NEW ORLEANS - Months of citizens’ complaints over growing street gatherings in Treme that have blocked Claiborne Avenue with crowds cheering on daredevil drivers in cars, motorcycles and ATVs may be coming to an end.
In response to persistent community pressure and 911 calls, the New Orleans Police Department staged a major crackdown Sunday, sending 20 officers to control traffic, set up barricades and remove unlicensed food and liquor sellers.
First District Commander Hans Ganthier said the strategy was to halt the party before it even got started, and by all accounts, it worked.
“We figured out where we need the barricades and cars and police officers, so we gathered a large amount of our specialized units,” Ganthier said. “We decided to put something together that would have the most impact and when we did, we wouldn’t be expecting it, like yesterday, Easter Sunday.”
Ganthier said officers arrested one person for narcotics possession and another for a traffic violation, while confiscating one all-terrain vehicle after it was seen driving on the street, a practice that – while not uncommon in New Orleans – is strictly illegal.
For the most part, Ganthier said, most people who came to the area to join the weekly Sunday party left disappointed.
“It was really great to help out the community and alleviate some of that issue and help ourselves,” Ganthier said. “Our second watch has been inundated with calls for that and we really didn’t have any issues yesterday.”
The spontaneous throw-downs have been picking up steam for months, fueled by social media and word-of-mouth. The epicenter seems to stretch along Claiborne between St. Bernard and Esplanade avenues.
Videos of the gatherings shot by upset residents show crowds of hundreds of people creating virtual gridlock along North Claiborne Avenue as self-styled stunt drivers in trick-out vehicles pop wheelies, burn rubber and compete in drag races.
A few videos show people selling liquor from fully-stocked bars laid out on the backs of trucks and cars.
Residents and property owners have complained to their council members and to police at community meetings, sometimes showing videos of the illegal activities. The residents were quick to differentiate between permitted street celebrations like second-lines that are popular in the neighborhood and the impromptu get-togethers that often pop up after the police escorts leave the area.
“It's been an ongoing nightmare,” said one resident who requested anonymity. “The way they burn rubber in the street it’s like a bomb has gone off. There's so much smoke in the air and we smell it in our homes.”
Another concerned citizen, with several rental and investment properties in the area, said he was relieved to finally get a response after weeks of calling the police and notifying City Hall officials.
“It's a wonderful feeling knowing that you're not alone fighting the battle, a battle that really should be a city concern,” he said. “I’ve had to put up with automobiles, motorcycles and ATVs burning out, doing donuts in the street, creating havoc. I also witnessed a lot of illegal alcohol being sold.”
This kind activity is more than just a nuisance. Nearly three years ago, 37-year-old Daphne Cola lost her life after being hit by a four-wheeler along that same stretch of Claiborne. The driver of the ATV, Darrin Smith Jr., pleaded guilty to manslaughter and hit-and-run and is now serving 10 years in prison.
In the wake of the tragedy, city council members studied the problem, but determined that sufficient laws already were on the books prohibiting ATVs on paved streets. The NOPD admitted that a shortage of officers has often hampered enforcement.