If a year could have an inferiority complex, a case could have been made for 1983: The year everyone in New Orleans was looking past in anticipation of 1984 and the World's Fair. Eighty-three was the year for primping; '84 was the year of the prom.
Some of that primping took place in the French Quarter where ancient streets were torn up and redone. The work was necessary but it was also horribly destructive to business. Merchants suffered as would-be customers, unwilling to leap barricades and to negotiate the mud piles that lay in the paths of the streets, shied away.
Just as music echoes off the Quarter's old buildings, so too do complaints. The grumbling was so loud that it was heard in City Hall where Mayor Dutch Morial searched for a solution. He could not stop the construction but he could offer to help the merchants get business back, some of which had been in decline even before the street construction. Morial proposed an annual French Quarter festival with the twist being that the celebration would be targeted not to tourists but to locals. The festival would try to show off a renewed Vieux Carre that the home town market could appreciate too. Thus, from the disorder of bull dozers and jack hammers a festival was born.
Celebrating its 31st anniversary this year, the French Quarter Festival has become the biggest event staged exclusively in the Quarter. Because it is held in April some locals think of the festival as a tuneup for the Jazz Fest, though organizers note that there is no admission to the French Quarter Fest and that the event celebrates a neighborhood as well as its music and food. With entertainment spread across stages throughout the Quarter and also a jazz brunch at Jackson Square, the festival has become a mammoth event. The first French Quarter festival was produced by a volunteer group of 12 with administrative help from City Hall, now the festival has its own staff and hundreds of volunteers.
As for its goal of bringing locals to the Quarter, the effort has apparently been successful. According to the festival's figures, by the time of its 20th anniversary approximately 300,000 people attended the weekend long event. Its surveys show that nearly half of the attendees were local; nine percent were from other Louisiana towns; 39 percent came from out of state. The remaining nearly 3 percent came from out of the country.
Festivals also have a way of drawing comment about the product that they promote. To us, because of the festival, April has become “let's look at the French Quarter" month. What we see is a neighborhood in which residents tell us they now feel safer than they used to, in fact the neighborhood has become one of the city's safest. Bourbon Street still reeks each morning from the partying the night before but now the streets are being cleaned better than ever. We wish that there were fewer absentee owners and more families in possession of the area's homes. Daiquiri bars have become the sort of ugly neighbor that T-shirt shops were in the '90s. Dining and jazz remain stellar experiences in the neighborhood now known for the annual "Stella!" shouting contest.
Life goes on. The festival’s organizers boast that the event is "The largest free music festival in the south" and they are justifiably proud that just about all the musicians who perform there are local.
We hope that the festival generates and appreciation for the Vieux Carre. Its neighborhood is where the city was founded, and now the city is rediscovering the neighborhood. And may it be added to the legacy of Dutch Morial that the neighbors were appeased.