In 2017, the city of New Orleans removed four monuments that paid homage to the city’s Confederate past. The removal came after contentious public debate and decades of intermittent grassroots protests. Despite the public process, details about the removal were closely guarded in the wake of death threats, vandalism, lawsuits, and organized resistance by monument supporters. Workers hired to dismantle the monuments did so surreptitiously under the cloak of darkness, protected by a heavy police presence, with their faces covered to conceal their identities. The divisiveness of this debate and the removal lay bare the contestation over public space, historical memory, and present-day public policy masked by New Orleans’s tourist identity.
This essay explores some ways that this battle has played out in the French Quarter, New Orleans’s most renowned tourist space. As historian J. Mark Souther notes, throughout its history, the French Quarter has been “a battleground on which residents, business owners, and street entrepreneurs mobilized to protect their competing visions of its proper use.” Following Hurricane Katrina, this battle took on new dimensions as the Catholic Church, government officials, and tourism promoters proferred official narratives of family values, economic recovery, and public safety that aligned closely with tourism industry interests. At the same time, African American activists, reappropriated the French Quarter to attack systemic inequalities in the city. I explore these competing visions and claims on New Orleans public space through an examination of a campaign by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and an African American tour of the French Quarter offered by Hidden History Tours. Both projects invoke conceptualizations of New Orleans history to address perceived social problems in the present day. Such a comparison offers a way to historicize the public space of the French Quarter and spatialize French Quarter history, revealing the ways that New Orleans tourist practices exacerbate the racial and spatial divide and obscure ongoing histories of strife.
Thomas, Lynnell L., "Neutral Ground or Battleground? Hidden History, Tourism, and Spatial (In)Justice in the New Orleans French Quarter" (2018). American Studies Faculty Publication Series. 18.