The rise and fall of Fat City, Metairie’s answer to the Vieux Carré
By the time Jefferson Parish officials officially recognized Fat City as a geographic area in 1976, the colorfully named 40-square-block section of Metairie had been humming along for three years, with a group of businessmen coining the term in 1973 to describe what they envisioned as a Jefferson Parish version of the Vieux Carré. At first, it consisted mostly of apartment buildings, filled with young and single residents. Then came the bars, restaurants and nightclubs catering to them. With 18-year-olds legally able to drink at the time, Fat City by the end of the decade had become a thriving adult playground.
As Fat City was taking off in 1974 — with one headline in The States-Item reading “Fat City is booming, baby” — developer Joseph Canizaro warned against letting the district become a haven for “a bad element.” His warnings went unheeded, and by the end of the decade, the image of Fat City went from one of a grown-up playground to a seedy haven for vice. Like disco, the old party-all-night Fat City was essentially dead. Today, local businesses are working hard to reclaim the district, reimagining it as a respectable shopping and dining district. In 2009, Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng — who has spearheaded the rebranding of Fat City — received a national planning award for her efforts.
- So where did the name “Fat City” come from? Some trace it to Leonard Gardner’s 1969 boxing novel of the same name, which became a 1972 movie directed by John Huston. Conventional wisdom, however, traces it to a small wooden snowball stand — named “Fat City Snowballs” and painted bright yellow — that operated at Severn Avenue and Seventeenth Street.
- While many complained about the element attracted to Fat City, it was hard not to admire the brilliant bit of branding that brought it about. Business owners in present-day Old Metairie followed up by rebranding a three-block stretch from Beverly Gardens to Bonnabel Boulevard as “Skinny City.” A stretch of Lake Forest Boulevard in New Orleans East was also dubbed “Slim City” by similarly inspired entrepreneurs.
- Among the 50-plus watering holes that operated in Fat City were the Back Door, considered among the neighborhood’s first bars; the Ski Lodge, formerly named Act IV; Don Quixote and the separate Sancho Panza, both run by Roy Anselmo; Red Caboose, which was located inside an old train car; the Huki Lau, a tiki bar built in the image of the locally revered Bali Ha’i; and, of course, the Playboy Club.
- Today, while there are still traces of Metairie’s one-time, late-night “city with in a city,” they are few. In 1985, the parish passed an ordinance restricting new bars from opening in the neighborhood. As of 2014, just seven bars operated in the former entertainment district.
- The French Quarter had its Lucky Dogs, but those looking for a late-night snack in Fat City had a menu of another sort, thanks to a sombrero-wearing guy named Cisco who sold tamales from a cart during Fat City’s heyday.
As local leaders strive to reclaim and redefine the Fat City moniker, memories of the neighborhood’s brief but sordid heyday still burn bright in the memories of many locals. Granted, those memories aren’t uniformly warm. Many was the local resident who saw it all as a tacky embarrassment. Heck, even those who frequented the nightclubs of Fat City would probably have trouble disagreeing with that description, although they’re likely to accompany it with a knowing smile and a shake of the head. Yes, it was tacky. It was tasteless. It was wild, crazy and almost certainly way too much of a good thing. But, hey, for a while, Fat City was where it was at, baby — and it was a heck of a party while it lasted.