How Tacky T-shirts Became Contraband in New Orleans

Zoning enforcement is being used to rid the French Quarter of souvenir shops.


Gary J. Wood/Flickr

When New Orleans entrepreneur Ed Azemas opened his eponymous French Quarter clothing store, he never expected to be dealing in "illegal merchandise." But that's exactly what he ended up doing—at least according to an official notice from the City of New Orleans that was posted on the store's facade last fall. The illicit goods Azemas and 12 other French Quarter merchants are accused of selling? T-shirts.

Last fall, city zoning inspectors conducted a sweep of dozens of small retailers in the French Quarter and found that many were improperly selling New Orleans t-shirts and souvenirs. This sweep for illegal trinkets came at the urging of the non-profit Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents, and Associates (VCPORA) organization, which gave the city a list of dozens of French Quarter businesses it believed to be in violation of city zoning laws

Citing the proliferation of tacky t-shirt stores in the French Quarter's most heavily-trafficked areas, the association called upon the city of New Orleans to begin enforcing its own laws—specifically, a 2011 ordinance that outlawed the creation of new t-shirt shops in the French Quarter. For purposes of the ordinance, a t-shirt shop is defined as a place where the majority of business comes from the sale of t-shirts or souvenirs. Majority is defined as more than 35 percent and souvenirs as "items, exclusive of books, magazines, or maps, 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 Mardi Gras, the Sugar Bowl, or the World's Fair."

Thirteen stores were found to be in violation of the ordinance. The businesses were issued citations and given 10 days to remove the offending merchandise, though they were able to delay action until they had a hearing with the Board of Zoning and Adjustments—a hearing which has been postponed for more than half a year.

The reason for the hearing delay has to do with paperwork and, more specifically, the city's refusal to hand it over. Jason Schmidt, an attorney representing 10 of the cited shops, has repeatedly requested access to city records that could help sort out whether any of them could be grandfathered in. He's also repeatedly been denied.

The city stores the records with a third party and claims that it would cost taxpayers $300 per folder to retrieve them. Schmidt was told by the New Orleans City Attorney's Office that the records are indexed by year, not property address, and his requests would require the pulling of 90 different files. A hearing will be held May 19th to determine whether the city will have to hand over the records.

Another store owner cited in the sweep was Sadiq Khan. Khan first opened his French Quarter store after immigrating from South Asia 30 years ago and believes that it should be grandfathered in. Opponents protest that businesses like Kahn's have been operating falsely under general merchandise store licenses. Khan counters that there was no special classification for a t-shirt store when he opened his business, and the nature of his business has always been the same.

Azemas claims he is a running a women's boutique and t-shirts represent less than 35 percent of his business. But after six months of spending money and effort fighting city hall rather than building his business, he has opted to put his French Quarter store up for rent.

The battle over French Quarter t-shirt shops is just another in a series of episodes that pit neighborhood groups like the VCPORA against New Orleans businesses, while the city tries its best to play middleman. But assuaging the concerns of neighborhood groups while not killing the city's primary source of revenue, tourism, isn't easy. And as in the ongoing fight over New Orleans' noise ordinance (discussed in the April issue of Reason), the real winners in this t-shirt battle are large corporations with the money and overhead to weather the ebbs and flows of city politics and zoning enforcement.

While a small store owner like Azemas would have to carefully calculate the number of New Orleans Saints shirts he could display in his storefront window when the Saints kick-off their first home game this September, large nearby retailers such as Walgreen's or H&M can stock rack after rack of New Orleans themed gear without any fear of crossing the 35 percent threshold.

Certainly, no one wants to live in a city overrun with tacky tourists shops, but as the residential population of the French Quarter shrinks, souvenirs are a retailer's safest bet. Even if opponents of t-shirt shops succeed in getting a few shut down on Bourbon street, there is little reason to believe they will be replaced by wine cellars or art galleries.

Some charge that the attack on t-shirt shops is really an attempt to sanitize the French Quarter and push poor and middle-class people out. Many of the stores are owned by Asian immigrants, and they cater to lower- and middle-class tourists. As an example of zoning enforcement being applied unequally, business owners point to new shop Fleurty Girl. The locally-owned, upscale t-shirt boutique opened a French Quarter location after the 2011 ordinance went into effect—without any major objection from the VCPORA.

In a recent op-ed posted on New Orleans news site The Lens, Louisiana native and Loyola University professor C.W. Cannon suggested that "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."

