Update: In a statement, the New Orleans Police Department said that on Thursday (March 9), it will begin placing temporary barricades along the Royal Street pedestrian mall. The city is working on a longer-term bollard system at the location, the statement added.

Ten months after the New Orleans Police Department agreed to reopen the Royal Street pedestrian mall in the French Quarter, the popular tourist destination remains shut down by traffic and a dispute over barricades. It is yet another blow to the livelihoods of the city’s struggling local music community and a threat to the street performances that makes New Orleans unique, said Jacky Blaire, a guitarist who has performed on Royal since 2017.

“A lot of us are getting really tired,” said Blaire who plays with the Hot Biscuits. “The bands that have been playing on Royal Street for decades are losing steam. They don’t want to go out anymore because it’s such a pain in the ass.”

The city temporarily shuttered the mall following the collapse of the nearby Hard Rock Hotel in 2019 and kept it closed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But after two and a half years and no plan to reopen in sight, dozens of buskers staged a mass protest last April demanding its return. It appeared to work. 

A few weeks later, the New Orleans Police Department announced it would once again “be recreating a pedestrian corridor along Royal Street” for set hours on weekdays and weekends as it had for most of the past 52 years. But since then, little has changed. 

The city has failed – some say refused – to barricade the five intersections along Royal Street needed to block vehicular traffic, as required by law. As a result, cars and delivery trucks barrel down the street at all hours, making it difficult for the buskers to perform and creating a safety hazard for the gathered crowds.

Frustrated musicians said their pleas for help have been ignored. The New Orleans Police Department has provided a variety of reasons for its inaction, claiming it doesn’t have the manpower to erect the barricades, and that the ordinance does not specifically task them, or anyone, with the job. 

Councilman Freddie King, whose district includes the French Quarter, held several meetings last year to discuss the issue but hasn’t taken any action since. 

Neither King, the NOPD, nor Cantrell’s office responded to requests for comment for this story.

Meanwhile, performers and advocates say that private security patrols are harassing and threatening the entertainers who have taken it upon themselves to block the intersections with makeshift barricades, such as traffic cones or bicycles, during the mall’s designated hours. A video from April posted on Twitter shows Matthew Pincus, head of a private security patrol operated by the French Quarter Management District, removing barricades put in place by musicians. Pincus warns them that, per NOPD, if they are seen on the city’s Real-Time Crime Center cameras returning the barricades, they would be “cited.” 

A second video, this one from October, showed NOPD officers handcuffing and temporarily detaining a street performer who also tried to put out barricades.

Ethan Ellestad, executive director of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, said the city’s refusal to address what appears to be a straightforward issue has led many to believe it wants to permanently close the mall.

“I think everyone recognizes that the placement of the barricades is a very simple issue. It’s five barricades on five intersections. It would take five or 10 minutes twice a day,” Ellestad said. “So, why isn’t it being done?”

Dying a slow death 

For the past 16 years, Robin Rapuzzi has made a living playing music on the Royal Street pedestrian mall. The experience is like no other, he said. 

Dozens of street musicians, or buskers, set up in the middle of the street playing traditional jazz, blues and ragtime for millions of people each year. One day you’re playing for a couple from Wisconsin, he said, the next it could be for French President Emmanuel Macron who visited the city in December.

“You can be poor, you can be rich, you can be a tourist, a local, and you’re able to sit and listen for free,” said Rapuzzi, who plays the washboard in Tuba Skinny. “So many of the city’s famous jazz musicians played on the street. It’s part of the identity of the city.”

And yet, he fears the Royal Street mall is dying a slow death, hastened by the city’s failure to enforce its own laws. His band used to play at least four days a week, and now they are down to one.

Part of the problem, according to officials, is that the 1971 ordinance that created the mall does not specify which agency is in charge of blockading the streets. The ordinance only states that Royal Street is to be closed to traffic from Bienville to Orleans streets on weekdays between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. and weekends between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. It provides no other instructions.

At an April 25 City Council committee meeting, which coincided with the reopening of the mall, NOPD Deputy Chief Hans Ganthier said in the past his officers, musicians, and even sanitation workers took it upon themselves to erect and take down the barricades, but there was never an official policy. At the time, Ganthier was commander of the 8th District, which includes the French Quarter.

NOPD Lt. Samuel Palumbo told council members that going forward his community liaison officers would be in charge of the barricades during the week and a traffic officer from the supplemental police patrol program might move them on the weekends. Neither has happened. 

When Ellestad asked Ganthier for an update at the end of last year, he said the deputy chief sounded less willing to help than he did at the council meeting. 

“As far as NOPD officers erecting the metal barricades similar to those placed by the Bourbon Promenade unit, that is not feasible based on their hours of operation and duty location,” Ganthier told Ellestad in a Dec. 8 email. “That should be a function of another department.”

The same ordinance that created the Royal Street pedestrian mall also established the mall on Bourbon Street, which is closed to traffic every day from 8 p.m. to 11 a.m. 

Jazz clarinetist Doreen Ketchens, who has been playing on Royal since 1994, said the manpower issue doesn’t make any sense. Every day she sees officers pass by the barricades. “They walk by it. They pass by it on horses. They pass by it in cars,” she said. “In all reality, they probably leave it down because they don’t feel like picking up a barricade and putting it back every time they need to drive down the street.”

Further clarification proved elusive at a Feb. 27 meeting held by the French Quarter Management District. 

“This has been an ongoing issue with the pedestrian mall,” Karley Frankic, executive director of the French Quarter Management District, said at the meeting. “Right now there is no plan from the city. And until we have one in place, there’s really nothing for us to take action on.”

Frankic recommended against the managing district taking unilateral action to deploy barricades due to the requirement to stay in line with federal regulations for temporary road blockades. 

But Ellestad, who was at the managment district meeting, said the issue was not just about the city’s failure to put of barricades, but the fact that performers are harassed when they try to do it themselves. Ellestad said that often comes from a private security patrol that is managed by FQMD itself, called the Upper Quarter Patrol. 

“A lot of these problems actually come from the Upper Quarter Patrol enforcing,” Ellestad said. “The barricades aren’t there. Performers try to set up the barricades and then the private enforcement will tell them that if they move the barricades they will be in jeopardy for citation or arrest. So if FQMD is not going to be part of the process in creating a plan, is it possible then to make sure they’re not involved in the enforcement?”

Frankic said that she had instructed the Upper Quarter Patrol to follow NOPD’s lead when it comes to the barricades.

Makeshift barricades were erected by musicians to block traffic on Royal Street at the intersection of St. Peter Street. Credit: Richard A. Webster/Verite

“They are correct in that the street performers are not authorized to move them at this time,”she said.

But Ellestad said there was still conflicting information.

“There seems to be a disconnect still with what Upper Quarter Patrol doing and what NOPD has told us, [which is] that they’re not going to enforce barricades being moved by performers,” he said.

The captain of the 8th District, LeJon Roberts, was also at the meeting and said he would look into the issue.

“It shouldn’t be a hard problem to fix,” he said.

French Quarter Management District Commissioner Steven Caputo pointed out that the barriers that had been used for years and stored on Royal Street are no longer there.

“The old barricades that were decorative in nature are gone and who knows where they went,” Caputo said. “It seems like it should be a relatively simple issue. But like with many things with the city of New Orleans it becomes quite complex.”

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...

Before joining Verite, Michael Isaac Stein spent five years as an investigative reporter at The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans news publication, covering local government, housing and labor issues. During...