As New Orleans turns 300, isn’t time we grew up?
If first impressions mean anything, the billboards say what New Orleans – soon to celebrate its 300th anniversary as one of the world’s most exotic travel destinations – is all about.
As you leave Louis Armstrong International Airport and wind down the airport access road heading to I-10, it’s not John Besh or Emeril Lagasse stirring up a steaming pot of seafood gumbo over a fire with a wooden spoon.
Instead, it’s an in-your-face, billboard-size lounge ticket to a Bourbon Street strip joint.
And, for good measure, there’s a matching billboard for the reverse side, telling departing travelers who may have missed out on the fun: “Catch you next time.”
Jim Kelly used to run Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, and now he’s the executive director of Covenant House New Orleans, where many of the girls who walk into his place looking to get off the streets wind up after their young life spun out of control first by “dancing” in strip clubs – what the club operators euphemistically call “adult live entertainment venues.”
First comes the dancing, Kelly said, followed by the value-added services expected of the dancers in the strip club’s “VIP” rooms. That’s where the girls, if they want to keep their cash, drinks and drugs coming in, know what they have to do.
“It’s a victimless crime, unless you know the victims,” Kelly said. “I know the victims.”
Kelly was chilled last June when he picked up the paper and read about Jasilas Wright, a 19-year-old dancer at Stiletto’s Cabaret on Bourbon Street. Investigators said Wright died after being thrown from a speeding car on I-10 by her pimp.
Wright’s age particularly galled Kelly. He approached the City Council to pass an ordinance that would raise the age requirement on strip club dancers from 18 to 21. At Kelly’s urging, the council also called for a comprehensive study of strip clubs in New Orleans and placed a moratorium on new clubs opening up.
In October, state officials launched an investigation of the strip clubs and discovered nine out of 14 clubs were dealing in prostitution and drugs.
“Nine out of 14,” Kelly said. “Can you imagine that happening in any other industry and there not being an uproar?”
Kelly said a recent study of his Covenant House teens by Loyola University indicated that 14 percent – 87 kids during the course of the year – had been victims of human trafficking, which is defined as using “force, fraud or coercion” to control another person.
“Do you not think these dancers are being coerced to do what they have to do, OK, to make sure that people are happy?” Kelly said. “What’s going on in the VIP rooms?”
The most compelling testimony in the study of strip clubs came last month from former New Orleans Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who told the City Planning Commission that her younger sister Rebecca had fallen into drug and alcohol addiction due to a troubled childhood and mental health problems. Rebecca Gisleson started stripping at age 19, and she committed suicide in 1998. Rebecca’s twin sister Rachel also took her life a short time later. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the stripping was a major contributing factor to (Rebecca’s) death,” Gisleson Palmer said.
Kelly is a realist. He knows there probably is no way to shutter every Bourbon Street strip club, but he hopes at least half will be gone soon.
“The bottom line is this is an affront to women,” Kelly said. “We’re treating women as pieces of meat. Where is the dignity? Where is the respect?”
Kelly says as New Orleans approaches its tricentennial in 2018, it needs to look seriously at its culture of wanton excess.
“There’s no more 42nd Street in New York; there’s no more Combat Zone in Boston,” Kelly said. “I’d like us to be known for the World War II Museum and the Aquarium of the Americas. I’d like to see us known for Brennan’s. Food, great entertainment. We’ve got so much more to offer. Strip clubs are out of sync with marketing New Orleans as a world-class destination.”
There still is time for public comment. The City Planning Commission will offer a staff report on April 9, and the full commission will meet to discuss the study on April 26. The City Council meets May 2.
“I think we’re called to stand up,” Kelly said.