John Hoff has owned and managed Fahy's Irish Pub on the corner of Toulouse and Burgundy Streets for 20 years. Tourists staying in the hotel across the street often come into the bar for a cocktail before they explore the French Quarter, and Hoff says they sometimes ask him if the neighborhood is safe. His answer, he says, has always been the same for two decades.
Until about six weeks ago.
"I generally would tell them, 'Yes, it's safe, just be careful,'" Hoff said. "'Be aware of your surroundings' and stuff. Lately I can't honestly say that. When tourists walk in and say, 'Are we safe in this neighborhood?,' I can't honestly say yes."
Fahy's is less than a block from where Lisa Bochicchio, a French Quarter bartender, was attacked during the day Jan. 3 while she walked down Toulouse Street. The day before Hoff told Gambit he was leery of crime in the neighborhood, two armed men had held up Buffa's Bar & Restaurant on a busy corner of Esplanade Avenue during normal business hours, when it was filled with people.
Hoff moved to the French Quarter in the early 1990s "when it was really bad," he said. He lives in the Faubourg Marigny, and he never walks home from work, opting for a cab any time after dark.
"Obviously the murder rate is down," he said, "but crimes like this have never been this bad."
On Twelfth Night, as members of the Krewe de Jeanne D'Arc put on their costumes in the Jax Brewery parking lot, more than 100 people gathered outside St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square to demand more police protection in the neighborhood. The rally followed growing frustrations from residents during a particularly violent end of 2014. In the final days of last year, while Mayor Mitch Landrieu charted the city's progress in lowering its murder rate, French Quarter residents demanded the city do everything it can to beef up the ranks of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). Residents and businesses began posting signs reading "Caution: Walk in large groups. We [heart] the NOPD. We just need more."
"We'll take what we can get," said rally attendee Edith Sercovich, who said her street recently has seen a murder, beatings and robberies. Sercovich handed out signs reading, "Welcome to Landrieuville! Home of Robbers, Stabbers & Rapists."
At the rally, several people broke out in chants, including "What do we want? Troopers! When do we want them? Now!" and "Where's the mayor? What's the plan?"
Landrieu has asked for help from state and federal officials, particularly from the Louisiana State Police, which put officers in the area during the Sugar Bowl and New Year's events — as well as support from federal law enforcement, which protects other historic sites in the U.S. but not the French Quarter. On Jan. 2, Landrieu once again called on Gov. Bobby Jindal for more state police.
"For New Orleans to continue to generate jobs and tax revenue for our state, it is imperative that the state of Louisiana continue to provide immediate additional resources to help protect our residents and visitors," Landrieu said.
Paul Melancon works at Bourbon Pub & Parade, but on a recent afternoon he was having a drink with locals at Michael's at the Park, a bar on North Rampart Street.
"My friend was the one who got stabbed on Gov. Nicholls," he said, referring to the armed robbery and stabbing on Gov. Nicholls Street that left a 43-year-old man hospitalized Dec. 17. "We have been friends for 17 years. He used to come here. It's close to home. This area used to be safe, because we do bar crawls and we walk, but not any more.
"I just moved to Mid-City. Part of that had to do with crime, and pricing," Melancon said, adding, "It's safer in Mid-City now than it is here, and 10 years ago I never would have lived in Mid-City."
For the first time in his life, Melancon doesn't feel safe walking around the French Quarter at night, and he's frustrated by the politics he said are getting in the way of taking action against crime. "I always walk with someone else. I'm more alert," he said. "It's mostly kids that are doing the crime, that's the sad thing. It's these kids. Where are the parents? It's the age-old question: Where are the parents?"
Next door, at Bar Tonique, bartender Mary Dixie has a different attitude. "I'm not scared," she said, though she added she notices the people around her taking more precautions. Dixie carries a small knife in her bag.
A manager at Verti Marte who did not want to give his name says the 24-hour corner store, located just three blocks from the site of the Dec. 17 stabbing, takes the slew of attacks seriously, filling in where the understaffed NOPD has stopped short. "We hired a security guard to stand outside past midnight on the weekends," he says. "We're hoping that everyone has some good common sense. We've had security cameras for a while, inside and outside the store."
Asked whether he's noticed an uptick in violent crime, he shook his head. "The crime has gotten ridiculous," he said. "We haven't seen it yet, but we're hearing it's really bad. I don't want to say too much, but it's a bad culture here."
