On the heels of the closure of an annual Mardi Gras costume market inside the Blue Nile music club, a violent clash with the Krewe of Eris, and the closure of two nonprofits — all of which were within a few blocks of one another in the Faubourg Marigny — the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) was the subject of two reports: a largely positive public opinion poll and a devastating report from the U.S. Department of Justice.
One NOPD district is at the center of much of the controversy: The 5th, which covers the Bywater, Marigny, Gentilly, St. Roch and 9th Ward neighborhoods.
On March 9 (Ash Wednesday), NOPD 5th District officers visited the Iron Rail Book Collective at 511 Marigny St., asked to purchase a book, and then asked to see a business permit. Volunteers at Iron Rail couldn't produce one, so the officers suggested the library close until they could — and the same went for the other tenants of the building, often referred to as The A.R.K., after the arts collective that once rented the property. The building, a three-story brick warehouse overlooking Marigny and Decatur Streets, also housed Plan B, the New Orleans Community Bike Project.
Gambit's calls and emails to NOPD 5th District Cpt. Bernadine Kelley and Quality-of-Life Officer Matthew Alsina were not answered, but a March 10 press release (the NOPD's only public statement on the eviction) said the 5th District received a citizen's complaint from "the office of a City Council member" that the building "was operating without proper permits." In the release, NOPD said Romy Samuel, the city's Collector of Revenue, said the building didn't have "active permits." (The release also incorrectly called the Iron Rail the "Iron Rail Book Collection.")
NOPD and the mayor's office both say those missing permits are occupational licenses, or business permits.
But the city's occupational license tax code makes an exemption for nonprofits: "Any organization which has been organized for bona fide nonprofit purposes (including political subdivisions of the State of Louisiana) shall be deemed to be exempt from the occupational license tax imposed by chapter 150, article VII of the Code of the City of New Orleans."
Hundreds of residents showed up at a Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association (FMIA) meeting at St. Paul Lutheran School March 21 to hear concerns about anonymous complaints against neighborhood businesses, the most recent (and controversial) the closure of 511 Marigny St. A YouTube video of the meeting shows two NOPD officers telling Iron Rail members, "It's not the 5th District's decision. You have to go through the city, find out just as any business or 501c3, what licenses or permits you need to open." Iron Rail spokesperson Sean Walsh says, "We have our permits. We always did. The process has been gone through. We just came to say we're leaving the building. We want community support."
A quick search on the Louisiana Secretary of State's website shows both the Iron Rail (charter number 35567229 N) and Plan B (charter number 35038926 N) are listed as nonprofits in good standing. American Civil Liberties Union attorneys working with Plan B say Louisiana law does not explicitly state that nonprofits must operate in a building with an occupancy license.
Last week, Iron Rail announced on its website the bookstore is looking for a new home ("We're regrouping, and will open our library elsewhere in New Orleans."), while Plan B, which offers free bike repair workspace and assistance and low-cost parts, is performing "mobile" bike workshops on the St. Roch Street neutral ground.
"We are considering moving out of the neighborhood," says Plan B director Victor Pizarro. "But it does feel like defeat."
Founded in 2003, the Iron Rail housed a lending library and nonprofit bookstore with thousands of titles (some "radical" or anarchist, others not) as well as records and 'zines not typically found in other independent bookstores and libraries in the city. It also was the first library to reopen after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. Julian Mutter (of the Mutter family, which owns Doerr Furniture) purchased 511 Marigny St. in 1995 and says the Iron Rail, unlike its building-mate Plan B, was never popular with the neighborhood. Though Mutter says he supports bookstores and groups like Iron Rail, he met with its members and all parties agreed Iron Rail would voluntarily leave the building.
"We just thought it was mutually beneficial," Mutter says, adding the agreement was to case the possibility of Plan B reopening. "The Iron Rail really was never accepted by the neighborhood. ... They attract folks that hang around that are different — 'crusties,' travelers. ... They've got their own baggage, and they realize that. They figured it was better to go to another home."
