Photo by Wayne Hsieh
UPDATE: The story has been changed to reflect the new date (August 22) for the city council hearing on revising Chapter 10 of the city code.
In New Orleans, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish protest from carnival. A breast, a lampoon of a particularly detested politician, a costume, a burning effigy of Donald Trump. You’re equally likely to see such displays at Joan of Arc, the parade that kicks off Mardi Gras season, as at a demonstration. But stripper and activist Lyn Archer definitely had the latter in mind when she, other strip club workers and their allies converged in the Louisiana city’s French Quarter in February 2018.
Amid a city news conference about infrastructure investment on Bourbon Street, around 70 people drowned out the New Orleans Public Works director at the podium. They held signs that said, “Hands off our jobs” and “We are not victims” and “300 years of subjugation.”On its face, the French Quarter looks how it did three centuries ago. But second-story wrought-iron balconies now hold modern revelers wearing sports T-shirts and stacked plastic beads. Behind those balconies are sports bars, strip clubs and rentals. Below, an assemblage of buskers, hawkers, T-shirt stores, a secret vampire speakeasy! Commodified voodoo. The French Quarter will transport you, but those old facades obscure the chugging service industry engine of New Orleans — and the people who keep it running.
Archer and other strip club workers (dancers, bartenders, accountants, bouncers) organized to call attention to raids on the clubs where they worked and the income they’d lost as a result. They continue to worry about ongoing threats to their livelihood. Instead of a French Quarter with open revelry — and sometimes bacchanal — the city is courting a more “upscale, family-oriented” tourist. That leaves service industry workers and cultural producers fighting an uphill battle.
Disney Cruise Line encroaches, with a new port-of-call set to open in the French Quarter in 2020. Lawyer Scott Bergthold arrived with a plan to rid the city of strip clubs. Other live entertainment venues are also at risk of being shut down. Add in rising rents and an embattled job market, and many of these workers — musicians, strippers, bartenders, waiters — feel that they are effectively being zoned and regulated out of the city. On August 22, the city council will debate and vote on yet another measure, about restricting live entertainment venues, that concerns advocates for the city’s longtime cultural producers.
Workers impacted by raids on strip clubs in 2018 demonstrated in New Orleans. (Photo by Zach Brien)
The strip club workers’ demonstrations in early 2018 stretched over several days. Wave after wave of people marched and shouted out the call-and-response, “Let us dance! Let her dance!” At a rally, they spoke into the bullhorn, talking about losing the wages that supported their children and other dependents and paid their mortgages and student loans.
They left their signs at the foot of a statue of city founder Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne in Bienville Place, a small, triangular park wedged between Decatur and North Peters streets in the French Quarter. “We wanted the tourists to walk past them, and see us,” one worker, Devin Ladner, said.
Around the time of the early 2018 raids, City Council Members Stacy Head and Kristin Palmer were pushing a zoning measure that would cap the number of strip clubs in the Vieux Carré Entertainment District (VCE), a seven-block spit of land in the French Quarter. It’s one of the few areas in New Orleans zoned for “adult live entertainment.”
The cap, a recommendation in the City Planning Commission’s 2016 Adult Live Performance Venues Study, would have limited the number of strip clubs on Bourbon Street to seven venues — one per “block face.”
Palmer, who was elected in 2017 for a second stint in council representing the French Quarter, has strongly advocated for regulating strip clubs. (Palmer’s office did not respond to Next City’s requests for comment. Head is no longer on council.) In a Facebook post from June 2016, she wrote, “We have a problem in this country that permeates our society and our city. It is the objectification of women that leads to their exploitation. It is most egregious amongst those who are marginalized, who have no voice and no resources. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in New Orleans Adult Entertainment/Strip Club industry.”
Palmer has a personal connection to the issue. Her younger sister was diagnosed with manic depressive disorder, worked at strip clubs on Bourbon Street and eventually died by suicide. “There is no doubt in my mind that Becky’s stripping was a major contributing factor to her death,” Palmer has said publicly.
Many strip club workers commented on the Facebook post. One wrote: “WE WORK IN A STRIP CLUB BECAUSE WE WANT TO. WE DON’T NEED TO BE SAVED.” Another: “On the flip side, there are young women who have been empowered to leave abusive or otherwise unhealthy situations with the help of a dancing job. In fact, I am one of them.”
The city held a hearing for the public to comment on the proposed strip club cap in VCE, and around 200 strip club workers and allies showed up. Archer spoke and highlighted what she saw as a systematic raiding with an end goal of shuttering the clubs. “A glance at the map shows that the raided clubs now in one-year probationary sentences, are likely to be raided to close again, granting the city council’s wish to erode our workplace options to one per block face,” she said. “We see you to discriminate against us while claiming this process is natural attrition.”
