French Quarter still in a funk 16 months after hurricane

By Cain Burdeau

NEW ORLEANS – The hookers are back on Bourbon Street. So are the drug dealers, the strippers with names like Rose and Desire, the out-of-town businessmen, the college students getting blitzed on candy-colored cocktails and beer in plastic cups.

But a closer look reveals things are not back to the way they were in the French Quarter. Sixteen months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ liveliest, most exuberant neighborhood is in a funk.

“The money’s not the same. I remember when I made $1,200 a night,” said Elizabeth Johnson, a manager and dancer at a Bourbon Street strip club, frowning at another slow night. “I know girls who used to never let people touch them, and now they’re resorting to prostitution.”

Robert Boudreaux, a beefy hotel bellman in an olive green vest, scanned the street with folded arms and said: “Very boring.”

The Quarter still has its characters – palm readers, magicians, street musicians, mimes. But the cheap fun is largely confined to the weekends these days, and seven-day-a-week stores, restaurants and clubs such as Preservation Hall are cutting back on their hours. The nonstop party is no more.

The “cams” – real-time camera footage of Bourbon Street, streaming continuously over the Internet – are dull on weekdays. Dixieland bands play to empty barrooms.

“The Quarter rats are drunk and high still, but they’re less drunk,” said bartender Dawn Kesslering.

In the Lower Quarter, the district’s residential half, where people walk poodles and neighbors share clothes lines in galleried courtyards, old-timers do not see as much zest around them.

“It’s become far more homogenous, far more middle-class than working-class,” said John Dillman, who sells used books. “It will look like Boca Raton. A version of Boca Raton that has risque.”

In 2004, the last full year before Katrina struck, about 10 million visitors came to New Orleans, most of them drawn by the French Quarter. In 2006, just over 5 million came.

“Every time they’d see CNN, Fox, they’d show flooded streets. Everybody thought there was nothing to come back to,” said Earl Bernhardt, owner of several Bourbon Street nightspots.

In truth, the French Quarter was largely untouched by Katrina’s fury. But it suffered financially anyway.

Some nightspots really are gone. O’Flaherty’s, an Irish pub known for its soul-warming reels and TVs tuned to World Cup soccer, is gone. So too is the 125-year-old Maison Hospitaliere, a nursing home that began as a home for Confederate widows. Bella Luna, La Madeleine and the Old New Orleans Cookery – some of the popular eateries – fell victim to Katrina. The Little Shop of Fantasy, a Mardi Gras mask shop run by two sisters, cleared out of the Quarter and went online, like so many other Quarter businesses. And after 83 years, Hurwitz Mintz shuttered its flagship furniture shop on Royal Street.

Since Katrina, the real estate market has been in flux, and rents have gone through the roof because of the overall shortage of housing in New Orleans.

In the French Quarter, there are twice as many condos for sale, from 90 before Katrina to about 180 now. Some people are moving out; others are trying to take advantage of the housing shortage by converting attics, parlor rooms, stables and slave quarters into condos.

“I’m paying the most rent I’ve ever paid, and I’ve got the smallest place I’ve ever had,” said Bob Clift, a portrait artist who waited in vain one recent day for customers under the live oaks on Jackson Square, outside St. Louis Cathedral.

A familiar face in the Quarter for 37 years, Clift said he is planning to leave the city after paying about $1,000 a month for an 8-by-15-foot room. “Poor people can’t live here anymore,” he said. “Including me.”

After Katrina, waves of hurricane refugees and looters filled the French Quarter’s streets. Then, soldiers in red berets and boots took Bourbon Street by storm. Then came the world’s journalism corps, construction workers and prostitutes.

But now it is so quiet, many people feel afraid to walk the streets at night.

“I live by myself with my dog, so I really have to be careful,” said Mikal Matton, a saleswoman at a jewelry shop. “That really bothers me.”

Because of a spate of robberies, some stores are locking up early. Several street shootings, a fatal stabbing and a murder-suicide in which a man murdered and cooked his girlfriend have put residents on edge.

“I’m taking gun classes now,” said Mary McGinn, who works for a French Quarter real estate agency. She said a mugger knocked her down Aug. 18 outside the gate to her home, and she hit her head on a concrete step. It took 35 staples to close the gash.

“He got $60. Whoop-de-doo!” she said.

Police blame the spike in crime on the storm.

“Some of these areas the criminals used to hang out in aren’t there anymore, so they’re coming down to the French Quarter,” said Capt. Kevin Anderson, the Quarter’s police commander.

But he insisted the Quarter is safe, largely because there are 45 more officers on patrol than before the storm. And he said crime is down from 2004 in all categories except assault.

“We’re dealing primarily with a perception problem,” he said. “When someone gets shot in the French Quarter, it’s not just national news, it’s international news.”