NEW ORLEANS -- For Jack Greenwood, New Orleans' COVID-19 lockdowns brought sadness, but also a revelation: He was making more acquaintances with fellow residents — people he might not have noticed before tourism dried up in the French Quarter.
“I've seen and met more neighbors now than ever before,” said Greenwood, who has lived in the Quarter for more than two years. “When there's a normal amount of tourists in town, people's faces can kind of get lost in the crowd.”
The absence of tourists — and the impending reopening of many of the attractions that draw them — have also led French Quarter inhabitants to reflect on the neighborhood's sometimes precarious balance between the interests of businesses and residents. Some feel that prior to the pandemic, that balance had tilted too far in favor of commerce, putting the quarter's unique character at risk.
The French Quarter is the 300-year-old historic heart of New Orleans. First settled in the 1700s, ravaged by fire twice, it is 13 blocks long and roughly six blocks wide. It is best known as a tourist spot and commercial district where fine restaurants, antique shops and art galleries coexist alongside tacky T-shirt shops, strip joints and bars blasting live music by cover bands.
But it is also a neighborhood. And for residents, the same coronavirus closures that have shut down favorite restaurants and neighborhood bars have also brought a welcome respite from snarled traffic on narrow streets, all-hours music and noisy late-night stragglers from Bourbon Street.
Chad Pellerin, a retired attorney and a resident of the quarter for 50 years, sometimes delights in tourists. She said she has invited out-of-town visitors to get a look inside the late 19th century Victorian “double” (side-by-side residences in one building) she inherited from her aunt.
But she doesn't appreciate the belligerent drunks who keep her up at night and leave behind garbage — sometimes human waste.
“I can't tell you the number of times where I've opened the door and people are having a party on the front steps, at 3 or 4 in the morning,” Pellerin said, sitting in the living room of her home not far from Bourbon Street.
And when she asks them to move? “They cuss me out.”
Nathan Chapman, another longtime resident, knows the current peace and quiet comes at a cost.
“People are genuinely suffering and scared,” Chapman said. “There's a lot of small businesses that are closed.”
On the other hand, he said the quarter, quelled by the quarantine, "feels like an old neighborhood again.”
Gone — for now — are the “screaming bachelorettes drunkenly singing as they pass by,” he said, and the all-hours “ghost tours:" guides taking advantage of the after-dark atmospherics to lead enthralled visitors through narrow streets as they recount legends of hauntings.
Others want the tourists back. Kari Mote, who lives in the nearby Bywater neighborhood, is a waitress who lost her job at a French Quarter restaurant when the state shut down on-site dining. She acknowledges the mess left behind by drunks in the historic neighborhood but says, “Everybody knows it's the deal if they live in the quarter.”
New Orleans recently began easing social distancing restrictions ordered weeks ago to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. Establishments with state health department food permits have begun limited on-premises dining. But bars without food permits remain closed and stretches of Bourbon Street and other entertainment-centric thoroughfares remain largely boarded up.
It provides a bittersweet scenario for Chapman, who said he's made it a point to get out and walk the streets in the evening: Bourbon Street (named for a French royal family, not whiskey) and the parallel Decatur Street, near the French Market and the Mississippi River. Both are lined with bars and restaurants.
“It was quiet. And there was a beauty in that way,” Chapman said. “But it was also haunting because just so many places were boarded up.”
The quiet has been a balm for those who feel the quarter has simply become too commercial over the past 30 years.
Pellerin, witness to years of legal and political battles over noise ordinances and other quality of life issues, said she had seen signs of progress before the shutdowns, including a move by the city to crack down on short-term vacation rentals.
As the French Quarter slowly reawakens, Pellerin hopes city leaders resist the urge to relax such regulations or loosen noise limits in an effort to increase commerce and tax revenue.
She also wants city officials and tourism promoters to convey a message to visitors: “That this is a residential and a commercial area and an entertainment zone. ... There's always been a balance of us getting along with each other.”