"I think what Mayor Landrieu is trying to do is force the French Quarter businesses and residents to get privatized patrols that won't come out of the city budget," Melancon said. "I think that's what he's trying to do. It's all political."
It's not the first time signs posted throughout the Quarter have cautioned visitors. In the months leading up to Super Bowl XXXI in 1997, residents posted signs reading, "Warning Tourists: The French Quarter Is A High Crime Area" — which were promptly challenged by the Vieux Carre Commission in what outraged residents said was a politically motivated, retaliatory move. (Then-Mayor Marc Morial said his administration was not behind requests to remove the signs.) Those signs coincided with a wave of violent crime, including the deaths of three employees at Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, who were shot to death in the restaurant's freezer on a Sunday morning while vendors at the French Market set up their stalls just feet away.
Bob Simms with the French Quarter Management District's Security Task Force says NOPD officers in the French Quarter's 8th District are doing the best they can — they just need more. "We should be staffed at 160 officers. We're at about 100," he said. "They can't do what they need to do with that few officers. ... This is a citywide problem. It's manifested itself in the Quarter."
NOPD's ranks are at 1,135 officers, though NOPD and Landrieu agree they need 1,600 to patrol the city properly. A scheme to add paid details to Bourbon Street — the "NOLA Patrol" plan which businesses mapped out in order to free up NOPD officers to handle violent crime — is still on the table, though it won't solve the problem, Simms said. "At best, it's three guys. We're short way more than three."
"The city is going to have to come to the conclusion to do whatever it takes to build manpower," said Donovan Livaccari, attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, adding that the city's 2015 budget inclusion of a 5 percent police pay raise "is not going to cut it."
NOPD's understaffing also drew fire from the Police Association of New Orleans (PANO) earlier this month. PANO president Michael Glasser, a longtime Landrieu antagonist, wrote a blistering open letter to the mayor, saying that instead of championing NOPD's growth after Hurricane Katrina, Landrieu "chose to vilify the men and women of the NOPD." Glasser also criticized Landrieu's hiring of former Chief Ronal Serpas and for watching the department become "anemic, then anorexic, then fully decimated" as it lost 500 officers in Serpas' four-year tenure. Glasser said the 5 percent raise is not enough to attract and retain officers.
"The men and women of the NOPD still stand facing you, Mr. Landrieu," Glasser wrote. "The question is, will you now face us?"
On Jan. 7, the day after the anti-crime rally, NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison — who has absorbed the blows from his department's critics and from several devastating audits of its officers and practices since his hiring last fall — announced an officer boost in an unnamed task force that will be assigned to crime hot spots every night for the foreseeable future. The task force, which represents several police districts, will now have 16 officers in its pool, doubling its size from eight officers. The officers will be deployed between 6:30 p.m. and 3 a.m. nightly, Harrison said.
Meanwhile, former French Quarter sanitation mogul Sidney Torres took aim at Landrieu as well. Torres, who lives on Esplanade Avenue, had a break-in at his home in December and offered an $8,000 reward to find the burglar. Last week, Torres began airing 30-second TV ads claiming the French Quarter is "under siege by criminals" and demanding Landrieu take immediate action, saying he planned to air a similar ad in neighboring states aimed at potential New Orleans tourists.
"That's destructive. That doesn't help," Landrieu told Angela Hill Jan. 8 on her WWL radio show, An Open Mind, suggesting Torres should donate the money he spent on the commercials to the New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation.
On Hill's show, Landrieu cited statistics showing the city had its lowest number of murders since 1971, and asserting, correctly, he had increased the NOPD budget every year he'd been in office. He took exception with one media report saying he was "begging" for outside help. "I'm not 'begging' the state police to do anything," Landrieu said, pointing out that the city has valuable state and federal assets and that the state and feds should pitch in to help keep the area safe.
A new NOPD recruit class is scheduled to begin Jan. 12, the same day a self-defense class for Quarterites will be held at the Lisa Victoria Gallery on Royal Street. A second anti-crime rally is planned for Jan. 20 at noon at New Orleans City Hall. On the radio, however, Landrieu told Hill cracking down on crime takes time.
"Yelling at a tree is not going to make it grow faster," he said.