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In New Orleans, a French Quarter Revolution

Rules that aim to make the city's famed and raucous district cleaner and safer lead to worries that it could become a Disneyfied caricature.

September 08, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — On a bustling French Quarter promenade, Stacey Norwood -- a professional psychic with a purple table, pink flip-flops and long hair dyed something in between -- has found her calling.

A former corporate accountant who said she discovered an unusual gift of foresight, Miss Stacey reports that she once saved an author's career by urging him to dust off an old manuscript he'd forgotten about. Over the years, she has predicted sickness and pregnancy, adultery and true love.

But she didn't see this coming.

One of the nation's oldest neighborhoods and the famously bacchanalian face of this city, the French Quarter is in the grip of an identity crisis. A new regime in City Hall, convinced that the district has been allowed to degenerate from a fun-loving Utopia to a lawless den of hustlers and hooligans, has launched a crusade to make it cleaner, safer and more family-friendly -- and to recapture it as a residential community, not just a playground for visitors.

Authorities have begun herding street performers, such as the psychics, into particular quadrants and installing iron handrails to prevent the homeless from sleeping on park benches. Police are enforcing ordinances that were ignored for decades, resulting in citations and fines against unlicensed businesses, such as tour groups that have long mesmerized visitors with tales of the spirits that haunt the city.

Officials are weighing the future of some of the city's classic architecture, such as the site where the pirate Jean Lafitte supposedly operated a blacksmith shop as a front while selling his loot out the back door, which has led to a heated debate over when a building is historic and when it is just dilapidated. Even leaky garbage trucks are getting ticketed.

The rules are changing quickly, as they are for many in the heart of New Orleans, for a small band of psychics that has long offered such services as past-life regressions in Jackson Square, a public commons in the heart of the quarter.

The psychics used to be able to set up their workstations wherever they wanted, and they have traditionally been paid through "donations," meaning they have never quite operated real businesses and have never been required to get licenses.

That's how things have always worked around here: in the margins and the gray areas, where it's cheaper and more fun. Now the psychics are relegated to one side of Jackson Square, and they must keep their distance from merchants. There is talk of a permit system for Norwood and her colleagues and even talk of limiting their numbers and reserving specific pieces of sidewalk for individual psychics.

"Karma-wise, this is the thing I'm meant to be doing," said Norwood, a 60-year-old mother of two grown children. "I'm not going to quit. Never. But this is getting crazy. Everything around here is up in the air."

Indeed, the crackdown and the new regulations are beginning to split the French Quarter into factions.

Some believe the district can thrive only if it is cleaner and more family-friendly, a curious contention to those who note the liquor-to-go stands and the high number of strip clubs and show-me-your-breasts street fairs.

Others say some regulation is necessary to stave off carpetbaggers and developers who threaten to undermine preservation efforts, commercialize the district and chase away people who live there. And there are those who fear the regulation will go too far, turning the quarter into some sort of fake, Disneyfied creation, a caricature.

The tourists are pitted against the residents, the rich against the poor, the street performers against the cops, even the psychics against the painters.

American Civil Liberties Union leaders have taken notice, with some expressing concern that the campaign could violate artists' and residents' rights to free speech and expression. The voodoo bone-throwers and the palm readers have attempted to join forces by contributing to a legal defense fund.

Oddly, all sides have the same goal: keeping it real.

"What we have done is make our French Quarter cleaner and safer and more inviting, and allowed it to remain what it was always intended to be: the front door to the most interesting city in America," said Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, the councilwoman who has led the campaign this summer.

As few as 2,500 full-time residents live in the quarter, in the same six-by-13-block district believed to have been laid out in 1722 as the original city of New Orleans. However, as many as 20 million people visit each year. Do the tourists come in spite of the madness, or because of it?

Some street performers are sure it's the latter.

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