New Orleans' Post-Katrina Funk

Business space is for rent on Royal Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2007. Things are not back to the way they were in the French Quarter. Sixteen months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' liveliest, most exuberant neighborhood is in a funk.
The hookers are back on Bourbon Street. So are the drug dealers, the strippers with names like Rose and Desire, the out-of-town businessmen and the college students getting blitzed on candy-colored cocktails and beer in plastic cups.

But a closer look reveals things are not back to the way they were in the French Quarter. Sixteen months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' liveliest, most exuberant neighborhood is in a funk.

"The money's not the same. I remember when I made $1,200 a night," said Elizabeth Johnson, a manager and dancer at a Bourbon Street strip club, frowning at another slow night. "I know girls who used to never let people touch them, and now they're resorting to prostitution."

Robert Boudreaux, a beefy hotel bellman in an olive green vest, scanned the street with folded arms and said: "Very boring."

The Quarter still has its characters — palm readers, magicians, street musicians, mimes. But the cheap fun is largely confined to the weekends these days, and seven-day-a-week stores, restaurants and clubs such as Preservation Hall are cutting back on their hours. The nonstop party is no more.

The "cams" — real-time camera footage of Bourbon Street, shown over the Internet — are dull on weekdays. Dixieland bands play to empty barrooms.

"The Quarter rats are drunk and high still, but they're less drunk," said bartender Dawn Kesslering.

In the Lower Quarter, the district's residential half, where people walk poodles and neighbors share clotheslines in galleried courtyards, old-timers do not see as much zest around them.

"It's become far more homogeneous, far more middle-class than working-class," said John Dillman, who sells used books. "It will look like Boca Raton. A version of Boca Raton that has risqué."

In 2004, the last full year before Katrina struck, about 10 million visitors came to New Orleans, most of them drawn by the French Quarter. In 2006, just over 5 million came.

"Every time they'd see CNN, Fox, they'd show flooded streets. Everybody thought there was nothing to come back to," said Earl Bernhardt, owner of several Bourbon Street nightspots.

In truth, the French Quarter was largely untouched by Katrina's fury. But it suffered financially anyway.

Businesses are pressing city and state officials to promote the Quarter more. Without the tourists, even Mardi Gras, which falls on Feb. 20 this year, will do little to balance the books at many businesses.

Some nightspots really are gone. O'Flaherty's, an Irish pub known for its soul-warming reels and TVs tuned to World Cup soccer, is gone. So too is the 125-year-old Maison Hospitaliere, a nursing home that began as a home for Confederate widows. Bella Luna, La Madeleine and the Old New Orleans Cookery — a trio of popular eateries — fell victim to Katrina. The Little Shop of Fantasy, a Mardi Gras mask shop run by two sisters, cleared out of the Quarter and went online, like so many other Quarter businesses. And after 83 years, Hurwitz Mintz shuttered its flagship furniture shop on Royal Street.

Since Katrina, the real estate market has been in flux. Rents have gone through the roof because of the overall shortage of housing in New Orleans.

In the Quarter, there are twice as many condos for sale, from 90 before Katrina to about 180 now. Some people are moving out; others are trying to take advantage of the shortage by converting attics, parlor rooms, stables and slave quarters into condos.