Some stories just grabbed Gambit readers this year, creating a flurry of passionate comments on our website and on Facebook. Some were of historical significance, some were important and some were — well, let's say, a bit less weighty. But the end of the year gives us a chance to update a few of the stories you really, really cared about.
PUT A RING ON IT
After all the fuss, there really was no fuss at all.
About 12:45 p.m. on Monday, June 29, Michael Robinson and Earl Benjamin became the first same-sex couple to marry in Orleans Parish Civil District Court. District Court Judge Paula Brown performed the ceremony in a small courtroom packed with family, friends and news cameras.
But at 10:32 a.m., Marrero couple Celeste Autin and Alesia LeBoeuf were the first same-sex couple in the state to receive a marriage license — from the Jefferson Parish Clerk of Court's office in Gretna. Both deputy clerks of court, the women had carried their birth certificates with them since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on June 26 that allowed same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states and recognized already-married same-sex couples in states that did not recognize those marriages.
"We kind of felt like we got ambushed in front of our boss," LeBoeuf says with a laugh six months later, remembering the day she received her marriage certificate, swarmed by news cameras. "We'd been together 38 years, so nothing's changed."
The couple held their marriage ceremony in July, long after the cam- eras disappeared.
On the afternoon of the decision, hundreds of people — in true New Orleans fashion, decked out in costumes and face paint — filled Jackson Square with rainbow flags and banners. But that initial decision was met with immediate challenges from Gov. Bobby Jindal and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who put the brakes on issuing marriage licenses in the state — but even Jindal, despite pending challenges from lower courts in the state, agreed that resistance was futile. "Of course we're going to comply with a court order," he told Meet the Press on June 28. Jefferson Parish Clerk of Court Jon Gegenheimer agreed the high court's ruling was clear, and Jefferson became the first parish to issue a license to a same- sex couple.
The Supreme Court's decision also marked a victory for several other same-sex couples in Louisiana who led a years-long court battle challenging the state's ban, a ban which Louisianans voted into the state constitution in 2004. Jon and Derek Penton-Robicheaux were legally married in Iowa in 2012 and were the lead plaintiffs in the suit with five other couples.
In September, the Robicheauxs renewed their vows in front of friends and family in their home state — at the Beauregard-Keyes House.
AFTER THE SMOKE CLEARED ...
Early in 2015, the New Orleans City Council chamber was packed with passionate speakers arguing that a controversial ordinance would drastically and negatively impact the city's way of life. Those people argued there were far more important issues plaguing the city, from violent crime to street repairs.
And this was several months before the debate over the future of Confederate monuments.
This was about — smoking.
You know... smoking? Indoors? In bars? It used to be a thing. Banning it caused a stir for a few months.
The city's Smoke-Free Air Act extension — banning smoking and vaping in bars and casinos — kicked in during the first weekend of the 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in April. City leaders, health advocates and health care officials celebrated by unraveling a massive "Inhale, Exhale, Repeat Safely" banner above Poydras Street across from the Superdome, where it remained for a month.
In January, Cosimo's bar owner Ray Hummel echoed dozens of business owners in a letter that went viral on Facebook arguing the measure was an attempt by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and "liberal crusaders" to intrude on the rights of business owners. "This is not a matter of smoking or non-smoking," he wrote. "This is a matter of CHOICE. Adult civil liberties CHOICE."
Hummel wrote that roughly 80 to 90 percent of his customers smoked, and he couldn't afford to lose the dip in business that would likely come when butts were out. Hummel wasn't alone — bar staff and owners and a fleet of employees from Harrah's Casino testified to the City Council at meetings in 2014 and 2015. Opponents of the smoking ban argued that bars would see a significant decline in revenue, that smoking in bars was a part of the New Orleans bar scene — and as more bars began to flip on the no smoking sign voluntarily, why force the issue?
"It doesn't make sense to dictate to businesses what they seem to be doing already on their own," said Trey Monaghan of Molly's at the Market (which allowed smoking) and its bar and restaurant counterpart, Junction (which did not).
Harrah's also was among 50 other businesses including Pat O'Brien's, Tropical Isle, Court of Two Sisters, Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop and Bombay Club that filed a lawsuit challenging the city's ban, arguing that the ordinance's language was too vague, and that the New Orleans City Council didn't have enough time to properly review economic impact studies. The suit didn't hold water, and Orleans Parish Civil District Judge Robin Giarrusso upheld the ordinance.
Eight months later, a poll from Public Opinion Strategies via the Smoke-Free NOLA campaign surveyed 500 New Orleans residents and found more than 75 percent are into the change. More than 25 percent of respondents said they're more likely to go out since the change.
