Do-it-yourself commerce flourishes outside Jazz Fest grounds

Everything from essentials to impulse buys can be found in area around Fair Grounds

While music lovers slugged down $7 Miller Lites and $3 bottles of water at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Sunday, a different capitalistic ritual was happening amid the shotgun houses and neighborhood businesses that border the Fair Grounds, the festival’s longtime home.

Little girls bedecked in matching pink, sequin-spotted dresses hawked water and candy, while makeshift cardboard signs advertised $20 parking in barely legible scribbles. Rasta-colored wristbands, beer koozies of every imaginable stripe, sunglasses, sunscreen, beer, crystals and a finger-licking spread of barbecued chicken wings all were for sale in a frenzy of commerce and community orchestrated by locals, many of whom would never set foot inside the festival grounds.

“It’s great. We get to spend time with our friends and our family,” said Leslie Stewart, 31, who manned a stand at O’Reilly and North Gayoso streets.

Stewart was selling lemonade, water, nachos and chili dogs to passersby in front of her mother’s house. She said she started her stand last year, inspired by a project her son, Raheem, did that involved lemonade.

Stewart said she made about $200 in profits in 2013, most of which she used to help pay for athletic gear for her kids.

Joining her at the stand was her father, Vic Stewart, 68, who was barbecuing chicken wings on a small grill.

He talked about the “old-school rub” he used on the wings, though he opted to keep the ingredients secret, and offered to “spice up” a customer’s lemonade with a bit of Ciroc Vodka if desired.

A half-block away, a woman named Amanda, who gave her age, 26, but not her last name, also was cashing in on Jazz Fest attendees looking to catch an extra buzz.

In front of her apartment, she was offering a menu with a full selection of Jell-O shots; she said she was hoping they would net her enough cash to cover a month’s rent.

“It’s an impulse thing,” Amanda said about her wares. “Nobody actually wants a Jell-O shot, but they’ll buy them.”

She described her primary customers as “bros without female accompaniment” and said business really picks up around 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., when festivalgoers begin to depart.

Amanda said she wouldn’t be going into the festival, instead opting to enjoy the grooves from her porch stoop.

“I can listen to everything from right here,” she said.

She had boosted her business by networking with a few cabdrivers who agreed to drop off their passengers in front of her apartment, she said.

The blocks adjacent to the Fair Grounds have for years been transformed into a street market of sorts during the festival, but City Hall has made an effort the past couple of years to limit and regulate commercial activity outside of the gates.

A statement released by the Mayor’s Office on April 21 warned that commercial businesses must get a permit, at a cost of $265.25, if they intended to rent out their property for parking.

It also said the city would “aggressively enforce the rules against transient vendors (carts, trucks, etc.) from improperly selling their products within the festival’s ‘Clean Zone’ ” — the area around the Fair Grounds where only officially authorized sales are permitted on sidewalks, yards or streets.

None of the vendors selling goods around the festival said they knew where the Clean Zone was, but some did say they had been warned by city revenue officers that they needed a permit.

Johnny, who declined to give his last name, was operating a small bazaar in front of a house on Gentilly Avenue that offered everything from sombreros to sunscreen. He said he had been told by a city official Thursday that he would face a fine if he didn’t buy a permit.

For $32, he was able to purchase a permit for a rummage/garage sale that allowed him to operate legally, he said.

One of his featured items was a “Jazz Fest survival kit” that included toilet paper, toilet seat covers, sunscreen, sanitizer wipes and an array of other items. He said it typically retailed for $30, though “everything is negotiable.”

According to Johnny, his profits from the stand would be enough to pay for his Brass Pass — allowing unlimited access to the festival each day — and a good bit more.

A few blocks away, on Fortin Street, an army of hawkers congregated.

Kevin Stevens, 24, was selling bottled water along with his friend Mike, who declined to give his last name.

Stevens said he was hoping to make enough cash to pay for his Mardi Gras Indian suit, which would cost about $2,000.

Mike, who said he has two kids, was hoping to make a little extra pocket cash to support them. “I’m just trying to put a roof over their head,” he said.

The two men said they grew up in the neighborhood and have been selling goods outside the Fair Grounds for more than a decade.

They said the street market used to be much less crowded, and now they often feel they can’t compete with the gang of young children who dominate the water market with their cuteness.

“When we started, we would beat on buckets,” Mike said forlornly. “We’re too old for that now.”