Whether t-shirt shop opponents will make any real dent in the souvenir trade remains to be seen. But the city's inability to create (and uniformly enforce) sensible policies that take into account what people are and have been doing for generations seems certain to continue.

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  1. “””””The city stores the records with a third party and claims that it would cost taxpayers $300 per folder to retrieve them”””‘

    Government in action. Why bother to store records if they are too expensive to access?

    Or maybe that is a feature not a bug, if you can’t access the records you won’t have your dirty deals exposed.

    1. Exactly. In this millennium, electronic record-keeping is an option, or at least it would be if the purpose of keeping records were anything but FYTW.

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    2. New Orleans makes Chicago look like a clean good government city. It is easy to joke about it, but it is just horrible for the people who live there.

    3. You can be damned well sure that if the city wanted those records to get some money from you they would access them tout suite.

    4. Do you really believe that it costs $300 to phone a company, have them look up where a folder is, have a man with a trolley roll it down a corridor for 5 mintues, pick a folder out of a drawer, then roll the trolley back? Is there anything in those activities that would make it cost more than $20?

  2. Certainly, no one wants to live in a city overrun with tacky tourists shops

    If you don’t like what’s going on in your city, move. No one has the right to dictate how others use their property.

    the city’s rush to enforce rules fails to take into account what people are and have been doing for generations

    What does it matter how long they’ve been in business? Property rights don’t change.

    1. This! If you don’t like tackey tourist traps, you have to goddamned business living in New Orleans, or on the Outer Banks of N.C., or in any of a number of places I can think of. I have absolutely no sympathy with people who move to a major tourist locale and then bitch about the tourists. I have slightly more with people born there, but slightly more than none still ain’t much.

  3. “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.”

    Too late. ‘New Orleans’ and ‘culture’ don’t even land on the same quadrants of my mental map of associations. Though it is close to ‘swamp’, ‘flood basin’ and ‘below sea level’.

    1. Rather like the northern New Jersey types who buy summer homes in shore towns like Belmar and Seaside Heights, and then complain about the college kids who flock to the beach there.

  4. New Orleans must decide whether it wants tourists or hipsters.

    1. It is becoming hipster city and that is not a good thing. It was a lot better before Katrina. And that is not because of the damage. The old girl actually wears the damage pretty well. It was better because it had fewer hipsters.

      1. It was better here, too, with fewer Katrina refugees.

        1. The dirty secret of Katrina is that it was the best thing that could have happened to a lot of people. Not all of the people who left were criminals and bums, though many were. There were a lot of hard working people who were stuck in that hell and had no means to get out. Katrina gave them the means and they have better lives for it.

          1. Do you live in NOLA John? Houstonians have bitched to me that they hate us for Katrina — it displaced a lot of our criminals into their city and caused crime to go way up.

            I still wouldn’t say that Katrina was good for anything, although it spurred some development in the cleanup aftermath. I know too many people who lost their homes because of that storm but couldn’t rebuild because of insurance. I stayed after Katrina but wish now that I had taken that cue to leave sooner. I no longer have the tolerance to live in a low city that is prone to flooding and pwer outages.

            1. I lived in San Antonio when it happened and knew a fair number of refugees and every single one of them was happy to be the hell out of New Orleans and never planned to go back.

              Yes, it displaced a lot of criminals who are now mostly in the custody of the Texas Department of Corrections. But not everyone was a criminal. The ones I met anyway were mostly happy to be the hell away from the place.

              And giving people the ability to get the hell out of New Orleans is actually a good that came from Katrina.

      2. I went to work in N.O. about a two weeks after Katrina. The French Quarter opened back up pretty quick—it’s the oldest part of the city and built on higher ground. I went to shady bars and strip clubs and smoke shops and mom-and-pop restaurants. Based on my experience, T-shirt shops should be very low on their list of priorities…

        1. I went to shady bars and strip clubs and smoke shops and mom-and-pop restaurants.

          It is what makes the city great.

      3. Cabbie complained that New Orleans was now full of weird white people.

      4. Sorry, real hipsters embrace the French Quarter. The opposition here are hipster wannabes only.

    2. I just moved from NOLA across the lake after more than a decade of living there, although my office is still downtown. The Quarter and Canal St. do have lots of tacky t-shirt shops; however, who else can afford to pay north of $10,000 a month for rent of one of those tiny spaces? If you want to repair a brick wall in the Quarter, you have to used old timey cement, none of that fancy new stuff that lasts longer.