THE HOTEL NEXT DOOR
In 2016, the future of Airbnb and short-term rentals in New Orleans will likely move closer to regulation, or legalization, or something less vague than the unenforced rules ignored by hundreds of renters operating a sort of Apartment Therapy black market in an increasingly hipper and wealthier destination city.
Airbnb has been shy on details of its operations, from the number of users to just how much untaxed income was slipping away from the city's potential tax revenue. The company eventually released its New Orleans info, revealing 2,400 property owners making an average of $10,900 from 2014-2015. According to Airbnb, visitors had an economic impact of $140 million on the city.
Data-scraping reports from housing advocates and critics say those numbers — painting a picture of small-timers earning supplemental income — obscures the professional "hosts" who are raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars on top properties. It also ignores the housing stock that's removed from the rental market, another factor in the skyrocketing rental prices in a city where the average renter already is paying 41 percent of his or her income on rent. The NOLA Rental Report found long-term residents competing with tourists for a slice of the same housing stock, as well as hosts with multiple properties — all for short-term use.
So when your entire block has turned into an Airbnb stronghold and you seem to be the only full-time resident in your own neighborhood, you start to question whether anyone actually lives here — and if the city even wants you to.
That happened to artists Caroline Thomas and Charlotte Horne-Hoonsan. Photos of their satirical Coney Island-style installation outside their Royal Street house in Bywater exploded on social media, with people posing for photos and sticking their faces through stereotypical hipster face cutouts, which quipped: "Pfft. Affordable housing is SO pre-Katrina" and "Who needs neighbors when we've got brunch?"
"Big packs of tourists, where you see 20 people going down the street with rolling suitcases and you're like, 'What's happening?'" Thomas told Gambit in May. "We walk outside and people are taking constant photos of our house. At first it was charming, then you start to feel like an animal in a zoo."
The installation also included a map showing 140 Airbnbs in their neighborhood — and nearly no available full-time rentals.
"It's hidden in plain sight, and it's a beast with 1,000 heads," Thomas said. "You shut down one and another one pops up."
The City Planning Commission will submit a staff report on its short-term rental study on Jan. 19, and the New Orleans City Council will consider the report in February. Emailed comments to City Planning will be accepted through 5 p.m. Monday, Jan. 18, and hand-delivered comments will be accepted until noon Tuesday, Jan. 19.
CRIME IN THE QUARTER
In 2015, the French Quarter became a locus both for New Orleans' crime surges and the ongoing experiments that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) applies to the intractable problem.
On June 29, 2014, 10 people were shot along a two-block section of Bourbon Street — one person, Brittany Thomas, later died from her injuries. Trung Le, one of two alleged shooters, faces manslaughter and attempted second-degree murder charges when he goes to court Jan. 11. The second shooter never was found.
Six months after the shooting, on Twelfth Night during the Krewe of Joan D'Arc's procession on Decatur Street, French Quarter residents rallied in Jackson Square demanding more police protection.
They got it — sort of. The Quarter's police protection now is a patchwork affair that includes a multi-agency network of NOPD, Louisiana State Police, off-duty detail cops, private security, NOPD's unarmed civilian group NOLA Patrol and the French Quarter Task Force, led by garbage guru and criminal justice entrepreneur Sidney Torres.
A year ago, Torres began airing 30-second TV ads claiming the French Quarter was "under siege by criminals" and demanding action from Mayor Mitch Landrieu. The mayor subsequently met with Torres to develop ways they could work together — and Torres' off-duty French Quarter police unit was born.
Six months later, Torres was the subject of a New York Times Magazine profile that portrayed him as his own police commander, deploying his off-duty NOPD officers to hotspots from his iPad. "Basically, I'm handling crime the same way I did trash,'' he said. Eventually Torres turned over responsibilities to the French Quarter Management District, but not before Fox Television commissioned a script for a possible weekly drama based on a Torres-like character cleaning up New Orleans streets.
Meanwhile, in May, NOPD deployed NOLA Patrol, a class of civilian officers, to lighten French Quarter officers' caseloads so they could focus on violent crime.
Two more high-profile Bourbon Street shootings brought the crime-outrage magnifying glass on the street: In March, one man was killed in a shooting near Bourbon and Conti streets, and in November, a man was killed near the 300 block of Bourbon — where nearly 50 NOPD officers or mounted police and a dozen state troopers were stationed within blocks of the incident.
To help pay for a permanent State Police presence in the Quarter, a quarter-cent tax hike kicks in all over the district Jan. 1, bumping taxes to 9.25 percent at retail establishments and nearly 10 percent at restaurants. The plan expires in late 2020 and is expected to raise $2 million a year.
We should have some answers next year as to whether the new tax, or any of the other changes, puts a dent in the French Quarter's violent crime rate.