Iron Rail and Plan B members — as well as business owners like Benny Naghi, who owns the Mardi Gras Zone market on Royal Street — feel the FMIA doesn't represent that neighborhood's diversity, and that FMIA was complicit in the NOPD's suggestion for the 511 Marigny St. tenants to leave.
In an email to Gambit, FMIA president Chris Costello says FMIA was "surprised to learn the businesses did not have proper permits to operate" but he "encourages the leaders of both groups" to obtain those permits.
"I'm utterly disgusted a small group of people can shut down a social service, a really badly needed social service in New Orleans, that doesn't cost anyone on the federal, state or local level a penny," says Pizarro, a New Orleans native who also works with the state's Regional Planning Commission on bicycle advocacy issues. "We do this because we care about it and believe in it. ... Who we service is a cross-spread demographic of New Orleans. It's not just white punk traveling kids. That's a broad spectrum — black people, white people, elderly, young. It's all over the place."
A telephone survey conducted in February by the NOPD and the New Orleans Crime Coalition found residents across New Orleans are increasingly satisfied with the NOPD's performance — in every district but the 5th.
Most districts showed a significant increase in citizen satisfaction from 2010 to 2011. The 1st and 3rd jumped nearly 20 percentage points to 63 and 78 percent, respectively. But in the 5th, satisfaction fell from 55 percent to 47 percent. The survey, however, was conducted Feb. 21-22, before the recent conflicts in that district: the Blue Nile costume market closure Feb. 27, the Krewe of Eris clash March 6, and the eviction of the A.R.K. tenants March 9. And the survey results were released just a day before a scathing report from a U.S. Department of Justice probe of NOPD operations.
So why the approval drop? Tulane University criminologist Peter Scharf says there are two factors: a change in demographics (more "dissatisfied" people, for one) and a shift in leadership and "the quality of service."
Others questioned the results of the survey itself. Community activist Jacques Morial sent a follow-up email to NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas pointing out what he called "fatal flaws in the methodology of the survey": an equal number of respondents from each district despite population differences, and the number of respondents with college degrees (56 percent) compared to the city average (28 percent). Nevertheless, Serpas says the poll is good news for New Orleans.
"This survey ... shows that the old, tarnished reputation of NOPD is on its way out," Serpas said in a statement. "We know we still have work to do."
District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, whose district includes the Marigny, says she wants to see Plan B return, and soon. Like Mutter and the tenants at 511 Marigny St., Palmer also isn't clear what permits Plan B needs to "get legal," despite the group's established nonprofit status and tax exemption.
"We're trying to get clarity for them," she says. "I just want to help them as much as I can and get them up and running because they really do provide a valuable service to the community."
But Palmer, who chairs the council's transportation committee and often supports the city's biking initiatives, says she's not familiar with Iron Rail or "who they are or what they do," and doesn't know enough about the bookstore to work with it to ensure its legality and future. "I'm willing to work with anybody, if their intent is to be legal and do it the right way," she says.
Some residents and members of Iron Rail and Plan B say the chronology of events suggests the building's closure was retaliation following the violent clash between the Krewe of Eris and the NOPD less than 72 hours before the officers visited the building.
Mutter, who has lived in the Marigny for 32 years, doesn't make the connection. "I think some unrulies ruined it for some people," he says. "(It was) a really good example of how a few people have ruined it for everyone else."
Palmer says the citizen complaint wasn't sent to her office, which represents District C and includes the Marigny. "We track what calls come in and forward them to the appropriate departments, and I'm sure the council office did the same thing for this one," she says. "It's not an issue of targeting; it's just an issue of you receive a complaint from a constituent and you forward it to the appropriate department."
The Iron Rail held its weekly meeting March 23 to plan its future but was not able to provide a statement to Gambit before the paper went to press.
Pizarro says last week Scott Hutcheson from the mayor's office, who is in charge of permitting, offered to help Plan B navigate the city's permitting process. They plan to meet this week.