Along with the Minnesota Vikings, the "Krewe of NFL" came to town last week. That was the informal name for the pre-game TV show/parade on Decatur Street on Sept. 9, which was as Disney-slick as the game itself was bumpy. The National Football League stages an annual production in honor of the reigning Super Bowl champs on the league's opening night. Last year it was held in Pittsburgh's Point State Park. In 2008, the venue was New York's Columbus Circle. Both are appropriate sites for huge crowds and loud bands. While we share everyone's enthusiasm for the Saints' winning ways and the tremendous positive publicity the NFL "krewe" brought to New Orleans for last week's season opener, Decatur Street and Jackson Square were not the best venue for the made-for-TV spectacle. Sadly, both the city and the NFL fumbled the ball preparing French Quarter residents and merchants for the huge event.
Beginning a week before, a mammoth stage was constructed at Washington Artillery Park across from Jackson Square, pointing not toward Woldenberg Park but toward St. Louis Cathedral, speakers at the ready to blast the music of Taylor Swift and the Dave Matthews Band into the historic Quarter. Huge banners spanned Decatur Street promoting Verizon, Motorola and other companies (many of the floats were sponsored by soft-drink and candy makers). Tickets to Jackson Square were mostly reserved for dignitaries. Average New Orleanians had to sign up for a ticket lottery on a website, which referred to spectators as a "casted audience." Because the area was restricted to adults over 18, families were shut out.
In sum, this was not really a "New Orleans" event. It was a television "big event" — albeit one that rolled without a hitch, showed off the city to great advantage, and will go a long way toward dispelling the bafflingly pervasive notion that the city is still in ruins. New Orleanians welcome TV and movie professionals and accept the occasional inconvenience, but the scale of last week's event was just too big for that site. Tens of thousands of people can fit into Columbus Circle. Not so in Jackson Square.
Residents and merchants in the Vieux Carre are accustomed to the hurly-burly of street festivals, live music and parades. It comes with the territory. This was something different: a nearly weeklong closure along much of Decatur Street and the area around Jackson Square. Unlike a standard TV production, no one compensated affected merchants for lost business. Though the city met with the French Quarter Business Association, plans didn't filter down to ground level. According to merchants near the square, they were neither consulted about nor informed of the plans until scaffolds began going up. It was up to groups like French Quarter Citizens to cobble together information to share with their neighbors — until the day before the event, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office issued an official "clarification" of street closures and no-parking zones. That was much too late.
Ryan Berni, a Landrieu spokesman, admitted there were "hiccups" in the process but noted that tourism is "a perception-driven business" and called the spectacle "a three-hour infomercial for the city." Shelley Waguespack, president of the French Quarter Business Alliance, echoed Berni's sentiments: "The NFL has made it very clear they love coming to New Orleans and it's important [that] all of us — businesses and residents — reciprocate that feeling that we want them here, too." Indeed we do want the NFL here, but our welcome doesn't have to involve bigfooting the French Quarter, a delicate architectural area where we don't even allow our own Mardi Gras floats to roll.
The new Champions Square, outside the Superdome, would have been tailor-made for the NFL's big show. As for communicating with the public, the Landrieu Administration's first big event, the mayoral inaugural, was a model of how a large public event can and should be staged — behind the scenes as well as on the ground. Clearly this administration knows how to pull it off. The next time the NFL comes to town (Super Bowl 2013 if not, we hope, before) let's use some of those same skills to show off the city in a way that also respects the locals who keep the French Quarter going all year long.