A recent lawsuit has resulted in free speech being restored in the giant "Clean Zone" around the Superdome, but the Super Bowl is still causing hardship for many, including food truck owners and cabbies.
How New Orleans feels about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Photo via The Cajun Boy of Uproxx.com
New Orleans was one of the first towns to feel the grip of the post-9/11 security state, when the newly-minted Department of Homeland Security took charge of protecting 2002's Super Bowl XXXVI, held here just five months after the planes hit the towers. That tradition has continued through to 2013's Super Bowl XLVII, designated a SEAR 1 event, which requires safety measures on par with the UN General Assembly.
New Orleans's Carnival season—which this year shuts down for nine days to make way for the NFL—never warrants this same concern. "There is actually a bigger crowd here for Mardi Gras," Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Jerry Sneed told me. "But Carnival is spread over several miles of parade routes, whereas the Super Bowl is concentrated in a much smaller area in and around the Superdome." Meaning one terrorist-controlled plane could conceivably wipe out every single wealthy sports fan and NFL bigwig in attendance, whereas a Carnival parade would require an old-fashioned carpet-bombing. "We could never secure the parade route in this same way," admitted Sneed.
The Superdome has been locked down for weeks. Its security zone has grown like a tumor in the city's Central Business District, blooming finally with intimidating cement barricades along its perimeter. Though this year's list of prohibited items is shorter than 2002's (foam "We're #1!" fingers are once again permitted), Sunday's ticket-holders will be patted down, run through metal detectors, and maybe treated to some face-recognition software. Sneed even helped push for a crowd-monitoring aerial drone, an idea only recently nixed.
Even more of a libertarian's nightmare is the "Clean Zone," which extends far beyond the cement barricades. From January 28 to February 5, the city, under direct orders from the NFL, will strictly regulate commerce and expression within a vast area encompassing the entire French Quarter, Frenchmen Street's music district, even the West Bank levee across the Mississippi River, and all the water in-between.
A last-minute lawsuit filed by the ACLU and members of Occupy NOLA won back citizens' rights to non-commercial free speech and signage within the giant Clean Zone—meaning Super Bowl visitors will still get to enjoy the many "Fuck Roger Goodell" posters around town. Commercial signage, however, must include "at least 60 percent Super Bowl/NFL branding... and no more than 40 percent third-party commercial identification," according to the ordinance. A permit for this right costs $150. Otherwise, the Clean Zone technically disallows traditional "Big Ass Beers" signs on Bourbon, and your little po'boy shop can't display a sandwich board advertising your 50-cent raw oysters unless it also promotes, to a greater degree, the tax-exempt corporation abbreviated NFL.
To enforce these and other temporary new laws, Homeland Security has joined with the FBI, the National Guard, the Coast Guard, the FAA, the entire NOPD force including SWAT, plus the State Police and enough cops from surrounding areas to hinder other parishes' parades. And apart from nabbing terrorists, one of this security cadre's most important jobs will be making sure no one sells corndogs on the street.
Carnival is lousy with food trucks. Nice restaurants suffer during parades because everyone eats street sausage, and shrimp-on-a-stick. Normally, these vendors buy permits, rent generators, and set up camp for the duration of Carnival. But this year the Super Bowl's Clean Zone chases the vendors away for nine days.
Gus Mitchell of Slidell has run Mardi Gras food trailers with his family from the age of seven. He doesn't recall the city splitting 2002's Carnival into two chunks and requiring vendors to apply for two permits costing around $650 plus a $1,000 deposit. Back then, Mitchell wasn't forced to break down and haul away his carts mid-Carnival, only to set them back up again days later. During the dead time this year, he and most vendors will continue renting dormant generators for $50 to $100 a day, for fear the generators might be rented out elsewhere. This year Mitchell and other vendors I spoke with plan to lose roughly $1,000 per lost parade day per cart. Mitchell owns 15 carts. "Not a lot we can do about it," he said. "We have to play the game."
But the deepest financial screwing has been reserved for the city's cab drivers. Last April, the New Orleans City Council mandated that every city cab install a new GPS, a credit card system, security cameras, and a "panic button." Whereas similar mandates in DC, New York, and other cities were adopted slowly over the course of several years, New Orleans's cabs were at first given 94 days to comply with what is, in many cases, tens of thousands of dollars worth of upgrades. Several legal measures bought the cabbies a few more months, but nothing will delay the real deadline: the Super Bowl.
Syed Kazmi serves as President of United Cabs' co-op of 220 owners of 437 cabs. Citing a lack of funds, Kazmi said he upgraded just three of the five cabs he owns. "I'm not against the credit card system," Kazmi told me. "But we were already taking credit cards with iPhones, with a very minimum charge, 2.4 percent. Now we have the choice of only four companies [Veriphone, Taxi Magic, Creative Mobile Technologies, and Dialie Transportation]. And we have to sign five-year contracts where they're gonna charge us 4.5 percent. We are stuck with these systems that are going to be obsolete soon."
Lawyer John Redman represents Jefferson Parish cab drivers in their fight to operate at New Orleans International Airport during the Super Bowl. Redman describes the new required equipment as "iPad-type things that barrage you with ads and other stuff that has nothing to do with safety. Stuff that tons of other people are making money on, not just the cab driver."
The rush to upgrade cabs for the Super Bowl created a bottleneck at New Orleans's only inspection station, and at the few local mechanic shops experienced and equipped to install all the requisite devices. "There were not enough installers in the city," said Kazmi. "It was new for them too, so there was so much troubleshooting."
The new law also smacks of ageism. Cabs from 2002 or earlier are grandfathered in until next year, but anything older must be replaced. After 2015, operating any cab over five years old will be illegal--meaning the two 2010 cabs Kazmi bought specifically for the Super Bowl at $15,000 apiece must be replaced within four years. "We already have inspections twice a year, and if they say everything is good with the engine, what does the year of the car have to do with it?" Kazmi complained. "You can have a 2009 cab with 300,000 miles on it, but my good-condition 2002 will be out."
United Cabs is working around the clock to ready its cabs, but Kazmi expects only 130—less than a third of the company's fleet—to make it out in time for the Super Bowl.
The city doesn't officially link these upgrades to the Super Bowl. "Oh they're lying on that," said Monroe Coleman, owner of Coleman Cabs. "It's not a secret for those who know: When the NFL comes to any city there are certain conditions that you must meet." Coleman was loathe to sign the credit card machine contract, but in the end spent roughly $3,000 readying just four of his 16 cabs. "And that's not including the lost work days while the mechanics installed the equipment," he added.
Along with the competition local cabbies face from a new streetcar line and hundreds of out-of-town limos rolling in for the Super Bowl, several national cab companies recently arrived in New Orleans—just as the city offered up roughly 100 new Certificates of Public Necessity and Convenience permits for the first time in many years, to any cab owner who could meet the new requirements. Many of New Orleans's thwarted cabbies will now rent newer cabs from said national companies for $400 or $500 a week. Coleman and others believe this was the city's plan all along.
"Since the Mayor has been elected, the people around him have made it hard for an independent man to stay independent and support his family," opined Coleman. "New Orleans is one of the few larger cities that has so many independent [taxi] owners. But something's pushing to affect the lifestyle of this industry. When you have so many independents, the people with the money would like to squeeze you out."
Previously: How the Super Bowl Screws New Orleans
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.