Street legal: Let’s make law fit our culture, not the other way around

A vendor grills vittles for sale at recent second-line parade organized by the Valley of Silent Men Social Aid & Pleasure Club. Photo courtesy of Derek Bridges.

By Alan Williams, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

The Landrieu Administration is making a valiant effort to give some meaning to the letter of the law in New Orleans. They seem to understand that inconsistent enforcement makes it only more difficult to tackle our crime problem.

But the effort to make New Orleans a safer city is having some perverse side effects. Some businesses and events that are the bedrock of New Orleans street culture have long operated somewhat outside the legal framework – food vendors and craftspeople, for example, as well as musicians.

Now, the city is trying to enforce compliance with ordinances that might as well have been written for a city in Ohio. Food carts are banned in some of the most lucrative neighborhoods. The number of vendors at second-line parades might become city-dictated, rather than market-driven. Pressure has been put on live music performances, both on the street and at neighborhood businesses.

Regulation of these activities is not inherently bad. The Administration’s effort to make the permitting process more legible and efficient, most notably through the creation of a “one-stop shop,” is laudable. The effort is also woefully inadequate though, because the ordinances themselves are part of the problem.

What New Orleans needs to find are ways to embrace traditional ways of doing business, not just those with enough capital and expertise to navigate the current rules. That means dedicating the time and energy to revise ordinances so that they meaningfully reflect our commercial culture – rather than some textbook vision of how business should be done.

Not only do we cherish our cultural idiosyncrasies, they are a critical part of our economy. Selling food and drinks at parades, showcasing crafts and fine art on the sidewalk, and playing music at curbside isn’t just lagniappe. It’s a livelihood for families across town and often the best career alternative for those who were failed by the city’s dysfunctional school system.

Throughout our history, street work has been the humble beginning of many creative and driven people who have gone on to define New Orleans. It is also the fertile ground from which some of our city’s anchoring businesses and institutions have grown.

We must lower the barriers of entry, and not artificially limit the number of entrepreneurs. Typically, up-front costs and burdensome regulations are what drive people to operate illegally. In other cases, they find themselves operating outside the law because the law hasn’t come up with a permission that fits the valid activity they are pursuing. The city should carefully examine our codes to alleviate both burdens — and then break down as many other unwarranted barriers as can be identified.

Making our way of life legal will be a great public policy achievement for New Orleans. Cities around the country are trying to create the ecosystem of small-scale entrepreneurs that we have in abundance. If we legitimize and promote these businesses effectively, we have an opportunity to be a national model. It would be tragic to see New Orleans waste that opportunity and instead become more like Ohio.

Alan Williams is the Community Manager at Neighborland.org and a member of Civic Center, a design studio based in New Orleans.


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  • I would re-title “Let’s make the Law fit our Culture, and not our Culture fit a Crime.”
    Great piece.
    Thanks Yous.

  • Wow, this makes me very sad. These things shaped my childhood.

  • Well said.

  • Nick Kindel

    What do you have against Ohio?

  • Alan

    Nick–nothing against Ohio. Just a too-subtle by half reference to a quote about NOLA:

    “Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under taxes and frauds and maladministraions so that it has become a study for archaeologists…but it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.”
    ? Lafcadio Hearn

  • Abby

    It would be nice if this article had facts and analysis to support its generalizations. I’m not saying its generalizations aren’t correct; it’s just that I have absolutely no way of telling. Like, “The effort is also woefully inadequate though, because the ordinances themselves are part of the problem.” Well, what do the ordinances say? What were they intended to do, and how have they impacted people in practice? What are the barriers to entry you mention?

  • Alan


    You have highlighted the limitations of the op-ed. Getting into the details of city ordinances requires a much longer article, with less of a narrative–typically not accepted by newspapers and the like.

    In particular though, I would say that the most restrictive ordinances are applied to food vendors. There is a cap on the total number of permitted vendors allowed, restrictions on where in the city vendors can serve people, and high costs associated that permits that many informal vendors can’t afford.

    Their intent of ordinances written decades ago is hard to decipher. Certainly, they were meant to protect consumers in part. But for example, the restrictions on where vendors can serve is clearly meant to protect incumbent restaurants in the downtown area. They are also meant to raise revenue for the city.

    The barriers to entry are the difficulties of obtaining a permit–both in time and money. This includes the actual cost of a permit, as well as the bureaucratic processes that one has to navigate to get legal.

    As you can see by the length of this comment, getting specific about the questions you pose is a lengthy exercise. I would love to see a Bureau of Governmental Research white paper that laid out all of the ordinances relative to our city’s small enterprises.