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 French 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, ’84, and in preparation the streets were being redone, but the businesses were losing money now. The future could wait; the French 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 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, but 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 French Quarter, but it also would encourage locals, many of who had written off the French 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 the mayor of New Orleans is inherently powerful, but one factor City Hall couldn’t 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 sky divers landed along the riverfront.
That was 1984. This year the festival is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its organization. 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 Jazz Fest, there’s a temptation of thinking of the French Quarter event as a warm-up, but that doesn’t do it justice. While both events are spectacular there are some important differences:
- There’s no admission price to the French Quarter Festival.
- There is a heavy emphasis on local musicians.
- While the Jazz Fest is about culture and heritage, the French Quarter Fest is about a neighborhood.
Congratulations to all those who over the past three decades have contributed to the festival’s success. You have proved that even a rocky road can be made into a path for success.