Police patrol the French Quarter, where the New Orleans City Council is… (Gerald Herbert, Associated…)
Reporting from Atlanta — From a distance, it seemed like common sense: an ordinance meant to keep children away from an open-air night-life zone with more than 350 places to buy booze, an abundance of strip joints and a 300-year-old reputation for iniquity.
But last week, as the New Orleans City Council approved a strict curfew for youths 16 and younger in the French Quarter, it sparked an incendiary debate that laid bare some of the tensions over race and police priorities that the Louisiana city — which suffers from the nation's highest per capita murder rate — is struggling to resolve as it navigates its post-Hurricane Katrina future.
The ordinance, which was unanimously approved Thursday, revises a long-standing 11 p.m. curfew on Friday and Saturday nights to 8 p.m. for the French Quarter and part of the nearby Faubourg Marigny neighborhood.
In the rest of the city, an 11 p.m. curfew remains on weekends, with an 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. curfew on weekdays, depending on the season.
Councilwoman Kristen Gisleson Palmer, whose district includes the French Quarter, wrote the ordinance. The goal, she said, was to protect children from violent incidents like the headline-grabbing shootings last Halloween night, in which two people were killed and a dozen injured by gunfire on or around the packed Bourbon Street party strip.
"If we can, in any way, protect children from that, I think it's very reasonable," Palmer said.
But in a pair of emotional public meetings, a number of residents, most of them African Americans, criticized the idea. Some alleged that the lawmakers were trying to keep low-income blacks out of the sightlines of tourists.
"There is this desire not to have these black males in the French Quarter," said Tracie L. Washington, an attorney who heads the Louisiana Justice Institute, a nonprofit civil rights group.
Palmer, who is white, dismissed the allegations.
Washington has called for an African American boycott of the French Quarter to begin on Jan. 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
New Orleans has seen a remarkable rebuilding effort since Katrina in 2005. The 2010 election of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a white candidate who earned a broad swath of black and white support, was widely viewed as a promising new chapter in a city with a history of racial animosity.
But the current flare-up demonstrates the enduring anxiety that pervades civic discourse — an anxiety exacerbated after the storm, when African Americans cried foul over rebuilding proposals that they feared would keep them out of badly flooded neighborhoods that were traditionally black.
At the same time, post-Katrina New Orleans has been unable to solve a murder problem that plagued it long before the hurricane. Its 2011 tally of 199 homicides was a 14% increase from 2010.
Many of the killings are black-on-black crimes that occur far from the tourist-filled streets of the Quarter. And thus far, tourists have not been scared away. In 2010, New Orleans hosted 8.3 million visitors, the first time the 8-million-visitor threshold had been surpassed since the flooding.
Tourism is the city's largest source of employment, and it would seem foolish for a city government to neglect the French Quarter's safety.
But critics of the new curfew fear it is an instance of misplaced priorities.
At the council meeting Thursday, critics said the curfew would result in racial profiling of young blacks. One man called it "the equivalent of a black code."
Another African American speaker said that instead of "sugar-coating" the issue, the council should "just tell us straight up — you don't want us."
Some worried that police would harass black kids going to and from restaurant jobs, or when they were busking or tap-dancing for tips from tourists. Palmer, the councilwoman, said those kids would be left alone because the ordinance exempts, among others, people at work or headed to and from work.
Many critics argued that the new curfew hours would seem more fair if they were enforced citywide. Palmer said her staff was working on a new ordinance to do just that.
Ronal Serpas, the city's police superintendent, said he had asked his officers to be more diligent about enforcing the existing citywide curfew since he took charge of the police department in May 2010.
Some French Quarter residents have applauded the new curfew, but other New Orleanians wonder whether police, in enforcing the rules, will be distracted from more crucial duties. In many cases, youths breaking the curfew will be told to go home, but in some instances police might take them into custody.
Rudy Matthew Vorkapic, editor and publisher of the New Orleans Levee, a satirical newspaper, said it's likely that one of the city's time-honored traditions will fall victim to the new rules: the Bourbon Street teenage bender.
That retching rite of passage, Vorkapic said, may now have to play out the way it does in the rest of the country: "In schools, or at home."