New Orleans' most famous street is a nightly swirl of bright neon and happy tourists strolling with a beverage in hand.
A blend of jazz joints, strip clubs, bars and restaurants, Bourbon Street has everything from four-star dining to sex shows. And visitors can count on being snared by barkers determined to lure them into one place or another, or another, or another.
"It's cheesy and in the last few years it's gotten way out of hand," said Louis Sahuc, a photographer who has a studio and a home in the French Quarter. "Getting past them is like running a gauntlet."
An ordinance passed 25 years ago was designed to outlaw barkers. But until recently it's been thinly enforced.
Now, businesses and residents say the barkers are straying from the informally tolerated confines of Bourbon Street to other parts of the Quarter and they want it stopped.
The city's Alcohol Beverage Outlet Control Board and New Orleans Police Department have stepped in.
"The reason we decided to try to do something was because of the proliferation," said Meg Lousteau, executive director of Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates Inc. "It's spreading to other streets. I've seen them at art galleries, retail outlets, massage studios."
New Orleans had 7.6 million visitors in 2008, spending $5.1 billion, according to a University of New Orleans study. The French Quarter is the big attraction.
"How do you think being accosted on our streets makes people from Minnesota feel about returning," Sahuc said. "What do we want, to be know as the Big Easy or the Big Hustle?"
The Bourbon Street tradition springs from the days when doors at strip clubs were closed. A barker would call people over and open the door for a quick peek at a dancer on stage, tempting them to go inside.
Nowadays, the doors are open and photos of strippers posted outside, leave nothing to the imagination. Still, barkers try to steer customers inside, often working in pairs and moving well out into the street to snare passers-by. The practice also can be found at music clubs and other attractions.
‘Wall Street of New Orleans’
Outside the Bourbon Street Blues Co. on Tuesday night, barkers put their arms around shoulders, and wooed tourists to try the club.
Eric Johnson, 52, was working down the street at The Rat's Hole, a combination bar-souvenir shop. He occasionally yelled "Yo," at passers-by and flashed a sign for $2.50 beer, cheap by Bourbon Street standards.
"It's these young kids that are the problem," said Johnson, who's been a barker for seven years. "You don't have to bother people to do this job. They're going to ruin it for everyone."
But Mike Focht, 55, a barker at sex-oriented Big Daddy's World Class Love Acts, said to stop the barkers is bad for the city.
"Bourbon Street is like the Wall Street of New Orleans," Focht said. "When you interfere with business here it hurts the whole city."
Focht carried a sign reading, "No Cover," and used eye contact and a friendly wave toward the club to attract customers.
"We get paid an hourly fee and then a percentage on everyone that goes in," Focht said.
In the latest crackdown, officials said only one club has been cited so far. The Alpine Bistro was fined $500 and warned that further violations could mean suspension or revocation of its liquor license.
But more businesses allegedly in violation of the ordinance will go before the alcoholic beverage board this fall.
On Tuesday night Ashley Roy, a 19-year-old college student dressed in shorts and a snug sweater, stood mindfully on the threshold of Jester Mardi Gras Daiquiris hawking a tray of shots with names like "Buck You Up," and "Sex on the Beach."
"The cops said I can't sell shots on the street anymore," Roy said. "I don't know why. But it hasn't really hurt my business. A lot of guys still come over and buy."