A higher echelon of French Quarter souvenir shops traffics in posters, Carnival masks and other icons dear to tourists. They've escaped the wrath that the residents' association visits on T-shirt vendors. Credit: C.W. Cannon

The French Quarter is the scene of many of the most contested battles over New Orleanian style, identity, and wish fulfillment. The target of one of America’s first architectural preservation ordinances, it has a venerable tradition of civic oversight of its commerce.

The battle last year over reducing legally permissible noise levels was hard fought, until the forces for a quieter, classier Quarter withdrew from the field, pulling the stricter noise ordinance they had proposed.

Shops selling T-shirts and souvenirs are another bête-noire, especially despised by the Vieux Carre Property Owners and Residents Association (VCPORA), the neighborhood association that claims to represent the interests of Quarter residents. Despite the association’s earnest efforts, T-shirt/souvenir shops have only mushroomed over the past 30 years, particularly on Decatur Street.

Last fall, the city (with ample prodding from VCPORA) raided and cited 17 shops for non-compliance with city rules against trashy souvenir merchandise. The usual legal delays ensued, and the Board of Zoning Adjustments will consider the fate of several of these malefactors at a hearing on Monday.

All parties to the dust-up acknowledge that many of the shops have been operating in the same way going on 30 years. But VCPORA and its allies on the City Council offer the same argument used to defend pulling the plug on unlicensed live music venues: lax enforcement in the past is no excuse for not enforcing the law in the future.

But how many locals went and got that fleur-de-lis tattoo after Hurricane Katrina? Should flesh thus inked also be banned?

VCPORA’s executive director Meg Lousteau is stern on the subject of scofflaw T-shirt pushers: “It is one of most common complaints we hear in the French Quarter from people who live there, visit there and work there. They can’t understand why this beautiful historic gem allows the proliferation of T-shirt shops. We have yet to find anyone who thinks they add anything of value to the French Quarter.”

Lousteau’s survey of public opinion can not be quite as comprehensive as she would have us believe. What about people who own or work in T-shirt/souvenir shops or the many visitors who patronize them? We can more easily accept her claim that Quarter residents abhor the shops. But the reasons for this deeply held animus bear closer examination.

Decibel levels, commercial sex, alcohol sales, parking hassles, garbage — it’s easy to see how each and all of these issues could impinge directly on a resident’s quality of life. But the beef against the T-shirt shops is essentially that they’re aesthetically offensive, and that’s an argument that can’t be understood without factoring in prejudices that break along the lines of social class. The inescapable conclusion is that Lousteau’s “beautiful historic gem” is being violated by trashy people and the way they express themselves.

That the debate reeks of class bias is not lost on the targeted “violators.” The very first item in the statement to the Board of Zoning Adjustments offered by shopkeeper Sadiq Khan goes like this: “Personal views and feelings about the taste, value, or beauty of our legal, non-conforming use have no relevance to the factual question before the board … The board should discourage and dismiss comments based on sensationalism, stereotypes, preferences, or artistic disapproval.”

The visceral rejection of T-shirt shops and the wares they peddle is intimately related to the routine bad-mouthing of upper Bourbon Street by many locals — that is, those locals anxious to be thought of as legitimate, “authentic” locals.

Richard Campanella’s latest book is the definitive statement on Bourbon Street and its various meanings over the years, and in a short essay based on the book he deftly deconstructs  the routine Bourbon Street hating that many locals wear as a badge of honor.

Just a couple of weeks after his article appeared, more evidence of the now shopworn tendency appeared in a thrillist.com “listicle” of the “22 Things” locals supposedly have to explain to outsiders. It’s a series of photographs with cute captions. The photo of upper Bourbon Street is emblazoned with the words “Don’t Ever Go Here.”

In one sense, the hating on Bourbon Street and T-shirt and souvenir shops is simply an effort by natives to flaunt our local capital and differentiate ourselves from tourists. But then why not demonize Jazz Fest, too? Or streetcars? The issue isn’t that tourists patronize Bourbon Street and buy T-shirts, it’s that trashy tourists do it. And it’s untrue that locals don’t go to Bourbon Street. Doubly untrue that locals don’t purchase “souvenirs” — the abhorrent merchandise that supposedly cheapens the “gem” that is the Quarter.

The zoning ordinance curls its lip not just at T-shirts, by the way. The condemned wares are defined broadly as “items…which serve as a token of remembrance of New Orleans and which bear the name of the City or geographic areas or streets thereof or of events associated with New Orleans including but not limited to events such as Mardi Gras, the Sugar Bowl, or the World’s Fair.” But how many locals went and got that fleur-de-lis tattoo after Hurricane Katrina? Should flesh thus inked also be banned?

The fact that many locals celebrate their enthusiasm for the city by consuming the same stuff tourists haul back to Peoria and Hoboken is troubling to some. In his book Authentic New Orleans, Tulane University sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham sees the development of a “touristic culture” in New Orleans, which he defines as “a process by which tourism discourses and practices increasingly frame meanings and assertions of local culture and authenticity.”

