City mulls overnight square closure

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Street performer Alex Agee works the pedestrian mall next to Jackson Square in New Orleans Friday. A proposed city ordinance would require the pedestrian malls around Jackson Square to be clear of any street performers, tarot card readers or vendors between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Street performer Alex Agee works the pedestrian mall next to Jackson Square in New Orleans Friday. A proposed city ordinance would require the pedestrian malls around Jackson Square to be clear of any street performers, tarot card readers or vendors between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.

On most nights and into the early morning hours, a small amount of activity takes place on the pedestrian malls of Chartres, St. Ann and St. Peter streets that ring Jackson Square.

A proposed city ordinance, though, could put an end to the overnight tarot card readings and gathering of others who meet outside the square for any number of reasons. Some of those who make their living on Jackson Square, however, have vowed to fight the possible changes, saying that they are unnecessary and will cut into their incomes.

Councilwoman Kristin Palmer introduced the ordinance at the Landrieu administration’s request. The proposed legislation would prevent anyone from lingering in the area or setting up tables or furniture between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. and is a “reasonable” way to clear the pedestrian malls for cleaning, Palmer said.

Jennifer Waldron has been a tarot card reader on the square since 1997. She said she could understand the city closing the area for an hour or two at night or for special events but views the permanent four-hour closure as severe.

She said she often works from 6 p.m. to midnight and sometimes later.

“Am I supposed to tell my customer, ‘It’s 1 a.m., we have to go now?’ ” she asked Friday at her table in front of St. Louis Cathedral.

She and others who work on Jackson Square said the city is trying to flush out homeless people and “gutter punks” and trying to clean up the area’s bohemian atmosphere to create a postcard image of the public space when cameras arrive for the Super Bowl in February.

In the process of removing vagrants, Waldron said, the city will lose an important part of what gives Jackson Square its personality if tarot card readers, musicians and street performers are forced out as well.

“Readers, performers and musicians are scared,” she said. “This is our livelihood.”

Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Gov. Mitch Landrieu, said the city is trying to stop a problem of people sleeping in the area, but that the city also considers the pedestrian malls a public park and as such they are subject to operating hours. The streets became vehicle-free zones in 1970 and since then have been the home to artists, musicians, street performers and tarot card readers.

He said the goal of closing off the area to activity during the overnight hours simply is a way to make sure a thorough cleaning can happen without disrupting the artists who work there during the day. He emphasized that daytime operating hours will not be affected.

Palmer said a UNO study found that 80 percent of those who visit New Orleans every year also visit Jackson Square, leaving little time to give it a good scrubbing.

“In no way are we talking about closing it down,” Palmer said of the proposed ordinance. “We’re trying to figure out what is the best way of systematically stopping the problem that is cleaning up this place.”

Peter Bennett, a musician who has performed on the square for 18 years, said he must perform at night because he has an eye condition that makes it nearly impossible to work in the sun. He said he worries he and other musicians who work later hours would be affected by any changes.

“My feeling at this point is the musicians ... will be collateral damage,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, I won’t be able to continue to make a living in New Orleans like I have for 18 years.”

Adding new laws will just be overkill, Bennett said.

“There are plenty of rules, regulations and other tactics that allow police to clear out people sleeping on benches and causing problems in Jackson Square,” he said.

Berni said that the proposed laws should not affect any musicians or performers, particularly since most of them don’t perform during late-night or early-morning hours.

“We’re just trying to make sure the park’s clean and safe,” he said.

Louis Sahuc, a photographer and gallery owner who has lived and worked on Jackson Square for 25 years, said many of the people who occupy the pedestrian malls overnight cause fights or urinate and defecate on the sidewalks and door steps and vandalize property.

“It’s a quality of life issue,” he said. “Jackson Square is a beautiful city square, but it looks like a shanty town out there half of the time.”

The ordinance is expected to be discussed Dec. 3 during the council’s governmental affairs committee meeting.

Waldron said she and her counterparts will try to work with the city to come to a compromise before then, but that they are ready to take legal action if the proposed ordinance passes as written.

Berni said the city is “always prepared” to handle any possible litigation.