INTERVIEW WITH THE MUCKRAKER
This year's heated race for governor went nuclear in the final week of the Oct. 21 primary when independent journalist and blogger Jason Brad Berry, who publishes his own work as The American Zombie (www.theamericanzombie.com), secured a video interview with Wendy Ellis, a former French Quarter prostitute. In the interview, Ellis (aka Wendy Cortez, aka Wendy Williams) claimed not only to have had an affair with U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the 1990s, but also that Vitter impregnated her and then pressured her to get an abortion.
Vitter was the early odds-on favorite to win the governor's race, but he was dogged by lingering questions and doubts about his dalliances with prostitutes in Washington and New Orleans. In his 2010 re-election campaign for Senate and throughout the governor's race, Vitter avoided most debates. He limped into the runoff with 23 percent, then lost to Democrat John Bel Edwards by a vote of 56-44 percent.
When Ellis initially claimed an affair with Vitter in 2007, there was no mention of a pregnancy. She provided no proof of either to Berry, who acknowledged that Ellis' latest story differed in some major respects from the one she sold to Hustler in 2007. Still, Berry was disappointed that few mainstream media organizations dug into the matter beyond noting the discrepancy between Ellis' stories.
"Even aside from David Vitter's sexual history, which is a story unto itself," Berry says today, two months later, "one of the bigger stories is what happened behind the scenes and how the mainstream media reacted to it."
One of the most comically strange moments of the race occured at Metairie's Royal Blend coffee shop, at a daily breakfast gathering of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, private investigator Danny DeNoux, businessman John Cummings and state Sen. Danny Martiny, who also works as an attorney for the sheriff. At a nearby table, a fifth man with a surveillance camera was taping their conversation.
The taper, a Texas private eye named Robert Frenzel, worked for the Dallas firm J.W. Bearden and Associates, which had been hired by the Vitter campaign to gather intelligence of various people — including Wendy Ellis and Jason Brad Berry. Frenzel fled the shop when he was confronted and was chased through the Metairie neighborhood, giving rise to a classic Louisiana political moment.
For Berry, however, the surveillance wasn't so funny. He knew Frenzel had been surveilling his family's home (he has camera footage to prove it), and a file on his activities was found in Frenzel's car. He also says Bearden had been going back to his sources who claimed Vitter visited prostitutes, trying to get them to say on tape that Berry had paid them off.
Berry says the story isn't over. He filed ethics complaints in Texas and Louisiana against Bearden and is "continuing to follow aspects of the story," some dating back many years. In the meantime, Berry — who has financed his work out of his own pocket — says he's trying to get a grant for independent journalism, and "hopefully expand some of the work I'm doing on different stories."
NO ROOM FOR THE INN
New Orleanians are attached to their institutions, no matter how grand or humble. Our December cover story about Musee Conti Wax Museum's closing (you've got a month left to visit) was shared far and wide, but it was the shuttering of a more down-to earth landmark that was one of the most popular stories of the year.
Goodbye, Tiffin Inn.
Over Memorial Day weekend, workers at the venerable Metairie pancake house with the classic 1970s façade confirmed the news that the diner would be closing in a week, replaced by a HomeGoods store that was being built on the lot. Tiffin Inn's owners said they were looking for a new location, which hasn't materialized.
Kevin Allman wrote, "Recreating the atmosphere may be a more difficult order. Tiffin Inn is one of a vanishing breed of independent coffee shop/diners specializing in pancakes, omelets and other breakfast dishes, along with American-style entrees, all served in a charmingly dated dusty-rose-colored dining room with comfy booths, pastoral prints on the walls, chandeliers and starburst light fixtures, syrup caddies on the table, regulars at the tables, elevator music and the kind of servers who call you 'honey' and 'sweetie.'"
Now where do we go for pigs-in-a-blanket pancakes?
UNFORTUNATE METAPHOR OF 2015
It was the bad metaphor heard 'round the world: In August, Chicago Tribune columnist Kristen McQueary — frustrated with her city's financial woes, crumbling infrastructure and poor schools — wished that the Windy City could be hit by "a Hurricane Katrina."
"I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago — an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury," McQueary wrote. "A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops."
McQueary's dumb remark was big news in New Orleans and Chicago, of course, but pushback came from around the world — so much that the Tribune softened the language in the original column and McQueary wrote a follow-up, saying she'd been misunderstood. Maybe, but she also backed out of an on-the-record interview with Gambit and refused to discuss the matter publicly.
It happened again in December, when the Chicago Reader suggested that Mayor Rahm Emanuel's handling of a Chicago Police Department shooting somehow was "Rahm's Katrina moment." Derrick Clifton's story was subheaded, "The comparison may be unsettling, but politically, it's applicable."
The hell it is. Hey, Chicago, what's up? We don't draw on Chicago Fire metaphors every time something goes up in flames in New Orleans. Knock it off.