It’s hard to think of an iconic New Orleans location that courts authenticity so ardently as the French Market does, and whose efforts result so strikingly in the opposite effect. That’s why I was concerned to learn about the French Market Corporation’s latest push to improve the place. New director Jon Smith is apparently dismayed by the quality of many of the goods sold in the flea market area. In his words: “Quite frankly there’s a lot of garbage. A lot of people there aren’t necessarily artisans.” He claims to have a “grand vision” for the market and looks forward to the attrition of those vendors who don’t fit in with it.
The curious thing about his comments is how surprised he sounds. Did he just take a look around after they hired him? An art market isn’t the same thing as a flea market, and would certainly be a departure from anything that’s ever been in the space between old Gallatin Street and the river. Smith also says he would like to see the return of groceries to the market, and so would I, but French Market Vendors Association secretary Heidi Diekelman has wisely pointed out how out of touch with the neighborhood’s current needs such a plan would be. If Smith is bothered because the market is purely a tourist attraction, not grounded in the kind of society that created and sustained it for 200 years, he’s too late to fix the problem. Indeed, it’s not a problem the French Market can really address, because it’s about the surrounding area more than the market itself.
Perhaps the most famous historical account of the French Market is Lafcadio Hearn’s sketch, first printed in an 1885 guide to the city. In one of my New Orleans studies classes, I send students to the French Market to compare the way it is now with Hearn’s account, and to observe the ways in which the history of the place is evoked in an effort to establish authenticity.
The physical structures have been renovated a number of times, including in the 1930s, the 1970s, and just a couple of years ago. After the newest renovation, of the sheds, a terracotta bas-relief was installed where Gov. Nicholls Street meets North Peters. It serves perfectly as a symbol of what the French Market has become. As if taken from a mold of Pompeii lava, it depicts the market as a grocery for local people a hundred years ago. But the scene is far less hectic, crowded, and, frankly, less filthy than Hearn’s record suggests it was.
This cleaned-up Hollywood past is reflected also in the mural in Dutch Alley, about a block from Café du Monde, that shows famous people smiling in a sunny clean environment, without the mess — human and otherwise — that surely crowded their ankles. The reminders of bygone glory also hang from the roofs of the sheds, a series of photographs and sketches from earlier days. If only they had been augmented with smell-a-vision. Anyone who has been to a functioning open-air market in the developing world knows that the ripe aromas would turn off the average American tourist, or, indeed, a newly minted French Quarter condo owner. Back in the 1980s, the transition from history to myth was first signaled with bronze statues in Dutch Alley of a shopper with a basket and butcher with a steak — icons of sanitized consumerism not remotely true to the reality of the old Halle des Boucheries and the meat that used to stink up the place.
The most interesting new architectural addition is the fountain at the corner of Gov. Nicholls Street. I’m not sure if it replaces a fountain that had been there a century ago, but it’s no longer attached to the purpose of a public fountain at a market: to provide animals with drinking water and humans with a place to wash themselves. Bereft of its purpose, the fountain is now purely decorative. And that certainly speaks as well to the role of the French Market as a whole: cleaner and more purposeless than at any point in its history.
Jon Smith’s “grand vision” can’t really do anything about that. The space has changed as the neighborhood has changed. After describing the filth and diverse human mass of the market, Hearn’s account follows a vendor’s family to their quarters nearby. He then gives us a detailed portrait of a French Quarter courtyard in 1885 — an unsanitary ghetto overcrowded with indigent immigrants. The vast and much larger population of the French Quarter at that time is what gave it the character Hearn ascribes to it — polyglot and variegated, in terms of income level as well as race, ethnicity, and geographical origin.
During my childhood in the 1970s, the market was certainly less crowded, and less polyglot than a hundred years earlier, but a substantial farmer’s market remained. Clint Eastwood’s 1984 movie, Tightrope, offers an unassuming view of it. . We often bought our produce there. A special treat was a peeled bit of sugar cane stalk to chew on. But the Quarter was different then, too. There were still poor people in it and plenty of black families as well as Italian and white Creole families. The flea market was a common destination for bored kids on a weekend afternoon.
In fact, there was a lot more of what Jon Smith terms “garbage” then than there is now. Besides literal garbage (the stinking organic kind), there were cheap sunglasses, shot glasses, plastic flags, figurines of drunks leaning on Bourbon Street lamp posts, and other little souvenir trinkets that kids as well as tourists love, just because of their affordability. At that time, there were also many more resale booths, with typical rummage sale items — old plates, glassware, etc. There were booths hawking old magazines, too, an inventory that included Playboy and Penthouse. (Not sure if that would fly anymore.) One booth I know wouldn’t be approved today: the army surplus guy, who proffered daggers, bayonets, swords, and, as I recall, guns (though they may not have been operable). There were resale clothes racks too. Clearly there were people in the neighborhood, not just tourists, who benefited from such a product line within walking distance of their homes. No longer, though.
I can’t recall a time when “artisans” were majority tenants of the flea market. Banishing fleas in favor of art will make the market cleaner and less crowded, but it will also erase a last claim to authenticity — if authenticity means continuity with a past tradition. The “garbage” Jon Smith refers to is actually the last link to a shabbier but more locally patronized market. It also represents a form of diversity that should be cherished rather than resisted.
The cheap and the trashy rubbing shoulders with the elite and expensive used to be the allure of the Quarter. Gradual elimination of one side of that equation has already resulted in a bland “boutique” neighborhood that might as well charge pedestrians an admission fee. Today’s market already has art booths, some rarer, more expensive imported crafts, and handmade clothing and jewelry. These offerings exist alongside the cheap plastic crap. And that’s fine. It leads to greater diversity of customers as well as vendors.
A lot of the “garbage” that offends Smith is the cheap stuff folks can actually afford, be they tourists or locals without much money, including a kid looking to drop a few bucks on a birthday present — sunglasses, key rings, phone protectors, wallets — for Mom or Dad. . If it’s all original art, starting at, say, $50 for a small lithograph, that substantially limits not only the number of people but the kinds of people who will patronize the place. And then there are the vendors. My students’ papers on the French Market often come to a similar conclusion: While the customers are not as polyglot or diverse as they were in Hearn’s day, the vendors are. Because of the affordable rates for stalls, the mix of nations represented at the flea market resembles the new immigrant mix of the United States in general, which isn’t as visible anywhere else in today’s New Orleans.
Once again, the issue comes down to affordability. Jon Smith says the French Quarter “at its core is a neighborhood where people live and work,” but his use of the term “people” is far too general. If the people in the neighborhood are mostly part-time residents or people without families who rarely cook at home, will they want the daily grocery and houseware items the market used to offer?
Today’s average French Quarter resident has a lot more cash than the person(s) who occupied the same residence 30 years ago. It may be that newer French Quarter residents would, in fact, be more likely to patronize a French Market with more elite products and fewer vendors. They can always hang a photo from 2013 to show the vibrancy of the era before Smith’s “grand vision” forced out the motley of immigrants hawking cheap imported goods.. Smith’s vision of the future reminds us that the flea market so many of us know and love, like the Vieux Carre itself, already has the sound of history, and I already miss it.
C.W. Cannon teaches English and New Orleans Studies at Loyola University.