It’s been over three months now since a firestorm erupted over the arrest of musician Eugene Grant in front of the Frenchmen Art and Books shop on Frenchmen Street. Many were shocked at a video of NOPD officers arresting Grant in front of the store and soon a narrative developed in the local and national media that vilified bookstore owner David Zalkind for calling the police on a brass band.
The basic gist on social media and in the press was that Zalkind, who bought the store last year, was a gentrifying newcomer who didn’t understand Frenchmen Street. And worse still, he’s white. The headline in the Washington Post (July 12) captured the general spirit of the emerging narrative: “A white store owner’s call led to a black street musician’s ‘outrageous’ arrest, roiling New Orleans.” People were pissed off. A boycott was organized. A protest was held in front of the bookshop. Months later, people are still calling the store and leaving nasty messages, one even threatening to blow up the store. Some people are even entering the store and running off potential customers by creating loud scenes.
One young millennial woman barged into the bookstore recently and chastised Zalkind for thinking he could open a bookstore on a “music street.” Zalkind attempted to explain to her that the bookstore had been there for over 40 years, but the young social justice warrior would not listen to anything he had to say and stormed out.
In the days following the incident, I myself fielded several calls and messages from a variety of people wanting to know what the deal was. One person who did not know that the previous owner Otis had sold the store even asked me if Otis, a beloved, longtime fixture on Frenchmen Street, had lost his mind. At the time, I really didn’t know much about the incident. When I started digging, I found headlines like this one on Instagram: “Don’t Mute New Orleans! Colonizers Call the Cops on a Black Man for Playing the Trumpet.”
With headlines like these, it’s no wonder people are so upset. But are the headlines accurate? An investigation into the incident and the events that led up to it, suggests the headlines are not accurate at all, but rather a classic example of “yellow journalism.” There is much more to the story of Grant’s arrest than the easy racist gentrification narrative that has been promulgated in the media. Sadly, the adverse effects of the narrative that have emerged include not only a lot of misinformation but also pose an existential threat to an important part of local LGBT+ history.
The bookstore first opened in 1978. Its founder was a retired Episcopal priest named Tom Horner, who had resigned his ministry after coming to terms with his homosexuality. FM Books was the first gay and lesbian bookstore in the South. At the time it opened, the music strip we think of today did not exist. For much of its history, this area of Frenchmen Street was retail and commercial. It was pretty run down by the early 1970s and even described as a “slum.” There were only two bars at that time—The Cabaret Bar and Pool Room and the Fairway Bar and Restaurant. According to historian Scott Ellis, the Fairway eventually became Cord’s Underground, which burned down in 1976 and remained vacant until 2014. The Dream Palace opened in 1976, Snug Harbor in 1982. The space that became Café Brasil opened first as a coffee shop in 1985. By the 1990s, the music strip we know today was taking shape. The point of all this history is that the bookstore predates the music strip.
Horner owned the bookstore for ten years before retiring to California. Alan Robinson (and, for a while, Jamie Temple) then owned the bookstore for 16 years. By the early 2000s, Robinson was not in the best of health and moved to Texas to be with his family. In 2003, M. K. Wegmann, the owner of the building which housed FM Books, realizing the historical significance and cultural importance of the bookstore, approached Otis Fennell and asked him to help her find someone willing to run the store. Fennell took over the lease in July of 2003.
Fennell changed the name of the store to FAB: Faubourg Marigny Art and Books. In addition to bringing in art, he also began stocking books about New Orleans and creating window displays. When he took over the store, Fennell had no experience in bookselling. “I had no experience, but I wanted to save the institution. Six months later I asked myself what the fuck have I done?”
Fennell began having health issues in 2017. Consequently, the bookstore’s hours became sporadic and it eventually remained closed for several months. Fennell, recognizing the bookstore’s culturally significant legacy, approached David Zalkind about purchasing the business in order to keep the store open. Fennell and Zalkind had known each other since the mid-1970s and had been friends since 1985. Zalkind bought the bookstore in September 2018, which reopened in March 2019.
The Young Fellaz Brass Band was founded in New Orleans in 2005 with three members. By 2011, the band had grown to eight members, recorded three studio albums, and traveled the country playing at various festivals.
By the time Zalkind bought the bookstore, the band was a fixture on Frenchmen Street. Originally they played on the downriver, lakeside corner of Frenchmen and Chartres Streets where a vacant lot that now houses Dat Dog was. The lot had been vacant for years and played host to various brass bands. It was a good spot, right in the center of all the action on Frenchmen, and, because it was a lot, no streets, sidewalks, or doorways were blocked (although neighboring businesses and residents did complain about noise levels).
