I went to a meeting today — ostensibly a meeting about the city of New Orleans’ recent and rather draconian crackdown on music venues throughout the Crescent City, as well as new regulations aimed at street musicians and second line vendors. Called and hosted by Kermit Ruffins at his Tremé Speakeasy on Basin Street, the room was an eclectic mix of musicians, writers, lawyers, Mardi Gras Indians, business owners, outside agitators, union organizers, hippies, hipsters, steppers, and just about anyone else you’d care to imagine in the mosaic of New Orleans: I sat next to a man that called himself Dirty Rice, but that’s another story. I say ostensibly, because while issues of legality such as permits, zoning, fees, and the city’s sudden interest in enforcing previously ignored laws was the stated purpose — and were discussed vociferously and at length by lawyers, business owners, city officials, and others — what we really met about today was identity: we met for reasons of ontology.
There is a lot of discussion about essence lately, about the soul and spirit of a place and its authenticity. Throughout our country, we are engaged in a culture war, as the unique, eccentric, local, and specific are being plowed under like crops on a small family farm. In New Orleans, a city that seven years ago was precariously close to extinction, this struggle is felt acutely, especially in light of the influx of money and people from “the great elsewhere.” All of the sudden, things that were understood and accepted as normal are not only being called into question but actively persecuted. And if they’re not being persecuted, they’re being co-opted, selected like genetic traits to purport “culture” to tourists while ignoring where that culture originated, and why. In the mainstream tourist economy, the propagated vision of New Orleans is a slick combination of Mardi Gras fantasies, beignets, riverboats, trad jazz, drunken debauchery, and minstrel shows. In the industrial economy, that of real-estate magnates and robber barons, New Orleans is a “blank slate,” a new Eden for commercial enterprises to imagine. This dangerous Molotov cocktail of the new-New Orleans is currently exploding throughout the city, seemingly abetted by the Landrieu administration, who ironically claim to be cultural guardians.
What all of these fantasies disregard or actively ignore is that culture is not just born of a place, but of a people; and the culture of New Orleans was born from the culture of marginalized people — slaves, blacks, creoles, the poor — disseminated into European culture. In fact, there is no more culturally specific place in the United States than New Orleans, but to understand the culture you have to also accept the cruelty and the sorrow, along with the joy, that helped give rise to it. You have to understand the complicity of race and power and subjugation to understand the second line and the Social Aid and Pleasure Club: traditions that started so black families could properly celebrate and bury their deceased. But none of the realities of culture and complicity play well to the corporate sponsors, and sometimes to see the true soul of a place, you have to embrace a lot of unpleasant propositions too.
Unfortunately, too often, culture is also used as an excuse to perpetuate laziness and excuse bad behavior, and sometimes those of us that love it are our own worst enemies. As a new New Orleanian myself, I sometimes see things from a different perspective, and maybe one that is not always welcome, but the fact is: the city itself has changed. And as much as I love brass bands, second lines, live shows, Mardi Gras, etc., it’s a tough sell to tell a someone not to complain about beer bottles on their lawn after a second line, especially because it doesn’t take that much effort to throw your trash away. At the same time, I think it’s equally wrong for people to move into cultural significant neighborhoods (almost ever neighborhood in this city is), especially traditionally black neighborhoods, and try to undermined the culture. This city ISN’T a blank slate. If anything, it’s the last vestige of cultural originality in America. And it’s evolving, part of that evolution being the newcomers committed to living and participating in this city. That’s a good thing, and while we can disagree over what direction development should take, a diverse, culturally vibrant city is in everyone’s best interest.
So yes, there was a meeting today about permits and fees and zoning; issues that will soon be resolved in the favor of the business owners, in my opinion. The city wants compliance and revenue streams, not to kill the golden goose. The larger concern is those on the fringes, or as I was told today, those in the informal economy. Pop-ups, street vendors, street performers, artists, and even freelance writers, who draw our inspiration and make our living in the vibrant street culture of New Orleans. Because those folks are not in the master plan, or at least not in the part that interests the economic/tourism powers that be. No, they exist in the margins, beyond the pale, and far off Bourbon Street and outside the French Quarter. Where drums are beating hearts, and where soul is siphoned off and repackaged for popular consumption.
So yes, we had a meeting today, but not just about preservation, but salvation….