Bourbon Street demonstration (Photo by Zach Brien)
New Orleans’ cultural producers now face another challenge. On August 22, there will be a hearing on revising Chapter 10 of the city code, which regulates alcoholic beverage operators (ABOs). The proposed amendments are potentially harmful not just to strip clubs, but to corner stores, bars and live entertainment venues that serve alcohol throughout the city.
“Basically everyone has a bit of an ax to grind with it,” Archer said. Changes could include limiting formerly incarcerated people from applying for ABO permits. Critics say some of the language could lead to race and gender profiling through provisions that criminalize businesses that “permit prostitution” or “loitering.” Adult entertainment venues would be prevented from having seating in front of their venues, a place where workers often take smoke breaks or wait for their ride home. New mechanisms would allow small groups of property owners to shut down businesses due to “nuisance” claims.
Ethan Ellestad is the director of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, which organizes and advocates alongside musicians, artists and other cultural producers.
“There might be a corner shop down the block, where young black men hang out outside,” Ellestad said. “If your guests feel uncomfortable, it’s not a big leap of imagination that people can start complaining about that business, and five people could trigger action and could force them out. Largely, black-owned neighborhood businesses are affected, particularly for bars and music venues.”
To complicate the matter further, short-term rentals are making their way into the low-income, residential neighborhoods immediately surrounding the French Quarter.
“When strip clubs close people need to find other places to work,” Archer said. Many find jobs in bars and nightclubs. But a Chapter 10 revise could shrink these opportunities as well.
“Initially, this seemed like a strip club labor struggle,” Archer noted, “but now it seems like a broader gentrification struggle.”
The potential financial benefits of regulating and “cleaning up” Bourbon Street are overlaid with a morality play as old as the city itself.
Storyville, an un-official red-light district established in 1897, attracted everyone from GIs to politicians. The sex industry was corralled into Storyville partially to protect property values elsewhere and partially to protect reputable women from the “temptation and open insult” of seeing prostitutes. (Sex workers dubbed the neighborhood in mockery of Sidney Story, the councilman who drafted the legislation to concentrate vice in the district.)
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson implemented the draft, and New Orleans’ barracks, bases and training posts quickly filled with military recruits. The federal government pressured New Orleans to shut down Storyville, fearing the district was “corrupting” the U.S. soldiers. The city caved, and sex workers were driven into the street that year.
The women chucked their belongings into wheelbarrows. As they walked, street musicians played “Nearer My God to Thee,” a solemn dirge for Storyville. “In articulo moris,” one could imagine them singing, “Caelitus mihi vires.” At the moment of death, my strength is from heaven.
The neighborhood collapsed, leaving many destitute.
In sex work, women had managed to carve out a place of tenuous economic autonomy when there were few other avenues to access a living wage. The death of Storyville caused a chill in New Orleans’ sex industry. All the vice — the bars, the dancing, the entertainment — landed scattershot around the city.
Still, until 1970, stripping was permitted by right, without any special permits, anywhere there was “live entertainment.” New Orleans was a huge draw for strip club workers, who could make good money, especially during Carnival season. Then in 1997, “live entertainment” and “live adult entertainment” — nude or sexually oriented dancing — were delineated as separate categories, and a permitting system was introduced for the latter. By 2015, zoning again cordoned off the sex industry in New Orleans, this time, back in the French Quarter in the VCE.
The red line shows the stretch in New Orleans’ French Quarter currently zoned for strip clubs. There are a few light and heavy industrial areas elsewhere in the city where strip clubs can open (with lots of red tape). Strip clubs outside this zone have been raided too. (Google Maps)
In many ways, lawyer Scott Bergthold being brought in by the city of New Orleans is the next scene in this old morality play.
Bergthold cut his teeth regulating adult bookstores out of business. He earned his law degree from Regent University, a private, evangelical school founded by Pat Robertson in the 1970s, and is affiliated with anti-LGBT groups like Alliance Defending Freedom. He’s traveled from his native Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Kentucky, South Carolina, Missouri, Oklahoma, and other states with another goal: closing strip clubs for good.
In “Naked Truth: Strip Clubs, Democracy, and a Christian Right,” anthropologist Judith Hanna follows Bergthold’s trajectory, as well as a groundswell of Christian Right activism that has successfully advocated to shutter strip clubs all around the country.
According to Hanna’s book, a Knoxville, Tennessee, city council member once said, “To me, it seems like he’s just a franchisee and goes around from city to city and sells these laws and municipalities pass them, and then we hire him to represent the city at $200 per hour.”
City after city has enacted regulations to control and close adult businesses using Bergthold’s strategies. In the last year, Atlanta, Clarksville and Fort Wayne in Indiana, and Rome, Georgia, have all retained his counsel.
When then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office retained Bergthold’s legal counsel in 2017, the strip club workers realized he portended doom. Since he has arrived in town, proposed zoning and city code amendments have them.