When Dat Dog opened, the band moved across the street to the downriver, riverside corner. That corner was occupied by a vacant building that formerly housed the shuttered Café Brasil. When Favela Chic opened in the building, the band moved yet again to the upriver, lakeside corner of the intersection where the bookstore is located. This was when the bookstore was closed and in limbo because of Fennell’s health situation. The band was fortunate in that for a while three of the four corners at Chartres and Frenchmen were either vacant or had closed businesses. The problem arose when all four corners had operating businesses.
During the six months Zalkind was renovating the store and processing the inventory he inherited from Otis, the band continued to play in front of the bookstore with permission from Zalkind. When the store reopened in March, Zalkind met with the band’s leader, Sam A. Jackson, and told him they would have to find a new place to play. At issue was the fact that the band was blocking the entrance to the bookstore and therefore adversely affecting its business.
Jackson pleaded with Zalkind to let them continue to use the corner. Zalkind suggested they use the side of the building so as not to obstruct the front entrance. Jackson refused the offer and insisted on the corner. Zalkind then agreed to let them play in front of the store for 45 minutes. Jackson protested saying that wasn’t enough time. Zalkind, somewhat shocked, told Jackson it was 45 minutes or nothing at all. Jackson reluctantly agreed to the deal.
But the band refused to stop playing after 45 minutes. It was a classic case of taking a mile after being given an inch. Thus ensued a four-month struggle between Zalkind and the band. On multiple occasions, Zalkind explained to Jackson that the band was hurting his business, not only by obstructing the entrance but also because the decibel level was so loud people in the store could not hear each other talk.
When these repeated pleas continued to fall on deaf ears, Zalkind attempted to explain to Jackson the concept of rent payments—an attempt that Jackson interpreted as a demand for money to play on the corner. When Zalkind threatened to call the police, Jackson laughed at him, figuring the police would do nothing.
On July 8, Zalkind called the police on the band hoping they would just tell them to move someplace else. NOPD did just that. Upon arriving at the scene, an officer informed the band that obstructing a passageway is illegal and that they needed to move along. The band dispersed.
But after initially complying with the police order, the band returned to the corner several minutes later. The cops, who were still in the neighborhood, saw that the band had returned. The second time the police approached the band, they all fled on foot with the exception of Eugene Grant, also known as “Lil Gene.”
Grant, who is autistic, became defensive when the police approached him. Police claim Grant struck one officer with his instrument, at which point Grant was restrained and subsequently arrested. Grant, aged 27, was charged with obstructing a passage and resisting an officer. He was released the next day. Grant denies striking the officer.
A video, which went viral, shows Grant being arrested, and the crowd that had gathered to witness the incident. At one point, the narrator of the video identifies Zalkind as the reason for incident, saying, “All because this bitch ass niggah wanna sell books on Frenchmen Street.” This spin on the incident immediately found a receptive audience. An anchor on the African Diaspora News Channel seized upon this talking point saying in a news segment “Aint nobody trying to go in there an get no books.”
September 2018—Otis Fennel sells bookstore to David Zalkind, who gives permission to the Young Fellaz Brass Band to continue playing on the corner while the store remains closed.
September 2018—March 2019—The bookstore remains closed while the inventory is processed, and renovations are made.
March 1, 2019—The bookstore reopens.
May 30, 2019—Zalkind sends the following email to Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer’s Chief of Staff Andrew Sullivan: “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me this morning. I am hoping that sidewalk corner in front of my business will not continue to be obstructed every night by brass bands. There is a police surveillance camera on the corner of Frenchmen & Chartres that can easily verify my point. In addition, any conversations with my customers are almost impossible to be heard inside the store when the brass band is playing. It is very discouraging that the police do not respond after repeated calls. Please let me know of the 8th District Commander’s response to your inquiry as it relates to my present situation.”
June 8, 2019—Zalkind sends the following email to NOPD Community Liaison Officer Aldeane Valentino: “I just had a conversation with Ethan Ellestad of MaCCNO who suggested I contact you as soon as possible. For the record, a street poet and our street sweeper are threatening each other, with one egging the other to hit him and causing a public disturbance, all this in the past few nights on the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres, in front of my store. It seems innocuous but it is much more complicated. I am afraid this will escalate into a serious assault and battery on each side, perhaps this evening. Please help and defuse this matter in the interest of public safety on a very busy, busy corner. I am hoping to hear from you, however, I am a little less confident having had no response from you after two phone calls, May 29th and June 3rd, as well as texting you regarding another matter.”
