When the city of New Orleans began filling up with water shortly after Hurricane Katrina last year, bartender Marita Jaeger and her boyfriend decided to skip town. She called her boss, Johnny White’s Sports Pub owner JD Landrum, to see what he'd be doing with the place. At the time, Johnny White's was something of a local landmark. It's motto was "Never Closed," and indeed, the bar had never shuttered its doors. They didn't even have locks. To her surprise, even in all of this – no power, rising water levels, and reports of looting and lawlessness, Landrum refused to close the place down. “I have to keep it open,” Landum told her. “Because people need somewhere to go.”
Landrum's stubbornness, along with that of bartender Marcy Ramsey -- who also weathered the storm to keep the place open -- made both of them moderately famous . Johnny White’s made headlines last year as the only place to keep its doors open though the worst of the Katrina madness -- or, to be accurate, to keep its door open. When state troopers ordered Ramsey to shut the bar down, she obliged by battering the front doors. But the side door stayed open, and more than a few locals, rescue workers, and journalists knew how to find their way inside.
For all the attention it’s received over the last year, Johnny White’s still makes an underwhelming first impression. The bar – located on Bourbon Street in New Orleans’ famous French Quarter – is no bigger than most of the city’s hotel rooms, and would seat ten at most, uncomfortably. The décor is grandma’s attic-meets-frat guy. The mantle behind the bar, for example, features an old-fashioned cash register framed by neon beer signs, knick-knacks and old photos, and dollar bills tacked to the wall.
Though the bar’s name includes the phrase “Sports Pub,” it really aspires for little more than the neighborhood dive. When I visited last September, the wall-mounted TVs flickered CNN and infomercials, not baseball (though it does fill up for Saints games). The place only takes cash, and one regular told me the only additions in ten years have been the ATM and video poker machines.
Johnny White’s is also far enough up on Bourbon Street that it misses the brunt of the beads-n’-breasts crowd, which tends to hover around the strip bars and hotel balconies. In fact, when I visited, the only hints I was at the right place were the modest t-shirts for sale that read “Johnny White’s – Hurricane Katrina 2005 – “Never Closed,” and the tourists snapping pictures in front of the bar's sign out front. The place is authentically New Orleans – as you might guess from the motto, you can pop in for a beer at 6am . . . on a Sunday. But it’s not schlocky New Orleans – they don’t sell beads, suggestive t-shirts, or drinks with names like “hurricane” or “hand grenade.”
Nevertheless, for all its modesty, the symbolism of Johnny White’s open door grew more and more significant as much of the rest of the city shut down in the days after Katrina. Last Fall, I had a drink at the bar with Dan Rothschild, who works for the Arlington, Va.-based think tank the Mercatus Center. Rothschild was in New Orleans at the same time I was as part of his work for the think tank’s Katrina Project, which is looking at how the city is rebuilding after the storm. “I talked to a reporter from the Times-Picayune about this place,” Rothschild said. “He said there was a rumor floating around shortly after the hurricane hit that Johnny White’s had closed. The reporter said when he heard that, he thought to himself, ‘Wow. New Orleans really is gone.’”
The rumor wasn’t true, of course. Not only was Johnny White’s open, it had become a rallying point, gathering point, and refuge for drink and camaraderie -- not just for the French Quarter but for the entire city.
Landrum owns two other bars in town that didn't remain open, so the place stayed well-stocked with beer. They also had generators to heat food and power some lights, and soon enough, patrons started bringing in their own supplies. As word got out, the storm's victims, volunteers, and journalists recognized the bar as the one of the Quarter's go-to spots for the distribution of supplies and information. Everyone out and about eventually stopped by. National Guard troops dropped off water and MREs, the prepackaged meals prepared for the military. Relief groups left vitamins, diapers, and condoms (which one volunteer told me government workers were barred from distributing themselves).
There wasn’t much looting in the French Quarter. A fill-in bartender at Johnny White’s known as “Teddy Bear Tammy” for the stuffed animal shop she keeps a few blocks over says that’s in part because everyone holds a certain reverence for the neighborhood. “People respect the tradition and majesty of the Quarter,” she says. “It’s what makes New Orleans, New Orleans. That, or they’re afraid of being cursed by Marie Laveau .”
What looting there was, was for essential goods. Only the Quarter’s grocery stores were hit, sometimes with sanction from local officials. “Too me, there’s a difference between getting diapers, water, and food, and looting,” says Ramsey. “Like after a few days, when the police opened up the Winn-Dixie. They told people to take what they needed. A lot of them brought food to the bar, and we cooked for the neighborhood. People came in and got a hot meal.”
The bar never charged for beer, food, or anything else during the storm. “The Quarter’s a tight-knit neighborhood,” says Jaeger, who also operates a “vampire boutique” when she isn’t tending bar. “JD and Marcy wouldn't have taken anyone's money. We look out for one another, here.”
The idea that a bar could be such an important part of a neighborhood – important even to the identity of a city – seems lost on some lawmakers who, probably not coincidentally, happen to represent districts nowhere near New Orleans.
Take Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf. Late last year, the Republican congressman attached a provision to the federal Hurricane Katrina Relief bill that prohibited businesses that serve liquor (along with massage parlors, casinos, and – bizarrely – tanning salons) from getting any federal emergency aid or tax breaks. Wolf wrote in a letter to colleagues that these unsavory establishments are of such little value to the community, the prohibition “is not a tough call. In fact, there really shouldn't be any debate.”
The measure passed. It’s unlikely that Wolf knows the role places like Johnny White’s played during Katrina. His motivation seems to be all-around contempt for demon rum. One liquor industry trade group recently granted the congressman its inaugural “Carrie Nation Award,” an honor the group invented for the sole purpose of awarding it to Wolf.
Libertarians can of course disagree over the wisdom of relief grants and tax breaks to business that choose to locate in disaster-prone areas like New Orleans. But withholding disaster relief for establishments that serve alcohol while distributing it to just about everyone else conjures up the silly prejudices and short-sighted polices of prohibition-era organizations like the Anti-Saloon League. It also speaks to a certain ignorance of what makes New Orleans, New Orleans. Or perhaps Wolf knows the culture of the New Orleans too well, and his efforts are more aimed at shaping the city's rebuilding to his liking.
Either way, he should pay a visit to Johnny White's, and ask around about just how important this bar's availability was at a time when the city was in desperate need of some community. The bar's regulars are happy to talk about it. Hell, they'll probably even buy him a drink.