Fortunes falling for psychics

New Orleans law cost fortunetellers prime spots, but they’re not giving up without a fight
Chicago Tribune, June 17, 2003
By Dahleen Glanton, Tribune national correspondent

NEW ORLEANS — On a scorching afternoon in the French Quarter, Gemini Krikkett sits patiently in a lawn chair under a big umbrella, her tarot cards stacked neatly on a folding table and a novel in her hand while she waits for tourists to trickle into Jackson Square.

Since the city decided to clean up the French Quarter, isolating tarot readers, palmists and magicians, business has been bad for psychics. Though Krikkett, who is a Wiccan, has been at her post since 6 a.m., she has not read a single palm or flipped over one tarot card.

For Krikkett and others who make a living telling people what tomorrow will bring, the future looks pretty bleak these days.

A City Council ordinance passed last month forces fortunetellers and some street performers into more isolated parts of historic Jackson Square, leaving the most accessible areas along the shady wrought iron fence for about 200 artists who have permits.

“There used to be 130 readers out here, but now there are only about 14 per shift, and we have to compete for this small area on the sidewalk under the sun,” said Krikkett, 32, who has been reading palms in the French Quarter for five years. “Look at that shady beautiful area along the fence. It’s only for the artists, and they aren’t even using it.”

The new law, officials said, is an effort to return the French Quarter, the tourist magnet that has given this city a decadent charm found nowhere else in America, to the splendor it enjoyed in the late 20th Century. It also appeases New Orleans residents–88 percent of whom backed the campaign in a poll–who have complained for years about the city’s deteriorating quality of life.

City’s efforts

In an effort to crack down on undesirable activity, police have chased away the children who tap-dance for a dollar, arrested scam artists who prey on tourists, restricted the places where street musicians can perform and placed them under an 8 p.m. curfew. Several have been arrested for violating a zero-tolerance policy that went into effect last summer.

The iron benches in Jackson Square, once broken, dirty beds for the homeless, have been replaced with new ones that have dividers to prevent people from lying down. Assaults, robberies and purse snatchings are down more than 25 percent, officials said, and police are quick to arrest those who are drunk or engage in lewd behavior.

As a result, an area once known for its raunchiness is becoming a haven for the bourgeois.

“It costs a fortune to live in the French Quarter, and it’s worth it. It is a one-of-a-kind neighborhood in America,” said City Council member Jacquelyn Clarkson, who has led efforts to spruce up the area. “When I came back last year [after time away from New Orleans] I found the French Quarter the worst I have seen it in my whole life. It was devastated. The entire city needed a lot of cleaning, so where do you start when you clean house? You start at the front door.”

According to Clarkson, business people were complaining about losing customers. And the people who live in the area’s million-dollar homes were threatening to pack up and leave.

“The entire area smelled, and garbage was everywhere,” said Clarkson, 68, who spent memorable years during her childhood in the Quarter when her grandmother lived there. “Drains were stopped up, and garbage was floating along the streets. The smell of urine and vomit were overwhelming. The littering, loitering and accosting of people was out of control. My mandate from voters was to go in there and do something about it.”

Fewer psychics

But not everyone in the Quarter is delighted. The number of psychics setting up shop in the square has dwindled to about 30 a day from about 80 in the past year, and they are not giving up without a fight. This week they plan to file a federal lawsuit alleging that the new ordinance violates their freedom of speech.

“They are attempting to eliminate all of the street culture from the Quarter and push working-class people out who don’t fit into this Beverly Hills-on-the-bayou vision that Jackie [Clarkson] has for the Quarter,” said Mike Howells, a psychic who is leading the legal battle against the city. “They want to transform the French Quarter into just another wealthy neighborhood that does not welcome a vibrant culture so that a small group of people can feel comfortable.”

Clarkson offers no apologies and said she will not back down. The councilwoman, whose district encompasses one-fifth of the city, including the French Quarter, said she was inspired by the beautification campaign Mayor Richard Daley has conducted in Chicago and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s attack on graffiti, garbage and panhandling in New York.

“The tarot card readers don’t fit because they are not licensed, they don’t pay taxes and they don’t rent space. They just abuse the system,” said Clarkson, a former state legislator. “They were sleeping there all night and paying the homeless to sleep there to reserve their space. . . . We were down to 12 active full-time artists, and I’m not going to allow that to happen.”

Though she has the support of several business groups in the French Quarter as well as Mayor Ray Nagin, who was elected last year on a platform to shake up the city by attacking public corruption and improving the quality of life, getting rid of the readers might not be easy.

There have been numerous protest rallies and counter-rallies in Jackson Square, forcing outsiders to take sides in a dispute that could determine the future of a city that relies heavily on its annual 8 million tourists.

The city has tried twice and failed to limit the activities of the fortunetellers. In 1993, the city passed a law that would effectively eliminate all tarot card readers from Jackson Square by attrition. In 2001, officials passed another ordinance banning readers from attaching signs to their stations. Both times, the psychics beat the city in federal court, alleging a violation of their freedom of speech.

`Regulate us out of existence’

“The city is basically attempting to regulate us out of existence. The artists zone law eliminates 93 percent of the previously available space to readers on Jackson Square,” said Howells, 44, known on the square as “Michael PhD” because he holds a doctorate in political science from the University of New Orleans.

Psychics such as Bridgitte David said the bad economy and the crackdown have made life intolerable for many fortunetellers and street entertainers. It is easier for them to pack up and leave rather than stay and fight.

“People are scared to death. It’s like a police state here,” said David, 46, who has worked in the Quarter for just over a year. “Things are very tense because people have been picked up and placed in jail for very trivial reasons. Nobody knows when they will be arrested or when they will be out of a job. People are going day by day just to stay alive out here.”

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