June 26, 2019—Zalkind sends the following email to Mary Howell, an attorney who has represented musicians: “It was good to see you at the bookstore a few weeks ago! I enjoyed our conversation. I am writing to you about the continuing issue of the brass band playing without limits in front of my business. I understand that you have been representing some of the street musicians and I was hoping to have a conversation with you with the ultimate goal of crafting a workable solution to the competing interests. I have allowed brass bands to play as long as they do not go past 45 minutes per day as long as I am open for business. As of last night, the gentlemen’s agreement I had with the brass band was broken with impunity. This means, as of tonight, I will join the other 3 corner businesses in prohibiting the brass band for playing any set in front of my bookstore. The bands feel they can play as long as they want in front of any business. At this point they have chosen my bookstore as the only place on Frenchmen to play their music. I said that if they do play past 45 minutes, that I would ask the police to prohibit them from blocking my business and the sidewalk going forward on a permanent basis. I gave them an alternative – go past 45 minutes, compensate my business at $10 a minute – and yes that is unlikely but that was meant for them to understand that while they make money – I don’t – the longer they are playing. I feel that I have been reasonable – I am tired of being told that I am racist and that I am harassing them. I do not feel that my rights, as I know it, are recognized in any way, – it doesn’t feel worth it to run a bookstore with small margins and to be bullied to submit to whatever the brass bands feel like doing in front of my business. They actually question why I remain open so late – that no bookstore in the city stays open that late – really, now. Mary, would you be willing to shed any light on whether I have any rights at all relating to my situation described above?”
In her reply to this email, Howell suggests Zalkind contact MaCCNO, the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans.
July 8, 2019—Police order the Young Fellas Brass Band, who is playing directly in front of the bookstore, to disperse. The band initially disperses but quickly returns. Eugene Grant is arrested.
July 9, 2019— Charges against Grant are dropped. A demonstration is held outside the bookstore.
July 21—A rally for New Orleans musicians is held in Washington Artillery Park followed by a Second Line to Frenchmen Street.
July 19, 2019—Several emails are exchanged between Zalkind and NOPD.
2:03pm— Zalkind sends the following email to NOPD Community Liaison Officer Aldeane M. Valentino, requesting police protection: “Thank you for all your assistance the past few weeks in trying to help enforce the ordinance that prevents any person or persons blocking the public right of way, to vehicular and pedestrian traffic and in particular the front corner entrance of my bookshop, Frenchmen Art & Books. As you can know, the band led by Sam A. Jackson continues to return almost every night fronting the bookshop corner on Frenchmen & Chartres. I am not able to open my doors, customers find it difficult to navigate to the store, the extremely high sound decibel makes it impossible to have any dialogue with our customers, if any come through at all. The band plays as long as they want, will not respond to my concerns and apparently does not respect the law – How is it they repeatedly flaunt the law every night knowing full well that NOPD will usually respond to my call. How can we stop this madness? May I suggest that you as, a community liaison officer, have a conversation with the band leader and other members of the band sometime prior to them showing up on Frenchmen & Chartres. Otherwise, as you can see from the attached screenshots, my wife and I are feeling quite threatened to the point that my wife is reluctant to come work with me. We hear similar threats from people on the street as well. We would like to formally request that the police be present every night on the corner between 7:30 and midnight at the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres until this particular group of brass band led by Sam A. Jackson finally realizes that they are not allowed to continue playing front and center of an operating business, particularly at the sound level of a brass band (usually 8-12 members). Please let us know if we can expect police presence this evening to start.”
3:29pm—Officer Valentino replies to Zalkind: “Thank you for reaching out to us with your concerns regarding the Band which generally perform near the intersection of Frenchmen and Chartres. We have made accommodations to have 8th District Officers make directive patrols in the area for as long as this problem persists. 8th District Officers have a priority to respond to emergency calls for service. If you would prefer to have a New Orleans Police Officer to remain on site I will direct you the Office of Police Secondary Employment. OPSE can be reached at 504-906-9992. Please feel free to reach out if there is any assistance I can offer.”
