Could New Orleans' Public Drinking Culture Disappear?
Famed for its laissez-faire attitude toward sin, New Orleans has been slowly but surely cleaning up its act. After a smoking ban recently passed, some wonder if the city's culture of public drinking is under threat.
Photo via Flickr user katebarnum
New Orleans denizens have boozed since time immemorial—the exact date is definitely hazy for most people. At least as far back as the early 19th century, shocked out-of-towners gawked at this Deep South den of iniquity, rueing the countless rum houses, billiard halls, saloons, and back alley dispensaries that often remained open on Sundays. By 1853, French geographer Elisée Réclus regretfully estimated that New Orleans was home to some 2,500 drinking establishments.
The Crescent City's particular brand of drunken boorishness can appear unseemly, but detractors often forget, ignore, or simply fail to comprehend the town's distinct social dynamics: a cultural cocktail that's equal parts climate, history, and fatalism. Unbearable summer heat; the seemingly eternal moral tug-of-war between Southern, Roman Catholic sensibilities and laissez-faire sin; the near constant possibility of natural and/or manufactured ecological disaster—it's enough to drive one to, well, drink.
Enter solutions such as the to-go cup daiquiri: the neon slush melting away in gallon jugs at corner drive-thrus and ice-cold Bourbon Street window shops. Radioactively bright potions with names so crass they'll turn your mother's cheeks the color of Sweet Pussy (case in point). These cocktails are meant to be downed on the go, and New Orleans—your municipal drinking buddy—generally makes it as easy to do so.
It isn't always a drunken walk in the park, however.
Over the years, the city's party policing has fluctuated, but it wasn't until about 50 years ago that certain powers that be introduced the first major reforms. Back then, Bourbon Street was arguably even more of a shitshow than today, albeit kept largely within gaudy burlesque houses and similar establishments. In 1962, then-District Attorney and buzzkill Jim Garrison attempted to clean up the corridor by raiding vice-dealing businesses as often as possible, resulting in widespread closures of drinking institutions. It wasn't long before ever-ingenious proprietors found loopholes in the laws and started selling food and drinks to passersby via open doors and alleyway stands. "Window hawking" was born, eventually evolving—or devolving, depending on your viewpoint—into our modern, on-the-go way of life.
Go-cups are part of the culture of New Orleans. People are gonna do it regardless. Just like anything else.
Nowadays, in most areas of the city, you can buy a Suicide (a covered Styrofoam cup) out the front door and wander the town in search of misadventure, sipping on your ice-cold drink the entire way. Jazz Daiquiri, a New Orleans institution blocks away from Lil Wayne's childhood stomping ground of Holly Grove, has offered these concoctions for years.
Q93.3, the local hip-hop radio station, blasts from speakers inside the bar, a large room not much warmer than the drinks served inside. Temika, one of the women on staff the Saturday afternoon I visit, patiently explains the importance of go-cups as I fight off an Everclear-spiked brainfreeze.
"Go-cups are very important because you can get your name out there. You can expand your brand so people know who you are," she says.
I ask her about more recent changes in New Orleans nightlife—specifically, the business smoking ordinance which kicked into effect earlier this year. Temika doesn't seem fazed.
"We banned smoking in this establishment a long time ago. It hasn't affected business much."
When questioned about the rumors of further, drastic curbing of the city's licentious ways, such as banning bars from distributing go-cups—a policy supposedly enforced only a few streets away in the "New Freret" corridor—she shrugs.
"It's part of the culture of New Orleans. Drink responsible, of course … but people are gonna do it regardless. Just like anything else."
Not everyone shares Temika's nonchalance. Micah Burns, one of the owners of nearby music venue Gasa Gasa, dealt with complex ordinances established by the local neighborhood and business alliances around Freret Street after Katrina. Over the phone, I ask him how exactly the New Freret ordinances could pass in a city known for such laxity.
"The whole neighborhood being kind of gutted through Katrina left a lot of holes that, you know, people with money and ambitions filled," Burns tells me. "As it goes, I think that their will is what is listened to."
After over a year of making sure Gasa Gasa was up to code, including early closing hours and discouraging the distribution of go-cups, the space opened up in 2012, and now annually hosts hundreds of national indie and punk rock acts.
"I think, honestly, the people who were kind of running the show had a reasonable interest in cleaning up Freret Street," Burns laughs. "The last bar that was really going strong there was Friar Tuck's, and there was a murder there [in 2011]. It was a rough thing. They ultimately wanted to make sure that you passed a certain sort of challenge in order to open up."
