One of the first questions I get when people find out I’m from New Orleans is “Don’t you just love to hang out in the French Quarter? Do you do that every weekend?”
My relationship with the Quarter is very much a love/hate one. I love the atmosphere of the Quarter. I love the fact that there is always live music to listen to no matter the time of day (or night) and I love the cast of characters just walking the streets. I love having my fortune told in Jackson Square and I love seeing all of the different artwork on display. My family and friends an I often take a trip downtown to our favorite restaurants, like Muriel’s, Criollo, and Crescent City Brewhouse. Some of the best food of New Orleans is definitely found in the French Quarter.
However, in many ways, the French Quarter is about as far from handicap accessible as you can get. There have been many times where I have been in restaurants that do not have handicap accessible bathrooms. Because some of these restaurants are so old and are considered historical buildings, they are what we call “grandfathered in.” It basically means that because the city wants to preserve the original architecture of the building in question, these places are exempt from the ADA requirements that all newer establishments must follow. This includes having an accessible bathroom and even having an accessible entrance into the restaurant. The absolute worst I have seen is Tujaque’s, which happens to be the oldest restaurant in the city. I had to go to a rehearsal dinner there a few years ago, and found out the hard way that there was no accessible bathroom. Like, so not accessible that I couldn’t even get my wheelchair into the bathroom, let alone one of the tiny stalls. You would think a restaurant as popular and as decorated as that one would have at least made an attempt to figure out handicap access. Needless to say, I have not been back there since (however, for any of you able-bodied people, it’s a great New Orleans establishment, and although the food is not my absolute favorite in the city, is recommend going there for the experience).
In general, the sidewalks in the Quarter are horrific. They have redone a few and have made sure to include ramps on some corners, but the old slate and cobblestone make for a very bumpy ride for a wheelchair user. And honestly, it wouldn’t be so bad if someone kept up with fixing the areas that get all broken up and bumpy. I realize that cobblestone is naturally bumpy, but if it wasn’t it such bad shape it wouldn’t be nearly the issue it is. Even people who can walk and are sober have a hard time with it sometimes.
A few months ago, I attended a bachelorette party in the Quarter. It basically consisted of a really nice lunch, followed by us bridesmaids getting the bride completely, totally, 100% hammered. We had a great time, however, there were countless bars on Bourbon St. that I could not get into because they had a two to four inch step up at the entrance. That was extremely frustrating, particularly because it is an easy problem for those bars to solve. I realize that the city may not allow them to build any type of permanent ramp attached to their doorway that goes onto the sidewalk, but they could buy themselves a two-foot folding aluminum ramp for just over $60 on Amazon Prime that can be put down and picked right back up when wheelchair-users want to get into their establishments. I keep one in my car for emergencies. Almost all of these bars have employees at the door with signs and whistles and noisemakers trying to get people to come in and drink and dance. It would not be difficult to keep a small ramp behind the bar or in a back closet somewhere where the greeters could just run and get it real quick and unfold it for someone in a wheelchair. Out of six or eight bars we visited that I couldn’t get into, some extremely well-known, not one of them had thought of this solution. I realize they aren’t REQUIRED to comply with ADA laws, but it would be nice if they considered ALL of their patrons and not just the able-bodied ones. It’s just good business at this point. It’s 2017 people!
The fact is, I run into accessibility problems like this everywhere I go, but the French Quarter is definitely one of the worst areas. When we go down there, we generally go where we know we will have accessible parking near the restaurant, gallery, or music venue we are heading to, and call ahead to be sure the establishment is accessible. It’s very difficult for me to just wander around the Quarter, ESPECIALLY on a night where there are a bunch of drunk people around (which in truth is most weekend nights). A French Quarter trip for me has to be planned out ahead of time. Although I love the atmosphere and the people, it is logistically very difficult for me to be in the Quarter.