Man on a bicycle in the French Quarter, New Orleans, LA

 

This is a perennial list. As I’m writing this, it’s spring, 2014, and we’re about to run headlong into French Quarter Fest (my favorite festival here), and then Jazz Fest (also awesome). We just came out of Mardi Gras, and there are multiple smaller festivals nearly every weekend. Add in big games (the SAINTS and the Pelicans), and various big-league music acts, and the French Quarter, where I live, stays hopping year round.

And every single year, I see the occasional tourist falling victim to various crimes and accidents that they probably could have prevented. Not everything is preventable, but many are, with a little attention.

Keep in mind, we’ve lived here in the Quarter over three years, and we’ve never been a victim. Most people aren’t. Here’s how not to be:

10 WAYS TO BE SAFE IN THE FRENCH QUARTER

Please feel free to share if you know someone traveling here. (Honestly, these are probably great for any big city, but it’s specific to the French Quarter in New Orleans.)

1) Buddy system. We tell this to our kids when they’re on field trips, and we forget that we need it, too, when we’re in a strange place. I cannot emphasize this enough–always have someone with you when you’re out and about. If you absolutely must go out on your own, make sure someone is aware of where you’re going and when you should return. Especially if you’re planning to drink somewhere.

I was standing in the cop shop (visiting a cop friend) (334 ROYAL STREET — phone 504-658-6080) last year when a very embarrassed man came in. He was well-dressed, and seasoned, and he’d fallen prey to two local scam artists who pretended to be tourists, like him. They were drinking, and he didn’t realize it, but someone slipped something in his drink. He vaguely remembers them leading him over to the ATM, where he happily got out a few hundred more dollars to spend. He woke up without his wallet, not sure where he was (he was in a lobby, and not the hotel where he’d been staying), and his room had been cleaned out of his computer and valuables.

This is common. The bars on Bourbon are the particular playground of thieves like this, so stay with buddies, and have someone always always ALWAYS pay attention to any open drinks you have with your group.

2) The French Quarter is NOT Disneyland for adults where all of the streets are for pedestrian traffic only. It may seem like it, especially on Bourbon St., but don’t walk down the middle of the street, or step out to take a photo, without first making sure that the street is blocked to traffic at that time of day. If it’s NOT blocked, then look for oncoming traffic. If there is none, feel free to take your shot. If you’re taking multiple shots, and someone pulls up, step aside, let them go by, and then step out again. I promise you, the buildings won’t move in the few minutes you’re being gracious.

Only TWO streets are routinely blocked to vehicle traffic, and those are ROYAL (from Talouse, I think, all the way to Bienville) DURING THE DAY–to 4:30, and then BOURBON STREET from about 5:00 onward into the night. That means that all of those other streets are there for the locals, the delivery guys, and the drunken tourists to travel on, and they are not always paying attention. Particularly the drunken tourists. We locals try really hard to be patient and to let you cross, but if you see someone who’s been blocked in by people crossing for several minutes, please be kind and let them through. Some of them may have urgent things going on in their lives, too.

There are occasions when other streets are blocked, too, particularly from construction. There’s a lot of construction going on in the Quarter right now as it’s rebounding from after Katrina. This is great news, and we locals are used to it, but it can make navigating in and out a little crazy. That’s our issue to deal with, not yours, but it’s nice when you’re aware–it’ll keep you safe when you know to stay on the sidewalk instead of stepping out and around that giant man-lift that I can’t see around. If I hit you when I’m going five miles an hour and you’re walking, I’m pretty sure you’re going to feel it more than me.

3) Wear flats, or very comfortable shoes when you’re out and about. One of the “new” crimes is guys running by really fast, aiming at the woman in the high heels, knocking her down, grabbing her purse or phone (or both) and continuing to run. They don’t care, they know you can’t catch them, and if you’re in high heels and the other people around you are in flats, you’re going to be the target. If you’re dressing up to go to dinner and want to wear heels, then go in a group and pay attention to what’s going on around you. It’s not like this is happening every day, everywhere, but it does happen. Don’t be the one it happens to because you’re tipsy, happy, waving your phone around while trying to stay balanced on your high heels on our slate (UNEVEN AND SOMETIMES WOBBLY) sidewalks.

