If you've been in the French Quarter recently, you've likely seen new signs on balconies and galleries, in windows and on the sides of houses: "CAUTION," the signs warn. "WALK IN LARGE GROUPS. WE [HEART] NOPD. WE JUST NEED MORE." The signs — printed by frustrated neighbors and distributed by neighborhood groups — are a response to the latest spate of violent crimes in the Vieux Carre. Those crimes include two Christmas Day incidents: the mugging and stabbing of a man on Gov. Nicholls Street by a group of eight people, and the mugging and beating,of another man on St. Philip Street by five people.
There was another armed robbery and stabbing on Dec. 17 on Gov. Nicholls Street, and a man was beaten and robbed at 7:50 p.m. Dec. 11 on Dauphine Street near Canal Street. Also on Dec. 11, a California attorney walking back to his CBD hotel from the French Quarter was viciously beaten (but not robbed). Those incidents followed a string of armed robberies committed in early December by what New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officials say was the same group of muggers.
All this may sound like deja vu to longtime New Orleanians. In 1996, just weeks before New Orleans was to host Super Bowl XXXI, similar, blunter signs went up around the Quarter: "WARNING, TOURISTS: THE FRENCH QUARTER IS A HIGH CRIME AREA." The 1996 signs were largely a reaction to the murders of three young workers at the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen in the French Market. The workers were herded into the restaurant's walk-in freezer and shot in the head on a Sunday morning while vendors set up shop outside. There were 14 murders in the week after Thanksgiving that year, shocking a city inured to violence.
What happened next was not productive. On Dec. 5, hundreds of French Quarter residents and business owners (most of them white) marched on City Hall in protest, while then-Mayor Marc Morial met them with a "peace rally" of city workers and ministers (most of them black), who wondered, with some justification, where the marchers had been when African-Americans were killed by the hundreds. And the Vieux Carre Commission began hassling Quarter residents who had posted the signs, citing laws against unauthorized signs. To locals, that reaction had the feel of City Hall trying to paper over the problem rather than address it.
The current batch of signs appeared just as the city hosted large Sugar Bowl and New Year's Eve crowds, and so far City Hall has taken a hands-off approach.
The current batch of signs appeared just as the city hosted large Sugar Bowl and New Year's Eve crowds, and so far City Hall has taken a hands-off approach. Even tourism officials sounded a neutral note. "I certainly respect their right to express their opinion, and I understand their frustration, but also I'm aware of the active recruiting being done by the police department," Mark Romig, president of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, told Gambit last week. "But there is a tone on the signs that says 'We love the police,' and certainly the mayor and the police department have heard that."
At a year-end press conference last week, Mayor Mitch Landrieu pointed out that other neighborhoods have similar violent crimes. True, but nine people were shot (and one died) on Bourbon Street in June. It seems little has changed since then — except the departure of Louisiana State Police, who had helped beef up crime-fighting efforts in the Quarter. (Landrieu said last week federal and state governments "have a responsibility" to contribute to law enforcement in the city.) The mayor and Police Chief Michael Harrison stressed that NOPD is aggressively recruiting to rebuild its depleted ranks, and an unarmed civilian group called "NOLA Patrol," paid via self-assessed fees from local hotels, will be hitting the streets in early 2015.
French Quarter residents aren't waiting. This week, on Jan. 6, Twelfth Night — while the season's first king cakes are being cut and the Phunny Phorty Phellows take their annual streetcar ride — a "Citizens' Rally to End Crime in the French Quarter" will kick off at 5 p.m. in Jackson Square. Organizers say they want "to send a loud and clear message to Mayor Landrieu, Councilwoman [Nadine] Ramsey and Police Chief Michael Harrison that we're not gonna take it anymore!"
The last time Vieux Carre residents were angry enough to post signs de-nouncing crime in their neighborhood, the city pushed back. This time, we hope city officials work with Quarter residents. It would be a promising start to 2015.