While I applaud the City Council’s decision to pass a one-year moratorium on strip clubs in the French Quarter and to commission a study by the City Planning Commission, City Hall should consider long-lasting and more robust reforms.
Keep in mind that state authorities previously documented illegal drug sales, prostitution, and lewd conduct at several strip clubs. Why are new strip clubs or adult entertainment venues still allowed to proliferate in the Vieux Carre after the moratorium expires? In contrast, new hotels, food trucks, and T-shirt shops are prohibited from ever opening in the French Quarter.
I want to continue raising my family here in the Quarter, but the door-to-door and block-by-block concentration of strip clubs has significant and negative spillover effects throughout the neighborhood.
Strip clubs in the French Quarter are mostly clustered next to or near one another on Bourbon and Iberville streets. On the 300 and 400 blocks of Bourbon Street alone, there are no fewer than seven strip clubs facing or near the Royal Sonesta Hotel. When strip clubs are allowed to open within feet of each other or even door-to-door (as current law permitted prior to the moratorium), the concentration has a blighting impact on residents, visitors, businesses and the general environment.
As just one example of this negative impact, French Quarter strip clubs are usually closed between 7 a.m.and 1 p.m., creating a daytime “dead zone” in which pedestrians sidestep the area, businesses suffer and vagrants congregate to fill the vacuum. Opportunities for crime and public disorder abound. The effect is metastatic; new strip clubs and unsavory adult-oriented businesses spring up to fill the vacuum, displacing businesses that were low-margin, resident-oriented, and/or family-friendly.
And of course what goes on inside clubs under pressure to offer greater thrills than neighboring strip clubs is as deleterious as their impact on nearby non-adult businesses. A business model centered on competitive one-upmanship and the use of nudity and lap dances to boost alcohol sales (or vice versa) creates a breeding ground for risky personal behavior and outright criminality. In October 2015, agents with the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control documented the following illegal and illicit activities at several Bourbon Street strip clubs: prostitution and drug-related offenses as well as lewd and improper acts.
When strip clubs are concentrated as they are on Bourbon Street, competitive pressure spreads and can intensify the promotion of prostitution, drug sales, and lewd conduct from one to the next.
And even when strip clubs do not allow criminal activities on the premises, customers and employees tend to be magnets for crime. Studies have shown that sex-oriented businesses attract “perfect” victims: cash-carrying men predisposed to party and drink heavily. They attract prostitutes, pimps, drug-dealers, hustlers, and scam artists — and because the victims are drunk, they may be incapable of summoning or cooperating with police. With some strip clubs open as late as 5 a.m., it’s no mere coincidence that French Quarter crime tends to skyrocket shortly before dawn.
Nor is the negative impact of strip clubs limited to their patrons. Any resident who happens to live or walk near a strip club becomes more susceptible to criminals preying on customers or haunting the daytime dead zone the clubs create.
In a January 2012 editorial, City Councilmember Kristin Palmer, advocating a tighter curfew for minors in the French Quarter, wrote: “No other neighborhood in the city, state or nation sized at .66 square miles, just 12 blocks wide, contains more than 350 alcohol beverage outlets, and includes adult entertainment establishments and numerous strip clubs.”
That a neighborhood needs a special curfew for minors is, in and of itself, symptomatic of a grave imbalance in that neighborhood’s business climate.
I have no malice toward strip clubs in their proper place. But as a French Quarter resident with businesses nearby, every day I experience the negative effects that flow from allowing strip clubs to cluster and open side by side, as they have.
What to do? Obviously the strip club industry is not about to disappear. Strip clubs are part of the French Quarter’s colorful fabric. But is it prudent public policy for the city to use blunt instruments like a harsher curfew for minors in the French Quarter and stopgap measures such as a one-year moratorium without addressing the underlying disease, the saturation of strip clubs?
The number of clubs and their conduct should be carefully calibrated. When there are too many strip clubs on a block, the street begins to become imbalanced in terms of its orientation, amenities, and commercial offerings. Simply put, strip clubs weaken efforts to diversify the options for retail and general tourism on Bourbon Street and surrounding areas. If the city wants to create a family-friendly or at least a family-neutral environment, allowing strip clubs to open next to or near each other subverts that goal.
An outright ban on new strip clubs in the French Quarter probably would not pass constitutional muster, but there is a solution. The legally permissible alternative would be a “spacing” requirement — a strategy already implemented successfully in New York City and upheld by the 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision to reject a challenge to zoning regulations that prohibit sex-oriented businesses from operating within 500 feet of homes, houses of worship, schools — or each other.
It’s time for some common-sense and rationally-based limits on how close new strip clubs can open near existing ones. A spacing requirement could restore some balance to the street, revive daytime commerce in surrounding areas, and forestall the downward spiral that led to the moratorium on French Quarter strip clubs in the first place.
William Khan is a French Quarter resident, voter, and entrepreneur with three clothing and souvenir shops on Bourbon Street, where his family has done business for more than 30 years. He holds graduate degrees in law and business administration from the University of Texas at Austin.