4) LEAVE THE BLING AT HOME. Seriously. I know you’re going to want to dress up for something, some event, and fine, if you just feel like you absolutely have to wear your bling, by all means. But I’m telling you right now, you will be making yourself a target. I was walking down Chartres in a fairly safe area, when a pack of boys were eyeing a tourist who came out of K-Paul’s restaurant–which is directly across from the back of the Supreme Court building–because she had on some serious bling. And she was in heels. They were easing over toward her, and I could hear them planning. Luckily for the woman, I saw a cop, motioned him over and pointed out what was going on, and the boys, knowing they’d been seen, dispersed. I happen to be pretty pro-active here, as are most locals, but if you’re just determined to mark yourself as a target, there’s not a lot we can do about it. If you do bring it, obviously, there are safes in most of the hotel rooms. These are not 100% guaranteed, so if you have something valuable, put them in the hotel’s safe. (I cannot vouch for every hotel in the Quarter, but a lot of them have a bigger safe somewhere near check-in.)

5) Cameras / purses. Please. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. Have a strap on these, and have it either wound around your wrist (phone, small camera), or a long strap where you can wear it diagonally across your body. And if you think wearing it on one shoulder and holding onto it tightly will do you a lot of good, see the “drive-by runners” above, and then go google purse-snatching in the French Quarter. There’s some security video up online showing a few purse snatchers in action. Nine times out of ten, the thieves target someone alone who’s focused on what they’re doing (taking photos, scrolling on their phone), i.e., not paying attention to their surroundings. The thieves will come up on your blind side, grab the purse and yank forward. Even if you have a good grip, it’s going to extend your arm outward, trying to hold onto that purse. One good elbow chop to your arm, and your grasp is broken and they’re off and running. Strap it across your body, they don’t bother trying to get it.

Edited to add: Grabbing iPhones out of the hands of tourists happens frequently, because people constantly check their phones. Most people will stand on the sidewalk, facing out (the street), while looking at the phone. I don’t know why. If you’re going to do more than glance at the time–if you’re looking down at it and scrolling, step closer to the wall of the building and turn so that the phone can’t be easily grabbed by someone running past. It’s harder for them to run on the sidewalk, too many people to weave through, so you’ll have a little protection. [Best case? Step inside somewhere if you are looking up something. Much harder to snatch and run.]

Edited to add: pickpockets will bump into you in some fashion. If you’re carrying your wallet, don’t let it hang half-way out of your pocket. If the Quarter is crowded, people are going to naturally bump into you, and that’s what the pickpockets thrive on–they know you’ll get used to being bumped into, which makes it that much easier to pull your wallet.

6) MAPS. There are free maps in several of the tour booking places. Most hotel concierges will give you a free map (and they don’t ask if you’re staying there–they don’t care). Know where you’re going before you walk out of the hotel. Most concierges are happy to tell you where to go to get to what you want. Most of us locals will be happy to help. Don’t see anyone local? Go inside a shop or restaurant and ask–they’re happy to help. We thrive on tourists. We want you to have a good time. You wandering around looking for something, getting blisters while you do, is bad for business. We want you happy. ASK. This will keep you from wandering off into an area that’s sketchy and dangerous.

Also – there are quite a few phenomenal APPS out there, for all phones, which give detailed information about what’s in the Quarter, where it is, what they have/serve/sell, their hours, and consumer ratings. I’d strongly advise you getting one or two of these ahead of time and start familiarizing yourself with what’s here. And keep in mind, people go out of business here at an alarming rate. That cute little dress shop someone once shopped at may no longer be there. Check online before you hike across the Quarter.

I would not recommend walking on Burgundy or Rampart at night. For any reason. It’s fine by day (in a group), but it is absolutely not fine by night. Even though there is another cop shop on Rampart. Trust me on this.

7) Do not take a ride from anyone. If you know me? I’m safe. I honestly cannot vouch for anyone else. I know of one girl who went missing right on Bourbon; her friends thought she’d gotten into a cab when she got into a car that stopped for her, but it wasn’t an official cab (these are CLEARLY marked), and she has never been found. Have any hotel doorman signal you a cab, if you aren’t sure. There are several prominent locations in the Quarter with cabbies in line–it’s easy to find them, and the official cabs are pretty obvious. There are also bicycle cabs (Pedi-Cabs) here now. I know the owner, and he screens the employees, so these are pretty safe. (They charge $2 per person in the cab, per block, even if you’re sharing.) They’re all over the Quarter, and if you’re tired of walking, they’re a great option.