3:54pm—Zalkind replies to Valentino: “We are concerned about our personal safety and the protection of our bookstore, particularly on the day of the Protest/Support March for Musicians which we believe is this coming Sunday. We are shocked at the number of hourly threats from all over social media to shut down our store and the incredible misinformation about who we are as individuals. This simply because we are protecting our rights to operate our business that the CITY granted us through an extensive approval process. Would you mind providing us information with the planned route of the March. Please let us know if the intention is to stop in front of our bookstore as well.”
5:01pm—Valentino replies to Zalkind: “I’ve made contact with Ms. Jennifer Cecil, the Director of One Stop Permits. Here is the route sheet she provided for Sunday’s Rally. Please feel free to reach out if there is any additional assistance I can offer.”
5:55pm—Zalkind replies to Valentino: “Thank you for forwarding the description of the route. Attached is the Facebook page of the Organizer of the March – it appears that 600 Frenchmen, our bookstore, is the rallying point and destination of the March. The focus of the Organizers’ posts is to shut down the bookstore. The City’s silence seems to be abetting the uninformed – doesn’t look good on the national front – long-standing bookstore gets no support from the Mayor and City Council. And the brass band says, We Don’t Want No Bookstore – on Frenchmen St.”
August 8, 2019—Zalkind sends the following email to Mayor Cantrell: “I am following up on our discussion regarding a proposed meeting with you and the Office of Cultural Economy re ways of urban environment can co-exist with street artists, brick & mortar businesses, vehicular and pedestrian traffic. I have received tremendous ‘pushback’ from parts of the local community and national social media as a result of the ‘incident’ on Frenchmen & Chartres – this involving world press reporting. I understand that the City has other pressing matters but since the ‘incident,’ neither my City Councilperson, the Health Dept (sound check) or the office of Cultural Economy has responded with more than ‘we are working on it.’ I think it would help to involve me in the ‘working on it’ portion. I look forward to hearing from you.”
August 14, 2019—Zalkind sends the following email to Andrew Sullivan, Councilwoman Palmer’s Chief of Staff: “I am reaching my limit of constant harassment from certain members of the public and non-action from City Hall. See plastering and graffiti of my premises and surrounding corner. [3 photos attached] Please let me know if I can expect a credible response from the Health Dept no later than this Friday. Our location is being plastered with stickers and graffiti.”
September 6, 2019—Zalkind meets with Mayor Cantrell, Superintendent of Police Shaun Ferguson, Lisa Alexis, director of the Office of Cultural Economy, Clifton Davis III, Cantrell’s executive counsel. Mayor Cantrell is sympathetic to Zalkind’s case and questions Superintendent Ferguson regarding NOPD’s lack of enforcement regarding the obstruction of a passageway law. The Mayor instructs Ferguson to enforce the law.
September 27, 2019—Workers Unity Rally is held in Congo Square to protest ICE and the NOPD’s treatment of street musicians
Frenchmen Street & Authentic Culture
For several years now, social observers and self-appointed guardians of “authentic” culture have bemoaned the tourist-ification of Frenchmen Street. Ironically, many of the people leading the crusade to defend street brass bands and shut down the bookstore fail to realize that the brass bands are a contributing factor to the loss of Frenchmen’s “authenticity.” Consider the following facts.
One, most of the people who stop to hear the street bands are tourists.
Two, most, if not all, of the business owners on Frenchmen don’t want brass bands playing in the street. (In fact, Zalkind was the only business owner to allow the band to play in front of his business.) This sentiment is also shared by the bands who play in the establishments on Frenchmen Street. The business owners argue the bands obstruct their entrances and that their noise levels make it virtually impossible to transact business. Sound checks have recorded decibel levels over 100, far exceeding the legal limit of 80 decibels.
Three, the brass bands have driven out local residents and businesses. One resident who lives a block away from Frenchmen and who wishes to remain anonymous states, “I am staying elsewhere this week so that I do not have to take any more sick-leave. Our tenants notified us that [name redacted] returned last night and stayed until 3AM causing them to be unable to sleep. Their lease is up for renewal soon and we are concerned that we may be unable to find tenants willing to deal with the noise violations if we lose them. We are growing very concerned. My next door neighbor is selling his home due to the noise. He is a war veteran and is highly affected by the amplified bass, so he has resorted to staying elsewhere while he sells his home.”
Four, many residents, business owners, other musicians, and regulars at the clubs feel the brass bands who play in the street don’t respect the neighborhood and have generally bad attitudes, but are reluctant to speak on the record because they fear a backlash similar to what the bookstore is currently experiencing.
