Security has been a primary concern in the French Quarter ever since the 18th century when France dispatched its convict ships from Marseilles to its woefully under performing settlement in the New World with instructions to make something of the place – and try not to kill each other.
Generally speaking, they were 50 percent successful. Ever since, it’s been well advised to keep your doors locked and your shutters latched.
A man’s home may be his castle, but the only moats in the French Quarter come after the rain.
Today we install amenities of modern technology – crime cameras, motion detectors, silent alarms and other electronic surveillance devices and apps – to create an illusion of safety for the modern consumer.
But let’s face it, once someone with nefarious intentions has breeched your property perimeter, the deterrence applications of Pinkerton 2.0 are pretty much out the (broken) window.
The point is not to let anybody in in the first place.
This explains some of the impossibly high walls that protect driveways and courtyards from not only the front, but the sides and backs of many properties as well. But for those not inclined to remove direct sunlight from their daily health regimen, or flowerbeds, there are other options.
The development of cast iron foundries in the 19th century allowed for homeowners to wrap their facades in an “iron lace,” which projected an appearance of security, dignity and strength, but mostly just looked pretty.
So came from the very same foundries, a new application for one of the Old World’s most classic, revered and basic utensils of war and safety: The iron spike.
When applied to the tops of gates or fences, they make for menacing rows of forged sentinels, motionless, durable and permanent. But therein lay their flaw – they don’t move. They can be grabbed and scaled with relative dexterity.
So some genius figured out how to attached a row of spikes around a rotor and then thread those rotors through an iron bar and, voila! The bad guy grabs a spike to climb a gate and it spins! They all spin! Now you’re on that TV show where the contestants try to grab onto stuff to scale a body of water but inevitably fall in. Thud.
They give the appearance of a medieval township, but then, that’s one of the Quarter’s original charms.
Then there are the occasional relishes of the post-Gestapo world, the ever-menacing coils of razor wire unspooled across the tops of gates and fences. Add a few decades of rust, and the discoveries of torn shirt remnants dangling from the barbs dramatically decrease over time.
My favorite security touch is the DIY method of laying a cement layer across the top of a brick or plastered wall and inserting into it an array of broken bottles and window shards before it drys. You can use nails for this purpose as well, but there can be an unintended aesthetic appeal to the glass touch; when the sunlight hits the wall just so, the passerby is treated to a subtle pinwheel of color.
Just the right added element of a visual WTF is that?
Yup, that’s how we keep the unwashed masses outside our homes. Or, according to British lore, the beloved inside.
For more than half a century, Queen Elizabeth II’s longtime royal escort, the ungainly but ruggedly handsome Prince Phillip, was rumored to be an insatiable philanderer; hundreds of tabloid headlines led to speculation that enhanced security protocols initiated at Buckingham Palace under her reign in the later half of the 20th century were intended not so much to keep the bad guys out, but to keep him in.
So consider that possibility next time you take in the wonder, character and menace of the French Quarter’s many unique approaches to personal safety.
Or another solution, as my girlfriend points out, in her very practical way: “You could just get a gun.”
But where’s the romance in that?