Monday, February 19, 2018

We already have a Fulton Street

Mitch and the NOPD

Here is a question about the ongoing effort to create Dizneylandrieu in the French Quarter we should probably ask more often.  Why is the city trying to bring to Bourbon Street an environment that already exists on  Fulton Street?  
The plan also includes upgrades to Fulton Street, the pedestrian thoroughfare that runs next to Harrah's existing hotel. The street is currently anchored by a Ruth's Chris Steak House; Gordon Biersch brewpub; Manning's, the sports-themed eatery backed by the prominent football family; and Fulton Alley, an upscale bowling facility. Proposed changes to Fulton Street include:
  • A clear roof enclosure over the street to allow for year-round access.
  • A new music venue that Harrah's wants to feature local musicians, 365 days a year.
  • Introducing a new fast-casual food concept and a retailer on the street.
Harrah's also plans exterior upgrades, from new digital signage to improved landscaping.
That description is from a story about Harrah's plans for the street in conjunction with its proposed hotel project. It's fine that Harrah's has this little mall to play with.  Fulton Street has been a thoroughly artificial environment since the 1984 World's Fair and its subsequent development as an entertainment corridor servicing the casino and convention crowd. Tourism leaders always talk about wanting a "family friendly" clean and safe environment for visitors to amble about and spend money in between breakout sessions. Well, it's already there.

Bourbon Street is also an entertainment strip. But its history and character as such is richer, more complex, and, well, more interesting.  Unlike Fulton Street, it isn't easy to replicate. And yet the current program would seek to replicate a Fulton Street atmosphere on Bourbon. Why would anybody want that?  The answer, probably, is that's just the easiest thing to do with the available money right now.

During the waning months of his term, Mitch Landrieu has made a priority out of his so-called "security plan." The plan, funded through an agreement with the Convention Center and the hotel industry has several components. Some of those are relatively benign. The infrastructure work on and beneath Bourbon Street is necessary, even.. albeit late and over-budget due to what we're told are unforeseen obstacles not to mention a few contracting irregularities.  Other aspects of the plan are more concerning. Most famously, it proposes to install cameras in every bar, restaurant, and grocery tied into a citywide monitoring network. The police have no qualms in expressing the purpose of this.
“We want to be able to send a message that if you’re in public spaces, we’re going to be able to catch you if you commit a crime,” Harrison told CityLab. “We have to have the ability to demonstrate to would-be criminals, to would-be terrorists, if you will, that in public spaces we’re going to find them and know who you are.”
Simply by virtue of appearing in public, you will be considered a "would-be terrorist" by NOPD.  That the mayor has committed to this business says more than one thing about his priorities.  Yes, it's a chance for him to exercise his petty authoritarian tendencies. But, just as importantly, it allows him to hand out one more big sack of discretionary money before he leaves office.  So this isn't only about political posturing in the name of  "security." It's also about plain old cronyism.
Why do cities keep pouring money into these systems if they don’t see results? Dave Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues they’re getting hoodwinked by purveyors of “surveillance snake oil.”

“Law enforcement gets dazzled by shiny objects,” he said. “Vendors will come in and promise them that the technology is going to solve all the public safety problems and it just doesn’t. We’re seeing them develop all of these things creating more information than they could possibly process and then it doesn’t actually end up being that useful.”
At least when Ray Nagin created a similar corrupt boondoggle, he had the decency to also not care if the cameras actually worked.  Unfortunately, Mitch is more sophisticated than that. The scheme he has devised is a draconian program of invasive hyper-surveillance and radical cultural sanitization.  It is also rooted in a racist, classist, and discredited theory of police work.

Here is a terrific article published at Slate back in 2014 about the failings and consequences of so-called "Broken windows" policing.  The article traces "broken windows" from its origin in the plainly racist work of sociologist Edward Banfield who argued that poverty is a "pathology" of  lower class behavior. Which is a fancy way of saying black people have too much freedom.
Like many people, Banfield believed the urban unrest of the late 1960s had been stoked by matters of civil rights. But Banfield believed the problem was that the lower classes had too many of them. Criminal behavior was human nature—or, rather, in the nature of a specific subset of lower-class humans. “So long as there are large concentrations of boys and young men of the lower classes on the streets, rampages and forays are to be expected,” Banfield wrote. The clear solution was to remove these lower-class youths from the streets posthaste.
As gross as that was, our most plainly racist and classist policies rarely gain serious traction until they are adopted and promulgated by our respectable liberal intellectuals. This is more or less why publications like The Atlantic exist.
In their 1982 Atlantic article, titled “Broken Windows,” Kelling and Wilson argued that community safety can be negatively affected by a surfeit of “disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.” A preponderance of lower-class layabouts makes a neighborhood feel unsafe to its law-abiding residents; these residents hunker down or disassociate or move away, and soon the neighborhood actually becomes unsafe. Better, then, to stop this process before it starts, and to target minor deviant behaviors before they become something worse.

This theory encourages the police to conflate supposed cultural deviance with criminal deviance, to assume that a “disreputable or obstreperous” demeanor indicates some more destructive pathology. Kelling and Wilson cited the example of one effective Newark, New Jersey, police officer who had the habit of “taking informal or extralegal steps to help protect what the neighborhood had decided was the appropriate level of public order.” In other words, he targeted those who deviate from behavioral norms—norms that are defined by the dominant social class, of course
"Obstreperous" and "unpredictable" people have too much freedom in New Orleans.  Or this, at least is what the mayor would have us believe.  The security plan proposes to remedy this problem through deliberate efforts to "reduce the culture of permissiveness."  The cameras are meant to do this, obviously. As is the crackdown on "Adult Entertainment Venues." As are possible restrictions on vehicular traffic. As are the various other "place based design" strategies meant to curtail, "antisocial, criminal, or other negative behaviors" as the security plan reads here.
By using place-based design solutions that address the physical aspects of the area, the City can encourage behavior that will make the French Quarter and Bourbon Street safer. Public spaces can - through poor design and care - foster antisocial, criminal, or other negative behaviors. Alternatively, public spaces can be reinvested in to encourage connectivity, positive interactions, and individual and communal responsibility. In order to create a place that business and property owners and the public respect, the French Quarter needs an improved image, sense of purpose, and orientation. By investing in street amenities such as benches, planters, seating areas, and trash cans – small investments that can make a big difference to the look and feel of a place – the City plans to enhance the quality of life and the security of the French Quarter.

As a method of crime prevention, broken windows policing doesn't work. But it can be an effective rationale for deploying public money and resources toward the purposes of political suppression and f social control. Which in the eyes of its primary funders in the hospitality industry, is what the security plan is really about.  A less organic, more predictable entertainment district is easier to manage as an asset than is a living, breathing, mixed use urban neighborhood.  Maybe the mayor genuinely shares this vision. At the very least his pursuit of political and financial opportunism leaves him indifferent to their consequences. If one of those consequences is we turn Bourbon Street into Fulton Street, then so be it.

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