      And yes, the hipsters have taken over the city and it is annoying. It’s one of the reasons I moved out. That and it’s a retardedly expensive city to own a house and raise kids in.

      1. It was getting that way before the storm but even more so now. The old parts of New Orleans are pretty unique and interesting. It was inevitable that the idle rich and hipsters would find it and make it impossible for any of the kinds of people who made it great in the first place to live there anymore. Same thing happened to Santa Fe in the 80s and Aspen and Telluride and Key West before that.

        I don’t know where you go if you want to live somewhere interesting yet affordable and not infected with hipsters. Alaska maybe. That seems remote enough even hipsters won’t go there.

        1. Sorry to say, but Alaska is not a good option for affordability or hipster avoidance…maybe a Mars colony?

  5. I guess AM Links are contraband too.

  6. the real winners in this t-shirt battle are large corporations

    Hey, what about us?

  7. rather than a paragon of elite culture.

    WTF? What idiot thinks New Orleans is a paragon of elite culture?

  8. Meanwhile the number of strip clubs on bourbon has gone up ten fold. Stay classy, New Orleans.

  9. How can a store be cited before it is established that more than 35% of its business comes from T-shirts? Also, only government can “define” “majority” to be more than 35%.

    1. That accounts for their funny elections.

    2. Now *that* is some “new math”.

  10. This is crazy. I’ve been to New Orleans twice, from my home in Australia, and what I loved was the total lack of market controls: buying cigarettes in a drugstore, and alcohol in any shop on any street! To-go cups, indie record stores, food-trucks and the world’s most entrepreneurial beggars and street performers are what make Norlins the perfect destination for a traveller like me. I treasure the souvenir t-shirts as much as the box of beads I still have, but would never have bought the overpriced, crappy t-shirts from the well-lit chain stores on the edge of the Quarter.

  11. Come to America where we will regulate you out of bussiness. If you are in a foreign land and are thinking of immigrating here. don’t bother there is no freedom here anymore.

    A T-SHIRT !!!

    Now, that’s a winner!

  13. This just reeks of some cronyism somewhere.

  14. Certainly, no one wants to live in a city overrun with tacky tourists shops.

    Why does that sentence begin with “certainly”? You might have considered “arguably”, perhaps, but some of us don’t care in the least about “tacky” shops. I would think that especially true in a city whose entire economy is based on tourism.

    Anyway, no one lives in the French Quarter. It’s almost entirely commercial.

  15. First, that Walgreens on Decatur doesn’t have ‘aisle after aisle’ of tourist crap–they’ve got two–and one is actually the ‘seasonal’ aisle.

    Second, with all those t-shirt shops, how come they never have the one I want. Sure, it’s always in the book–a beautiful transfer of the Jabberwock from Alice in Wonderland–but they never have the damned transfer. I’ve been to the other one on Magazine and they don’t have it either.

    Third, who sells the ‘fuck you, you fucking fucks’ shirt? I see them, but no one HAS them.

    Finally, there are tons of t-shirt shops because people–even locals–spend their money in them.

  16. “Same as it ever was”

  17. One can be fairly sure that the organized opposition to the stores has a large, if not majority, contingent of those who are not native New Orleanians. I’ve lived in New Orleans for over a decade; one sees this other places as well. This happens everywhere.

    Outsiders fall in love with a place; those with enough money buy in. Then, they become dissatisfied with many of the area’s habits and practices, so they organize to make things more to their liking, shutting down parts of what created the atmosphere they fell in love with. People move to a tourist mecca and shut down tourist-based businesses. They move to one of the great musical capitals of the world, and try to silence the street musicians and the little neighborhood clubs.

    A small coastal town in Maine hands out fact sheets to tourists and prospective home buyers, noting that the lobster boats go out before daybreak, and make a lot of noise. If you don’t want to deal with it, go somewhere else.

    That makes sense to me. If you want to live in New Orleans, especially in the Quarter, embrace its messiness and its noise. If you don’t want the French Quarter as it is, move to Lakeview. Whitebread as it comes, very little crime, and very quiet. Maybe you won’t be able to pretend you’re hip, but that’s fine, you aren’t.

  18. N’awlins, dahlin’.

  19. “Majority is defined as more than 35 percent”
    Only by people who’ve failed high school, sorry primary school, maths.

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