Dennis Persica: Could T-shirt shops be endangered?

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans visitor Jessica Young looks over the tee-shirt selection at a Decatur Street shop Monday, September 16, 2013. A 2011 city} ordinance placed a moratorium on more tee shirt shops in the French Quarter. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans visitor Jessica Young looks over the tee-shirt selection at a Decatur Street shop Monday, September 16, 2013. A 2011 city} ordinance placed a moratorium on more tee shirt shops in the French Quarter.

First, they came for the go-cups.

Now comes word that another emblem of New Orleans’ unique culture is being set up for a punch in the gut.

According to a story last week in The New Orleans Advocate, almost two-thirds of the more than 60 T-shirt shops in the French Quarter are operating illegally, and some people are clamoring to have them shut down.

The Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents & Associates Inc. — pronounced VCPORA, with the I in “Inc.” remaining silent — wants the city to close down those T-shirt shops that don’t comply with the law.

VCPORA says 42 of the 66 shops in the Quarter don’t have proper permits. This information was compiled by VCPORA volunteers, obviously a group of do-gooders who don’t have an appreciation of New Orleans’ unique culture.

If we let them close down the T-shirt shops, what other examples of New Orleans’ unique culture will be the next to go?

Those guys who paint themselves in silver and pretend they’re statues outside Jackson Square? The carriage drivers who make up historical details to tell tourists as they cart them around town? How many more blows like this can our culture possibly withstand?

Some of the T-shirt shops are licensed to sell only “resort wear,” so the strict constructionists want those shops to stick to selling polo shirts in Mardi Gras colors, ugly plaid shorts, floppy straw hats and Hawaiian shirts, not T-shirts.

It was obvious the anti-T-shirt fix was in recently when that venerable New Orleans institution, Brennan’s, teetered financially, and the building was about to be sold out from under the feet of the restaurant’s owners. Here was a fine Royal Street structure that would have been the perfect spot to become the Quarter’s 67th T-shirt shop.

What are they going to put there instead? Another restaurant!

This was obviously meant to thwart an attempt to provide the city with what the people want — more space to sell more T-shirts. After all, New Orleans needs another restaurant like Egypt needs more sand.

The French Quarter is busting with places to eat. There’s Arnaud’s, Galatoire’s, K-Paul’s, Antoine’s and, on almost every corner, a Lucky Dog vendor.

A good meal is memorable, but eventually the memory fades, then all you have left is the receipt. But a T-shirt is forever.

What could possibly say “New Orleans” better than a set of T-shirts modeled after those lovable Dr. Seuss characters, Thing 1 and Thing 2? But instead of “Thing 1” and “Thing 2,” the shirts say “Drunk 1,” “Drunk 2,” and so on. You’re supposed to wear these as a group while you stumble around the French Quarter.

You see what they did there? They took a popular cultural icon and subverted it for comic purposes. It’s that spirit of humor, irony and mimicry that has defined and sustained New Orleans culture through wars, pestilence, fires and floods for three centuries. Like the grand annual tradition of letting the Lord of Misrule poke fun at the powerful on Mardi Gras, this is something that should be celebrated and preserved.

When they came for the go-cups, people rolled over and didn’t fight. When the moment of truth arrives for the T-shirt shops, will any of us stand up for them?

Or will we just step aside and let the French Quarter become a sterile area of historic buildings, fine restaurants and art galleries, peopled by full-bellied tourists in resort wear?

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-based journalist. In his weekly column, he shares his throughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.