Sidney Torres is describing the color white. In the kitchen of a multimillion-dollar renovation project in a massive home on Barracks Street, Torres tries to explain a paint color to his crew.
"Not like a white white," he says. "Like a stone white. Like a carrara. Like a travertine stone. You know what I mean? Not travertine. It's not pure white. It's like a cream white. Not a cream white. I'm throwing you all over the place."
Dodging plastic sheets descending from the ceiling and piles of wood, tools and extension cords on the floor, Torres arrives in the master bathroom, which is encased in marble sourced from a quarry on the Tuscan coast of Italy near Forte dei Marmi, where a waiting list including Saudi princes queues for slivers of its ancient white stone. It's a painstaking process that begins with carving the rock, injecting a block of marble with epoxy and letting it sit for three days before it's cut into slabs revealing butterfly-like patterns. Then it's covered in another epoxy, placed on an oven rack for eight hours, polished and repolished to a pristine finish.
Torres had it cut into a bathtub.
"You can sit like Tony Montana and look at the TV," he says. "Remember that? Scarface?"
From the master bedroom window, Torres points to the backyard, which extends the entire block to Esplanade Avenue — just down the street from his home on the Marigny side of the street. And a few blocks away, another construction crew is gutting a former Carmelite monastery on North Rampart Street, readying the century-old building for what Torres plans to be an assisted living facility. His fingerprints are all over French Quarter real estate. And then there's his app, the crime-fighting tool he developed and monitors from his iPhone.
"A crime just came in," says Torres, carrying a bottle of Mountain Valley Spring Water and wearing a crisp white button-up shirt, partially unbuttoned, with black skinny jeans and black boots, a uniform he's rarely seen out of, with slicked-back near-shoulder-length hair. "Look: Assault on Royal Street and Canal. Guy dressed in all black walking 700 block near McDonald's fighting with homeless, cursing and yelling up and down the street. Punched a guy."
Torres has followed a Donald Trumpian path from playboy real estate mogul to the city's most well-known garbage man, unironically trying to make trash pickup a cool civic duty, while swatting and filing lawsuits and building a resort in the Bahamas before his antagonistic pivot into politics as a bizarro Bruce Wayne leading a fleet of private security Batmen. His French Quarter Task Force app inspired a Fox cop drama and a reality TV series. And now he's seriously considering running for mayor of New Orleans.
The Monastery of St. Joseph and St. Teresa of the Discalced Carmelites of New Orleans was completed in the late 19th century as a sprawling fortified village of gardens, orchards, chapels, a refectory and humble living quarters inside a stone wall surrounding nearly the entire block at Rampart and Barracks streets. The discalced nuns (barefooted, or in sandals) spent life in quietude, praying and writing, sleeping in small rooms on simple mattresses before leaving the monastery in the 1970s for the Northshore.
Torres competed with several other bidders for the property late last year and won. "It's easy to turn this into condos and apartments," he says from inside the monastery's main building, a chapel bathed in worn yellow light and surrounded by ornate stained glass. "Everyone's doing that." (And so is he; Torres recently unveiled plans for a four-story development with luxury apartments and high-end retail covering nine acres near Bayou St. John.) He envisions the property, among the biggest single pieces of land for sale in the Quarter, as a resort-like assisted living facility.
"I want to do something where you don't have to sell it to your mother, father, grandmother, uncle. They want to come here," he says. "Because it's like a five-star hotel. I want a different chef every month to come in and be responsible for the kitchen — different types of local chefs to come here and work the kitchen."
When Torres placed his bid, he didn't have a plan ("I was like, 'I'm going to buy it. Then I'll figure it out,'" he says). The property was his "blank slate," and he was inspired by community service he performed at assisted living facilities while in boarding school in Connecticut. He says his plans received early support from the neighborhood organization Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates: "One of them said, 'Put me on the list.'"
“The crime issue is definitely better than it was when I started the Task Force. It could be Better.”
He anticipates another year before permits and plans are approved. He'll open the church and common space for weddings and events.
"When I sold the garbage company, I felt a little lost," he says. "When I jump into a project, I'm very passionate about it and I live and breathe it to the point of being there all the time. When my heart's not in it, I won't do it. It's not just about the money."