On the one hand, it makes sense. Since Katrina, New Orleans has struggled with rampant crime rates. The NOPD currently has the city's lowest number of homicide detectives in five years. Serious crime numbers for the first quarter of 2015 may show an overall eight percent decrease from 2014, but murder is up 45 percent. The city's seen an almost 53 percent increase in reported rapes.
If you change the entire demographic of a neighborhood, what is the neighborhood?
"It was a Wild West for such a long time, where you could do whatever the hell you wanted. Some implemented [changes] aren't the craziest ideas, but again, I think a lot of them are more motivated by money," concedes Burns. "It's arbitrary, and it's not helping any of the businesses."
If it's not helping the businesses, then who is benefiting?
"It seems to me that the biggest industry post-Katrina has been real estate," he says. "But the people I'm talking about are also really honest, good folks … It might be paranoia, but I think it might be part of a larger scale of vision that people have for 20 years in the future—that we're gonna have a clean metropolis."
What's more problematic to many people—Burns included—are the demographics of the people in power. But this, too, isn't easy to criticize.
"They're post-Katrina ... but, I am. I left when I was ten and came back when I was 26, so I'm not from here, you know what I mean? It's a complicated thing," he says. "I'm certainly part of what is concerning some people."
Burns see a difference, however nuanced, between gentrification and revitalization. "I think you can hide behind revitalization, I guess. You can do all kinds of political things based upon this idea that you're helping the neighborhood. But if you change the entire demographic of a neighborhood, what is the neighborhood?"
It's certainly not just the recent transplants who notice the changes. Stalwarts of New Orleans drinking culture are even more perplexed by the smoking bans and neighborhood go-cup ordinances. Earl Bernhardt is a three-decade resident and owner of the five Tropical Isle bars scattered throughout the French Quarter. His trademark daiquiris, Horny Gators, and Hand Grenades are staples of boozy nights and painful mornings-after. Bernhardt, who usually sports a gold-plated grenade charm necklace, is no fan of any of the new changes, as he makes abundantly clear talking over the phone while visiting Key West.
"It's a very important part of our culture … We have our little to-go windows and alleys, which probably make up about 20 percent of our business."
Recent nightlife restrictions have already been unkind to the Tropical Isles. "[The smoking ban] did cause a drop off," Benhardt explains. "People would get their drink and walk outside, and then wander off to another location."
The smoking ban introduced and pushed into law by city councilwoman Latoya Cantrell was described as an attempt to improve the health and working conditions of those in the New Orleans service industry.
"[Councilwoman Cantrell] said she was trying to protect our bartenders and musicians," Bernhardt remembers. "When we had the hearings at city council, I had probably 80 to 100 employees that came there and stood up and said they were opposed to the smoking ban. I didn't say they had to come—it was strictly voluntary."
You can take our cigarettes, but you better not f%$# with the go-cups!
To even an outsider such as myself, other solutions seem pretty self-evident.
"If somebody doesn't want to work in a bar with smoke, there's other bars they can go to," says Bernhardt, adding a fact true for a large swath of the city's bartenders and restaurant workers. "I would say 90 percent of our employees smoke."
To Bernhardt, the very thought of go-cup restrictions is antithetical to the raison d'être of New Orleans. And while he is wary of future change, he isn't entirely concerned.
"You've got politicians that want headlines better than using their good sense. I don't foresee it happening in the French Quarter because there are more and more cities that are following the lead of New Orleans," he tells me. "New Orleans sets the pace for party cities. Right now I happen to be in Key West, which they started with people walking around with go-cups here. Nashville's done it. Other cities have done it."
There are serious problems which require immediate addressing in New Orleans, but the loss of go-cups may not be one of them. New Orleanians simply have bigger things to worry about. Even Councilwoman Cantrell, stalwart defender of clean air, sounds as though she's on the side of Tamika, Burns, and Bernhardt.
"I do not see the City Council outlawing go-cups. The residents would go crazy, me being one of them!" she writes in an email. "I remember when I was working on the smoking ordinance to ban smoking in bars and casinos and one man told me, 'You can take our cigarettes, but you better not f%$# with the go-cups!'"
And if, one day, they do f%$# with them?
"That would be the straw that breaks the camel's back," says Bernhardt. "I've been in business 31 years, and if that happens, I'm selling out and leaving town."