New Orleans’ infamous French Quarter is awash in memorable sights and sounds, especially during the busiest and most colorful weekend of the year - the one just before Mardi Gras Day. However, a strict tightening of the city’s curfew policy means revelers under the age of 16 must now be accompanied by a guardian if they’re going to visit the French Quarter after 8 p.m.
Proponents of the new curfew include New Orleans Police Cmdr. Jeffrey Walls, who’s quick to cite an ever-present mix of booze, nudity and violence as the reason for the change.
“We were having kids that were being victims and perpetrators of crimes,” argued Walls, who said prevention is his primary focus in the crackdown.
The newly strengthened curfew regulations apply seven days a week, but only in the French Quarter and the nearby Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. Other areas of the city will continue to enforce an 11 p.m. curfew for those under 16, which was already on the books.
New Orleans City Council members unanimously passed the curfew change in January. Like many things in New Orleans, the change did not come without controversy. Critics have called the new curfew racist, arguing the new law specifically targets African-American neighborhoods where, they say, the presence of poor, black youth is too often considered a blight on the city’s treasured tourism and revenue.
Walls, tasked with leading the nightly curfew enforcement in the raucous French Quarter district, maintains it’s strictly “a public safety issue."
"It keeps the kids safe," Walls said. "This is an adult entertainment area. It's not like Disney World. … There’s really no reason for kids to be out after 8 o’clock unsupervised."
French Quarter vendor Henry Stapleton agrees. He runs a popular hot dog stand on legendary Bourbon Street. He has a unique nightly vantage point on some of the world’s most famous nightly debauchery. After too often watching 17- and 18-year-olds “chaperoning” 12- and 13-year-olds, Stapleton said a tightening of the curfew is in order.
“You’ve got children watching children. … That’s not a good combo,” Stapleton said.
A concern often repeated in opposition to the recent curfew change was its unintended impact on young African-American talent, specifically those seen tap-dancing and playing musical instruments for tips throughout the French Quarter’s evening hours. Walls contended such an argument is a nonstarter.
“We want to keep these kids safe. We don't want them to be victims of crime,” Walls said.
Another disagreement came from parents whose teenage children hold paying jobs in the French Quarter’s hundreds of restaurants and small souvenir stores. Police say exceptions are made for any curfew violators who can show proof of employment and provide confirmation of their late work schedules. So far, that has not been difficult to enforce, Walls said.
While critics initially argued the new curfew is likely to be ineffective and rarely enforced, initial 2012 Mardi Gras statistics may suggest otherwise. Out of 816 total Mardi Gras-related arrests so far this year, 170 have been curfew-related. Violators are arrested and taken to the city’s “Curfew Center” where a call is made home to parents. Walls said feedback so far from parents has actually been positive.
Charles Dorsey was visiting the French Quarter with his wife and four young children. He's an African-American military veteran, originally from New Orleans, who now lives in Oklahoma. Dorsey said he spent a lot of time in the French Quarter as a kid, although most visits were supervised by his parents. He echoed some of the policy’s critics in wondering about the motivation for a curfew change, but as a parent of two teenagers, he believes the curfew is a good idea overall. “I think it’s good to keep kids off the street late at night. There’s probably a lot down here they shouldn’t be exposed to." “I think it’s going to help the city business-wise in the end,” he added.
Along Saturday night’s packed Endymion Parade route, the Fitzgerald family from Atlanta was decked out in colored plastic beads, smiling from ear to ear at the passing floats. The public debate over the curfew has largely stayed off the Fitzgeralds’ radar, as they were in compliance celebrating the Mardi Gras season as a family.
Both Matthew and Michelle Fitzgerald insist their visit to the notorious Big Easy has been a fantastic family experience, and they’re not worried at all about the party atmosphere having a bad influence on their children, a teenager and three kids who looked to be between 6 and 12.
“I felt safe and everyone was very friendly. … It’s been a great time,” Matthew said.
If the Fitzgeralds are a good measure, it seems the new restrictions have gone largely unnoticed by those in compliance. For 170 other families that have received a late-night call from police at the Curfew Center this Mardi Gras, one thing seems clear: Police are taking the new curfew’s enforcement seriously.