In a broad and sweeping public safety plan introduced in January 2017, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and city officials called for a "rebranding of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street's image as a cultural destination."
Roughly a year later, Bourbon Street workers fear recent raids that ultimately closed a few strip clubs and suspended licenses at several others are merely a political maneuver forcing "attrition" that aligns with City Hall's plans for a hard cap on the number of clubs on the entertainment strip. Dancers marched through the French Quarter and into city hearings, warning that the city's efforts at "rebranding" the Quarter as a "family-friendly" tourist destination have threatened livelihoods for hundreds of workers and their families and demonized an industry that has operated legally on a street zoned almost exclusively for adult entertainment.
The public safety plan called on the New Orleans City Planning Commission (CPC) to study how to "improve the character and use of the buildings in the French Quarter to limit illegal uses and activities" while city officials seek to "limit issuances of adult use occupational licenses, enhance requirements for live entertainment venues and revise the Vieux Carre Commission design guidelines to enhance safety and security measures."
But on Feb. 6, more than 200 strip club workers and advocates filled a makeshift meeting room inside the Rosenwald Recreation Center's gym — where the CPC rejected a small but crucial part of a City Council-commissioned study to limit clubs to only one per block face. Instead, the CPC followed recommendations from its staff that call for a "soft cap" of 14 clubs.
It was a tentative win for club workers following a string of blows from city legislators, law enforcement and organizations like Covenant House, which has led efforts to enforce age limits on dancers, linking trafficking and other crimes to working in clubs. The CPC's staff report, however, said it "has not found a direct causality" between the number of clubs and crime and does not believe that placing a cap of "one venue per block face would have significant impacts on crime."
"We're going to have to take it one day at a time," Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers organizer Lyn Archer told Gambit. "I feel pretty strongly that the City Planning Commission continues to assert their job is zoning and land use, and what I saw there was some confusion as to what the intentions behind asking for the study in the first place were.
"We're in a situation right now where there are actors involved who have exhausted their other options, so they turn to zoning as a way to limit us in various ways. We're here to remind them that it's not appropriate, it's unethical and it's discriminatory."
In 2015, Covenant House New Orleans received a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to support an array of local, state and federal law enforcement efforts to combat human trafficking. The organization then pushed the City Council to put teeth into enforcement measures to prevent people under age 21 from dancing in clubs — reasoning that they are more likely to be victims of trafficking in clubs Covenant House characterized as fertile grounds for potential pimps preying on vulnerable young people, despite little evidence from researchers.
The Louisiana Legislature later adopted a similar measure that defines "commercial sex activity" performed by people under age 21 as "trafficking," conflating consensual sex work with human trafficking, which by law requires "force, fraud, or coercion." (A 2017 report from Loyola University New Orleans' Modern Slavery Research Project found young people experiencing homelessness were more likely to be victims of trafficking or to engage in "survival sex.")
In October 2017, the city hired a Tennessee-based attorney to review the city's Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, Alcoholic Beverage Outlets and other city ordinances. With an early background in conservative Christian organizations, attorney Scott Bergthold has co-authored the legal volume Local Regulation of Adult Businesses and has represented cities in more than 20 states in drafting strict regulations for strip clubs and workers. When the CPC was expected to discuss the City Council's requested study on strip club regulations in January, the CPC put it on hold and said the Landrieu administration "is working to possibly formulate a broader package of regulations for Adult Live Performance Venues."
A few weeks later, the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and the New Orleans Police Department raided eight clubs, resulting in suspended alcohol licenses and some closures, and a loss of income for hundreds of dancers, bartenders and others club workers in what otherwise is a lucrative Carnival season.
Asked whether the administration is working on a new proposal and what changes to expect, Landrieu's communications director, Tyronne Walker, told Gambit the Landrieu administration "continues to discuss the matter with the City Council and will provide more updates prior to March's City Council meeting." Landrieu's senior communications manager, Craig Belden, clarified it likely will be discussed at the March 8 meeting.
Walker did not respond as to whether the administration plans to fold those elements into the city's controversial proposal for all businesses that sell alcohol, putting them into a broad ordinance covering permits, violations and mandatory participation in a citywide surveillance camera plan that streams video into a central Real Time Crime Monitoring Center. That measure was introduced in December and is on hold while the administration resolves issues raised by stakeholders. It will be brought up again in March.
Next, the City Council will decide whether to incorporate the CPC's recommendations — or take the lead from the Landrieu administration.
"We still have a lot of work to do," Archer told Gambit. "Although we were glad to see they made no indication there was causality established — that strip clubs don't cause crime, they don't cause trafficking — we would like them to assert the way this has been done is not correct. I would like them to stand up for us."