Letter: Targeting French Quarter T-shirt shops shows bias

When my parents decided to follow their American Dream 30 years ago, they moved their young family to New Orleans and risked everything to sell T-shirts, souvenirs and everyday memorabilia in the French Quarter. They sought opportunity and the means to educate their children.

Unfortunately, the tourism economy of New Orleans 30 years ago afforded few opportunities for newcomers; the strip clubs near my parent’s fledging shops in the French Quarter probably would not have offered any prospects for a former engineer and his family from South Asia. My family and our shops in the French Quarter have survived recessions, crime waves and natural disasters, but we may not survive the assault on retailers that sell T-shirts, gifts and souvenirs and whose only crime may be selling what ordinary families want and can afford.

Sadly, some vocal residents in the French Quarter — represented by VCPORA — seek to impose their narrow agenda and have lashed out at visibly vulnerable groups that incidentally sell souvenirs. Now, city officials are suddenly dictating that some businesses in the Quarter remove all souvenirs from their stores. Sharing the culture of the French Quarter through entrepreneurship and creativity is a proud tradition of New Orleans. Whether or not the government has the arbitrary right to tell the public what they can buy and where they can buy it, the persecution of shops that sell T-shirts and souvenirs utterly violates New Orleans’ inclusive heritage.

Our family prides itself on offering opportunities to newcomers and often overlooked and diverse segments of the community. We employ associates from a variety of cultures and countries. Our shops are one of the first gateways for immigrants and newcomers to New Orleans to become part of the local community; many of these people go on to establish their own businesses, lead productive lives and enrich the city. The diversity in the souvenir shops of the French Quarter also reflects the diversity of the U.S. in the 21st century in general, which is sadly not as visible in other parts of New Orleans to this day.

Not every T-shirt shop is engaging in the worst excesses that have earned the ire of some residents in the French Quarter. Many shops are independent family-owned businesses that have survived economic turmoil, social upheaval and natural disasters. They have provided consistent tax revenue, property maintenance and employment to a variety of groups without placing too many demands on local resources or the environment.

Dialogue among responsible merchants, city officials and residents would better conserve scarce public resources and allow public officials to focus on threats to safety and health. Collaboration would also dispel concerns that the scrutiny placed on souvenir shops — but conspicuously not directed at other types of businesses — is rooted in cultural bias.

William Khan

small business owner

New Orleans