Business owners in the French Quarter were furious. The year was 1983 and the neighborhood’s old streets were plowed up making it either impossible or problematic for vehicles and pedestrians to pass their stores. Not even in the days when the Quarter was a dusty frontier town with dirt roads had passage been so bad. Sure there would be a World’s Fair in the distance, 1984, and in preparation the streets were being redone, but the businesses were losing money now. The future could wait; the Quarter had to survive the present.

Mayor Dutch Morial was accustomed to adversity. On the second full day of his first term, May 3, 1978, heavy rains and an inadequate drainage system had caused the city’s greatest urban flood that anyone could remember. Then, a few months later, as Carnival approached, the police went on strike. Morial stood firm, Carnival parades in New Orleans were cancelled that year, and in the end Morial won.

Being the city’s first black mayor had toughened him up for conflict, though he could also empathize with the plight of the business owners. The street work needed to continue, but Morial made a promise. After the work was over, the city, as an appeasement to the businesses, would organize a festival. Not only would it bring some pre-World’s Fair dollars to the Quarter, but it would also encourage locals, many of whom had written off the Quarter as being for tourists, to revisit the neighborhood.

Once the work was completed, Morial turned on the resources of city government, including providing police and sanitation services, granting permits, building bandstands, collaring volunteers, directing traffic and making the streets pedestrian friendly.

Morial was no slouch when it came to using power, and the office of mayor of New Orleans is inherently powerful, but one factor City Hall could not control was the weather. Sandra Dartus, who served as the festival’s first coordinator, would later recall: “I spent that first weekend under cover in the Square during the torrential downpour that prompted us to repeat the event the next weekend.”

An optimist might call it an event so nice they did it twice. A realist might say that once more New Orleanians defied the weather, so much so that the early Festival even included more substantial drops from the heavens as skydivers landed along the riverfront.

That was 1984. Now, under the direction of French Quarter Festivals, Inc., the festival has grown beyond what even the big thinking Morial might have imagined.  It now bills itself as “Louisiana’s largest free music event.” Because it falls in the same month as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, there is a temptation of thinking of the French Quarter event as a warm up, but that does not do it justification. While both events are spectacular there are some important differences:

1.)      There’s not admission to the French Quarter Festival.

2.)      There is a heavy emphasis on local musicians.

3.)      While the Jazz Fest is about culture and heritage, the French Quarter Fest is about a neighborhood.

Through the years the festival has proved that even a rocky road can be made into a path for success, especially when there are second lines marching on them.

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Have something to add to this story, or want to send a comment to Errol? Email him at errol@myneworleans.com.

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