8) Do not engage with the panhandlers. The panhandlers are not the same thing as the performers or the artists–the latter are working for the money you give. They’re entertainment, and NOLA has a long history of some fine fine people who performed first (or for a long time) in the Quarter. However, there are quite a few panhandlers who’ll roam around the Quarter, running scams. Some of them, I’ve seen here for years. Some of them have apartments in my  building. Our apartments are nowhere near cheap. That should tell you something right there.

The panhandlers want to start a conversation with you, in some way, to get you to feel sorry for them, and give them money. They will tell you all sorts of stories. I was in line once when a woman (dressed in a sari) walked up and down the line, telling how her husband had abandoned her, left her with nothing, and she didn’t know what she was going to do. She just needed enough money to get her and her kids back to Florida, where her parents lived. People gave her money. (Not me. I am a cynic.) The next day, I saw the same woman, dressed in ragged jeans, telling a similar story at a different location. The details were close, but not identical. Same woman (she had a distinguishing mark on her face). I mentioned to her that I had seen her the day before, and unless she wanted to explain her con to the cops, she needed to leave the people alone.

There are several cons–the woman who sits near the Montelone, who has a sign out by day that she’s homeless, and has (and this changes) four kids. By night, she puts up a “read your fortune” kind of sign. There are the guys who share a puppy. I don’t know where they get the puppies, or the dogs, and I’ve seen the same dog often with different members of a group. They’ll send someone out to make rounds, someone who’s asking for help to feed their dog, and then when it dries up for that person, another one takes the next shift. I’ve watched a pregnant girl hand off her purse and nice shoes to a friend, and then go beg on the corner for a while, then re-join her friend, put her (Coach) purse and shoes back on and go spend the money. Please don’t be susceptible to the cons.

Keep in mind there are charities for the homeless right here in the Quarter. There’s St. Jude’s (on Rampart), which feeds quite a lot of people every day, and then there’s another place a block or so away from that where the homeless can bunk for the night. There’s a police van which rides around and will pick them up, help them, get them to a place for the night, or get them food. I’ve met the police officer in charge of helping the homeless, and you won’t find someone with a bigger heart. If you want to help, God bless you, and I mean that, but I’d ask you to consider giving directly to St. Jude’s or to the police officer in charge of helping the homeless. You will know that your money will go to actually help, and not to alcohol or drugs. [I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen someone give money to a panhandler, who then goes one street block up or over and buys drugs. Happens so frequently, it’s sad.]

If you hand them money, you’re marking yourself as a target. If they see you with a wallet, see other cash in it, they will call a friend stationed a block away to look for you. If they stop you with a “I’ll bet I can tell you where you got your shoes?” — and you take that bet, you’re going to lose, because the answer is, “You got ’em on your feet!”

If you see someone passed out (tourist or homeless), call the cops–they will tend to that person (usually pretty quickly).

9) If you feel slightly uneasy with someone, listen to your instincts. If you don’t like someone’s attention, and you’re in a restaurant or bar, tell the manager. They’re used to handling this sort of situation. Most of the places in the Quarter are safe. Truly. The majority of the people who are here will be happy to help. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for that help. We’d rather get you where you need to go, safely, than you feel scared or threatened.

10) There are cops everywhere here, especially on Bourbon St. at night. There are doormen, security guards, etc., if you cannot find a cop, and now there are civilian cameras all over the Quarter. The French Quarter Security Task Force (of which I am a member) has created a network of these civilian cameras to assist the police in apprehending anyone committing a crime. Where we used to have to rely on only a couple of hundred police cameras, we now have more than a thousand private cameras. We have better lighting, we have better patrols, we’re improving situations where there used to be easy places for drugs to be sold–that’s all changing fast. Overall, it’s actually fairly safe here, but if you have trouble, report it immediately. Pay attention to what the perpetrator looks like, pay attention to your surroundings, and report it immediately.

 

I’m going to have a local’s viewpoint on where to eat and shop

as well as things to see and do, all in the next few weeks.