The city cannot shut the clubs down outright because dance, including exotic dance, is protected by the first amendment, “so they try and ticket them to death” instead, said Chase Kelly, a New Orleans-based stripper. “They use a fine-tooth comb to see what they can find and start citing archaic laws like, you can’t touch yourself here, you need to be covered there.”
The strip club raids that started in 2018, a joint effort purportedly to sniff out human trafficking by Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) and the New Orleans Police Department, led to citations and fines for the clubs for prostitution, drugs and “lewd acts.”
According to Devin Ladner, during one raid, law enforcement divided the room in half — customers on one side, strip club workers on the other. Workers described the raids as violent. They were manhandled. The police called out their legal names in front of customers who only knew them by their stage names. Only one female officer had been dispatched; they were forced to change out of performing outfits and into their street clothes in front of men with guns.
And then there were the digs from the police, like, Ladner said, “You lost your right to decency when you decided to become a stripper,” and “Make sure you put your drugs away before we clear out your lockers.”
“Just the usual assumptions people make about us,” Ladner said.
Dozens of people were fired that first night. Some of the strip club workers got contracts at Hustler’s Barely Legal, which was raided a week later. After that, many of the clubs froze hiring. Some lost their liquor licenses and eventually closed because they couldn’t afford to re-apply for the necessary permits.
To this day, the community lives in paranoia. “At least once a week someone feels like ATC is out, they message a lot of people,” Ladner said. “It kind of starts a mass panic.”
When it comes to the arguments used against strip clubs in city after city — they negatively impact property values; they increase neighborhood crime — New Orleans’ cultural producers have evidence that speaks to the contrary.
Seattle lifted a moratorium on strip clubs in 2007. The change gave University of Wisconsin economics professor Taggert Brooks an opportunity to study the potential effects of strip clubs on home worth.
“It’s as close as you get to a plausibly exogenous shock to the system,” Brooks said. “Rather than simply looking at price in one area over another, we looked at the price over time.” They were able to see if the re-introduction of strip clubs in an area affected the rate of appreciation in the value of houses. (Other studies have simply compared houses in an area with proximate adult entertainment to ones without, which introduces confounding variables.)
“Initially, this seemed like a strip club labor struggle, but now it seems like a broader gentrification struggle.”
Brooks and his team found that taken as an average, strip clubs did not meaningfully affect the property values of homes. Other studies have debunked the property values theory as well as theories about high criminality around clubs.
Urban studies scholar Moriah McGrath has studied Portland, Oregon, a city where strip clubs can exist pretty much anywhere. She wanted to know how the clubs get along with their neighbors and how, if at all, these locations affect conditions for workers.
“Portland has lots of plain old bars with adult entertainment. In those, it’s less of a stage show,” McGrath said. “Dancers don’t have to compete with each other. It creates a more cooperative environment. Everyone makes more tips if the customers are having fun.”
The lack of zoning restrictions means small clubs aren’t forced to compete with larger corporate venues as is the case in New Orleans. Smaller, more cooperative clubs have space to exist as well.
And as for their relationships with neighbors? There are formal and informal arbitration mechanisms that basically allow a club and its neighbor to come together and discuss what the issues are.“Basically, the relationships function like any other bar,” McGrath said.
Small neighborhood bars and venues often serve as community hubs. In New Orleans, they were a lifeline and a tether after Hurricane Katrina hit. People gathered to receive information and to find moments of joy in tremendous suffering. These are the places that are closing as neighborhoods get whiter and wealthier under a thin veil of “more family friendly,” “cleaner” and “quieter.”
The proposed Chapter 10 changes in New Orleans would prevent all live entertainment venues from operating within 300 feet of a place of worship, library, school or playground, but Archer hopes to see a world where strip clubs aren’t corralled into one space, where workers might have an opportunity to pool their money and open cooperatively owned venues.
“We look out for each other,” Archer said. Camaraderie is built in the dressing rooms and on smoke breaks; it’s the type that kicked off the large demonstrations, the type that made it so off-duty strip club workers and allies showed up for support when the clubs were raided. This solidarity could extend to clubs where workers have a chance to decide who can and cannot be in the space, and where earnings are distributed fairly to the workers, without someone skimming off the top.
Over the last few months, hundreds of workers and allies have submitted opposing public comments on the Chapter 10 revision. Whatever the outcome on August 22, Archer and her fellow activists are unlikely to relent.
“I’ve been in New Orleans for almost 10 years,” one strip club worker said during the hearing over the caps in 2018. “I don’t know the places you’ve been, but in New Orleans, the women of the night do not go quietly.”
Padmini is a freelance writer and audio producer. She's interested in stories about identity, labor, infrastructure, and power. Her work has appeared in Outside Magazine, Next City, Zora Magazine, and Huffington Post, among other publications.