Sidney D. Torres IV is heir to a powerful St. Bernard Parish political family — among them, his grandmother Lena Torres, a longtime Clerk of Court, and his father Sidney D. Torres III, a prominent attorney. Torres IV received glowing national press following Hurricane Katrina with his SDT Waste & Debris garbage collection and street cleaning in the French Quarter. Nicknamed "Trashanova," he blasted streets with a famously Epcot-like "lemony-fresh" scent, drove his ubiquitous glossy black golf carts branded with the SDT bull logo and starred in ads alongside Kid Rock, whose voiceover gravely whispers, "I been to a lot of cities all over this great land — New Orleans is one of the cleanest I've ever been to." Progressive Waste Solutions bought SDT in 2011. (Last year, Metairie-based company Empire Janitorial Sales and Services took over sanitation in the French Quarter for an annual $4 million contract with the city.)
Torres also sold his French Quarter Hotel Group in 2011, and in 2012, he purchased The Cove resort in the Bahamas on the island of Eleuthera, where he lived part time. Torres invested nearly $20 million on the island, built 75 villas and two restaurants and hosted Justin Bieber's 20th birthday party. Torres largely had disappeared from New Orleans' radar — until 2014, when he sued his neighbors, Buffa's Bar & Restaurant, for what he said were noise violations. Then just a few days before Christmas, someone stole his TV.
Amid a streak of thefts and violent crime in the neighborhood, a man broke into Torres' Esplanade Avenue home. Torres offered a Crimestoppers reward of $8,000. In January, two men robbed a bartender and customer at gunpoint at Buffa's — Torres donated $5,000 to the Crimestoppers reward. He also launched an ad for a website, www.keepthefrenchquartersafe.com, and delivered a warning shot to Mayor Mitch Landrieu: "The French Quarter's under siege by criminals. ... We should hold the administration accountable for the failures of not protecting the French Quarter."
Landrieu, challenged by Torres' ads that also began airing in other cities to warn potential tourists, said Torres wasn't helping. "Rebuilding a city is not as easy as Mr. Torres seems to think it is," Landrieu told WWL-TV in January 2015. "He made millions and millions and millions of dollars off garbage contracts in the French Quarter, and maybe he should just take some of that money and do it himself if he thinks it's so easy. It's just not."
On Twelfth Night in 2015, roughly 100 people, mostly white residents of the French Quarter, rallied in Jackson Square to demand more police protection, carrying signs reading, "New Orleans: Scared to Leave Our Home" and "Welcome to Landrieuville: Home of Robbers, Stabbers and Rapists."
Two friendly golden retrievers, Lady and Callie, sit under Torres' glass kitchen table while he makes tea at his Esplanade home. "I wanted to design something my grandma could use," Torres says.
Torres, inspired to "put his money where his mouth is," pulled out a napkin and mapped the French Quarter's six-by-13 blocks, the blueprint for his French Quarter Task Force app, his real-time crime-reporting tool commanding a fleet of off-duty New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers riding black, militarized Polaris ATVs. The new patrols, welcomed by Landrieu and NOPD, beefed up and supported an understaffed 8th District in a citywide police department that officials say has fewer officers in its ranks than it needs to police the city. Within its first few weeks, the app was downloaded by nearly 10,000 people — more than twice the number of full-time residents in the Quarter and Central Business District.
Torres put up $380,000 to pilot the program in its first few months, using a handful of off-duty NOPD officers in souped-up golf carts to respond to disturbances in the neighborhood. Last summer, the French Quarter Management District (FQMD) assumed control of the program, chaired by Bob Simms with the district's Security Task Force, and paid for by the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. French Quarter voters also approved a sales tax increase to boost Louisiana State Police presence, resulting in a patchwork, hyper-policed tourism district with residents demanding, and getting, more police presence. Meanwhile, a frustrated Landrieu administration — and NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison, who absorbed devastating blows following nightmare audits of the office released after his hiring in 2014 — have changed how the neighborhood is policed in ways other neighborhoods aren't.
“The French Quarter is the heart. It’s the moneymaker. That’s why it has to be under control.”
Torres still owns the app, but has no oversight, and he says without 24-hour real-time GPS tracking, the program doesn't work. He blasted NOPD and Simms and circulated photos of officers in a bar and "sitting on the dark side of the street with his girlfriend instead of patrolling his route," he wrote in one widely circulated email in January.
"Bob and I made up," Torres says of Simms. "I apologized to him for putting it out there with the letter I did. I apologized to him for the back and forth. We talked about it. I said, 'Look, at the end of the day, it's not about you and I. It's about improving it, making it better.' I apologized for being so passionate about the program that it affected our relationship."