Does your dentist have a picture of a streetcar or French Quarter scene in his lobby? That’s “touristic culture,” and every New Orleanian with a fleur-de-lis keyholder, a Dr. Bob sign, or framed stencil of the Sewerage and Water Board logo in the kitchen is participating in it. On the other hand, so what? I’ve grappled personally with the issue of how to express local belonging and ended up caring less whether I could be mistaken for a tourist or not.

I was reared in the Quarter and when I was a teen, many flea-market stalls and cheap tourist shops carried wide-brimmed straw hats that brought to mind an old-time riverboat gambler. I grew a mustache, wore white broadcloth shirts, boots, and donned a hat. I even got a cape. I had everything but the Bowie knife. I was my own rich fantasy of a creole gentleman in magical New Orleans, a hodgepodge of powerful but ahistorical images. I was cured of the hat when a buddy saw it on me and remarked, “Que tourista!” I felt deep shame, but only for a while.

OK, so local celebration of place can interact with touristic branding. Big deal. As Campanella points out, it’s not like people from all walks of life are as hung up on authenticity issues as the bourgeois bohemians now flooding Mid-City and the downriver neighborhoods.

The anxiety over New Orleanian authenticity is a symptom of a particular social class and has roots as old as the Romantic movement’s search for a perceived lost authenticity among the fading peasantry of Europe. (The urban industrial poor weren’t sufficiently picturesque.)

My own relationship with Bourbon Street and NOLA souvenirs in general is illustrative. As a downtown teenager in the 1980s, my yat and black neighbors showed no revulsion against Bourbon Street or French Quarter souvenir vendors. They partied on Bourbon Street, as many locals continue to do, and, as expressions of local pride, had items in their homes that could be defined as souvenirs.

By early adulthood, I had begun to hate on the T-shirt shops, decrying them as an ugly incursion of crass consumerism on my own very personal fantasy of what the Quarter should be. But then I read books and grew up and realized that the Quarter was never remotely close to the misty incarnation of post-Renaissance Venice that I wanted to superimpose on it.

I also realized that I was simply trying to employ my own growing cultural capital (as a young self-identified artist and intellectual) to set myself apart from the masses of people — tourists and locals — who express their appreciation of the city in a different way.

What really drives the loathing of T-shirt shops in the Quarter is the fear that New Orleans will be seen as a minor capital of the Redneck Riviera rather than a paragon of elite culture.

Today, of course, not all T-shirts are the same. Especially since Katrina, they’ve reached a new level of sophistication in expressing sense of place. Magazine Street’s Fleurty Girl, which offers “shirts with yatitude,” is careful to signify to locals that their T-shirts offer local cred in the way the average Bourbon Street variety cannot.

But why is it that working-class people, local or visitor, don’t have the same negative feelings about Bourbon Street — or your average, un-ironic New Orleans souvenir T — as do many people of higher educational attainment?

French philosophe Pierre Bourdieu writes that working class people are more interested in expressing solidarity than personal distinction in their aesthetic taste; sports-fan gear is a classic case in point. Working class culture also celebrates hedonism and the body in less refined, distanced ways than bourgeois taste finds acceptable.

Thus, while some people find the T reading “I Got Bourbon Faced on Shit Street” to be a funny and apt expression of an unarguably unique aspect of New Orleans culture (liberal alcohol laws), others see it as tasteless, unrefined, embarrassing, inappropriate, and all those other adjectives that speak to bourgeois notions of proper comportment — the whole purpose of which is to distinguish the better people from the trash that come for Wrestlemania, etc. (but who love the city with equal ardor).

What really drives the loathing of T-shirt shops in the Quarter is the fear that New Orleans will be seen as a minor capital of the Redneck Riviera rather than a paragon of elite culture.

This insecurity got a big stoking back in 2006, when GQ restaurant critic Alan Richman outed the French Quarter as “an illogical mix of characterless housing, elegant antiques stores, and scuzzy bars, a destination for tourists seeking the worst possible experience. The entertainment values are only marginally superior to those of Tijuana, Mexico.” He opined that New Orleans, at its best, was a “three-day stubble of a city.”

The problem is that I find the three-day stubble rather endearing, also very much in keeping with the aesthetic of the French Quarter of my childhood — indeed, of the past hundred years, at least. A touch of Tijuana doesn’t bother me, though too much Soho or Rodeo Drive certainly would, and that’s the vision for the Quarter’s future that the VCPORA set seems to cherish.

Sure, the Quarter’s changed over the past few decades, but it’s become a lot less sleazy, not more so. The junk shops, used bookstores, and quirky storefronts — like the old Vieux Carre Hair Store or the Chinese Shop at Royal and Orleans — haven’t been replaced by T-shirt shops, but by high-end art galleries. Many of these galleries offer products that the cultural elitist in me wouldn’t deign to call “art,” either. Indeed, many of their products fit the city’s own definition of a “souvenir,” and are distinguishable from T-shirt shop fare only by their price tags.

There are lots of uses for the T-shirt shop locations that I’d rather see, but they don’t include galleries with thousand-dollar souvenirs instead of five-dollar ones. The tasteless hordes have a right to enjoy New Orleans, too, and to do it in a way that they find comfortable and affordable, even if more refined sensibilities get ruffled in that messy jostle called urban living.

C.W. Cannon teaches English and New Orleans Studies at Loyola University.