Five, the proliferation of AirBnBs and other short-term rentals in the area is doing more harm to the neighborhood’s authenticity than the bookstore, which was on Frenchmen Street long before the strip became a music destination.
Six, the Praline Connection, a long-time, family-owned staple on the street, has been replaced with a Willie’s Chicken Shack. (Did anyone protest that?)
Analysis & Conclusion
Zalkind has been called a carpetbagger, a racist, and a colonizer. Are these accusations fair? A contingent of people are actively boycotting/protesting the bookstore in the hopes it will close. Are their efforts justified?
A bit of biographical background on Zalkind, who is Jewish, may shed some light on these questions. Zalkind moved to New Orleans in 1971 at the age of 17 to attend Tulane University. While majoring in history, Zalkind became involved with the Mushroom Record Store, which was a student co-op begun on campus in 1969. When the store moved slightly off-campus to Broadway, a Board of Directors was formed to govern the co-op and Zalkind served as its first Chairperson until 1975. In 1989, Zalkind was a founding member and the first President of the New Orleans Film and Video Fest.
Zalkind lived in California from 1994 to 2009, where he studied dispute resolution and received course certificates from Loyola University, Pepperdine University, and University of Santa Barbara. He was a mediator on the Mediator Panel for Los Angeles Superior Court and the State Appellate Court. He also worked as a commercial real estate agent and was employed by the Los Angeles Unified School System Real Estate Department as a Project Manager to help locate and purchase suitable land to build schools. During his time in California, Zalkind returned to New Orleans often, at least once a year.
Upon moving back to New Orleans, Zalkind went on the Board of Community Mediation Services (a non-profit that helps resolve disputes) and eventually became an interim Executive Director of the organization.
In an interview with Jan Ramsey for Offbeat Magazine, Zalkind stated, “I did everything right, and I bought the business in good faith. I had my permits, pay my taxes, rent, etc. If I had known that the city couldn’t make a decision on whether or not it was legal for me to ask the band to move so we could operate, I would have never done it. But no one will tell me anything and the band will not move at all and won’t cooperate. So I got fed up and called the NOPD.”
Zalkind says he has nothing against Eugene or even the band, really; he just wants to be able to operate his business. Zalkind respects the bookstore’s place in history—not only the history of Frenchmen Street, but also its place local LGBT+ history. One of the first calls Zalkind made after purchasing the store was to the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana, a local non-profit collective that preserves queer history. Zalkind invited the Archives Project to comb through the inventory he had inherited and select items of historical importance, which he subsequently donated—not exactly the act of an insensitive privileged “colonizer.”
These are polarized times and issues of race, especially when it comes to police, are particularly charged with emotion, and understandably so. After all, a white supremacist occupies the White House and police officers are still shooting innocent black people, two in their own homes recently in Texas. In addition, issues of gentrification are real and have been amplified recently by the loss of Gene’s Po-Boys and the opening of a Starbucks on Elysian Fields, both just a few blocks away from Frenchmen Street.
What happened to Eugene Grant was ugly and unfortunate. But is it fair to blame Zalkind for what happened to Grant? The evidence suggests no. Zalkind went far beyond what most would say are reasonable means to resolve the conflict without involving the police. And the inconvenient fact remains, the Young Fellaz Brass Band was not only breaking the law, they also directly and defiantly ignored a police order to move off the corner. How can Zalkind be blamed for that?
From the moment he bought the store, Zalkind was far kinder to the band than any other business owner on Frenchmen Street. He let them charge their phones in the store and even struck up something of a friendship with Eugene Grant. Instead of being grateful, the band took advantage of that kindness. Legally, the band was in no position to negotiate, but Zalkind extended that courtesy to them. Had they appreciated that and respected the compromise agreement they reached with Zalkind, the police would never have been called. And if the band had not disobeyed the police orders, Grant would have never been arrested.
Regarding the whole incident, Otis Fennell, the epitome of “authentic” Frenchmen Street, remarked, “It’s unfortunate the store is being deprived of business and it’s unfortunate the band is not respecting its elders.”
The more people boycott and harass Frenchmen Art and Books, the more endangered a significant slice of the authentic neighborhood and LGBT+ history becomes. If the bookstore closes, who knows what will then occupy that corner of Frenchmen. Another Starbucks? Another Mango Mango daiquiri shop? More AirBnB’s? Or perhaps a Hard Rock Hotel? Any of those options would be true colonization.