Though millions of dollars have been spent, and will continue to be spent, on law enforcement in the French Quarter, crime isn't necessarily dropping. Torres and NOPD believe police presence and a "proactive patrol" deters would-be criminals, though resources dedicated to responding to crime aren't necessarily preventing it. But data is frustratingly unreliable, reflecting multiple agencies reporting crimes; changes in how some crimes are classified; how task force calls are logged, or not logged; and sharp spikes in crimes in some parts of the year and dips in others. NOPD touted a reduction in crime in 2015, compared to 2014, despite FBI Unified Crime Reports showing crimes still are more frequent than in 2013.
"The crime issue is definitely better than it was when I started the task force," Torres says. "It could definitely be better."
Torres' app — the "Uber of policing" — and his private police patrol inspired a Fox cop drama tentatively titled APB, lined up for the network's 2017 season. Torres also recently signed a deal with Langley Productions, the reality TV producers responsible for COPS, for a series based on his app. The app also is launching in St. Louis and Chicago and Memphis are interested, Torres says. The program also received a $100,000 upgrade, courtesy of Torres. Last week, Torres rolled out a new fleet of vehicles — three matte-black Smart cars outfitted for French Quarter streets to eventually replace the carts — and a "2.0" version of the app, which puts that real-time GPS tracking in the software itself. Torres also announced a "high-tech war room" at NOPD's 8th District station for monitoring the patrol — all calls for service and police whereabouts are tracked through the software. Police also can clock in and out of shifts through the app.
"We still have a long way to go," Torres says. "The outside areas of New Orleans is definitely in need of community-type policing and community-type solutions. People say, 'Well, you're only worried about the French Quarter.' That's not true. It's just like, when you're sick, you go to the doctor, they say your foot's swollen but your heart's about to give out. They're not going to start working on your foot. ... Your foot is important, but the heart is what keeps you alive. The French Quarter is the heart. It's the money maker and the face and the financial side of the city and some of the state. That's why it that has to be under control. And it's a small area to be able to manage, so there's no reason why it shouldn't be."
The city's adoption of private police forces mirrors a growing national trend of private police supplementing, and sometimes wholly replacing, local cops. The French Quarter-as-crime magnet, and response from its mostly white and wealthy residents, historically has drawn more resources and attention than crime in mostly black surrounding neighborhoods. Over Memorial Day weekend, there were six killings, including a double murder, and two dozen armed robberies. All of them were outside the French Quarter.
"The rest of the city is definitely something — we can't arrest our way out of the problem," Torres says. "That's the whole reason the app was designed, to give power to some of these people living in the neighborhoods who see these things every day, and establish a task force where instead of saying, 'We don't have enough officers,' it can be, what officers can we put on a task force to be able to do like we did in the French Quarter, to at least begin eliminating the bad cells, and working with the young children and the ones growing up now to begin looking at other avenues of success rather than going the direction of drug dealing and robbing and stealing."
Torres clearly has thought about this before — he's mulling running for office, most likely the mayor's seat, and the results of a phone poll have encouraged him.
"I was surprised to learn how many people knew who I was citywide," he says. "I knew being on TV all the time, people know who you are, but not knowing what I did."
He says a phone poll gave him mostly positive marks from both black and white voters, which he attributes to his "hands-on approach" ("If it doesn't get done, then I'm going to jump in and get it done myself and put my money down to make it happen," he says).
"I would never go out and try to hire someone for a position until I understand the position fully — until I get in a car and ride the streets, until I climb into a tank at the Sewerage & Water Board and see what's going on," he says. "You have to do it the in-the-field-type way for where we are right now."
Torres notes the next mayoral election is a year and a half away.
"I'm serious about keeping the door open," he says. "I'm not going to rule that out right now. My hope is that someone steps up that can do the job, from the approach of hands-on, in the field. This city, currently, right now, has to be run from in the field, not behind the desk. I know [Mitch Landrieu] is out there. I’m not criticizing his efforts. ... I believe a hands-on approach from someone who understands business, someone who balanced a checkbook, someone who knows how to make payroll when you don’t have a lot of money coming in, someone who knows how to manage different departments and understand different departments — you got to have someone who can look at something quickly and diagnose it from experience, not from trying to hire a consultant or an engineer to figure it out.
“If there is someone out there who can fill those shoes,” he says, “and if there is someone out there who can not have other financial responsibilities they’re dealing with, as far as being heavy in debt, with lots of loans, and can focus on doing the job and not have goals of moving to a different position after being the mayor because this is a stepping stone, then I’ll stand behind that person and support them. That’s my first choice.
“If that doesn’t happen, the door’s open, and I’ll seriously consider it.”