wig room while Flashner and her colleagues waited on customers on each of the wig roomâ€™s four seats, allowing each customer to try on a maximum of five headpieces. “I was like a robot,” Flashner said. “It was just nonstop.”
Flashner and Clark are both New Orleans natives, which is increasingly a rarity in this changing city, they said. And despite the Quarter’s rich cultural and architectural history, they have often found visitors and newcomers think of it “as Disneyland,” Clark said.
“They don’t know that people live here,” he said.
Greatest neighborhood in the world
During the 1950s, when Louis Matassa was a child, the population of the 85-block French Quarter topped 10,000. He remembers busy streets and blocks packed with children who played endless games of hide-and-seek in the Quarterâ€™s nooks, alleys and courtyards and around the riverâ€™s working docks, where longshoremen worked, unloading fresh fruit and other cargo. “That was our playground,” he said. “It was the greatest neighborhood in the world.”
These days, fewer than 4,000 people live fulltime in the French Quarter. Working-class renters, Matassa says, have been squeezed out by out-of-town condominium owners and undercover short-term rentals.
He explains this theory in a slice of the old Quarter: the narrow aisles of his family’s longtime grocery store, established in 1924 by his Sicilian grandfather, Giovanni Cosimo Matassa, who used to live upstairs . Louis Matassa and his siblings also lived in the building, on the second floor, as did his father, 88-year-old rock’n‘roll pioneering producer Cosimo Matassa. Cosimo is best known as the owner of J&M Studios, which produced hits by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Professor Longhair and others.
Louis Matassa says that now maybe a half-dozen children live in the entire lower Quarter, a fraction of the 20 kids per block he remembers as a child. After Hurricane Katrina, he suddenly had a burst of neighbors, as locals with damaged houses got their hands on some of the Quarter’s high-ground rentals, he said. Now his customers are once again part-time or short-term residents. Fewer buy food to cook in their own kitchens, he said, preferring to order hot breakfasts and lunch from the store’s kitchen, along with high proportions of liquor and beer.
These days, when Matassa takes a break outside his store’s front door, it seems lonely because the store has few fulltime neighbors. “Sometimes it’s desolate, even in the daytime,” he said. But from a purely architectural standpoint, the surrounding blocks probably look better, Matassa said, noting the “ain’t dere no more” tally also includes Big Ben, the fearless Quarter rat that used to stand at the top of the steps and terrorize anyone trying to get to the store’s second-story office.
Though the Golden Lantern on Royal Street is well-known as a drag venue and as the birthplace of the Southern Decadence festival, it has become less of a gays-only bar and more of a neighborhood bar that happens to be in a gay neighborhood. “It’s just a little tucked-away place where everyone can come be themselves,” said bar manager Damon Marbut.
The Golden Lantern had been a bar for decades, but it first developed a gay clientele in 1972. By that time, the surrounding lower Quarter had also become known for its gay culture, he said, to the point where St. Ann Street, the boundary with the upper Quarter, was referred to as The Lavender Line. Still, at the time, it was not unheard of for gay men to be fired by employers or arrested by police for their sexuality. “You didn’t go in public and flaunt it,” said Cary Rowbatham, 57, who has been a Lantern regular for more than three decades.
Lantern patrons said that while many of them live elsewhere because of astronomical rents, they return to the Quarter because, in many ways, it still is the hub of the city. “You can feel the history here,” Rowbatham said.
In the same way, older musicians remember when many of Bourbon Street’s clubs were elegant affairs that featured high-class ensembles along with artful burlesque dancers, viewed by audiences of men and women decked out in suits and dresses. The Quarter’s streets have long been a teaching ground, especially for young musicians eager to earn tips from tourists and locals alike.
But on upper Bourbon Street, noise-ordinance enforcement is now putting a pinch on the To Be Continued (TBC) brass band, which for nearly 10 years held court to a younger crowd nearly every night, at levels that they’re now told violate city decibel limits.
At first, they didn’t want to leave. “TBC invented that spot at Bourbon and Canal,” said trombonist Robert Walker, 26, as he stood in the square, between St. Louis Cathedral and the famous statue of Andrew Jackson. Snare drummer Tyrone Brown, 29, nodded. “And people wanted us to stay there. But we gotta go by what the law wants us to do.”
The band conferred and decided to move their nighttime act to Jackson Square, in the spot once held down by the legendary Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, who died in 2004. Soon after they struck up the band, Walker saw how Jackson Square was a draw for older New Orleanians and tourists looking for jazz. Many of those same people have passed through the Square on sunny afternoons since the 1970s, when Tuba Fats and his band the Chosen Few first established themselves there in front of the Cabildo, a spot that Lacen said felt like “a natural amphitheater.”
“We have always known about Tuba Fats, who got it started for everybody out here, period,” Walker said. “This spot is more culture than anything. We starting to feel our energy and going back to our Tuba Fats days.”