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

Print More

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.

 

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.