The great American playwright Tennessee Williams once wrote that America has three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everything else is Cleveland. That’s nothing against Cleveland. It’s just that Cleveland, is Anytown, USA. Vanilla middle America. New Orleans is unique, and what makes that happen is the people and their diversity—a collision of culture and history that could only have happened in that little crescent on the Mississippi River. But like a lot of unique American towns and cities, from San Francisco and Austin, TX to Honolulu, Hawaii, what makes these places vibrant and special is slipping away. And it isn’t some natural cultural erosion. It’s kind of on purpose.
I was just recently visiting the city I call home. It’s worth noting that I was not born or raised in New Orleans proper. I grew up in the area—close enough to call it home. It’s my favorite place on earth. Her Southern US meets Northern Caribbean vibe continues to inspire the stories in my heart and the music in my soul. I was there promoting my upcoming fourth novel, The Barataria Key, which is largely set in New Orleans and involves some of her darker history and lore. While there, I had the opportunity to catch up with some old college friends, and for some reason, the conversation turned to the gentrification of the city.
The guy I was talking to took the position that this was a good thing. Local and out of town developers coming in and transforming old, dilapidated sections of the city into nice, attractive, high-end neighborhoods, thus running out all the crime elements. That doesn’t sound so bad, right? It’s first worth noting that these areas are particularly predominantly black neighborhoods with a history of poverty and desperation. So of course there is a crime element. There are two common denominators in these high-crime neighborhoods. The race of the inhabitants and their socioeconomic status. So let’s ask which of these things causes the crime? Race? Would you be insinuating that somehow the melanin levels in someone’s skin drives them to rob, steal, or murder? That’s like saying the spots on a dog makes it more aggressive or not. I couldn’t think of many more sentiments that are more racist and vile than that one. So it has to be the other thing. Think about it. A neighborhood purposely segregated for most of its existence and bypassed by opportunities for adequate employment. A dumping ground for poor black citizens in a city where public education is among the worst in the country. Areas like this breed desperation and a mentality of survival, which sometimes drives people to rob, steal, deal drugs, and form gangs.
These are all things that should go away for sure. We want people to visit the city, but who is going to want to if they are afraid of getting murdered? But is gentrification really the answer? This is a topic that really got stirred up in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What a perfect opportunity for a modern group of carpetbaggers to come in and take advantage of a suffering and devastated city. I remember that in the years following the hurricane there was a renewed national intrigue with New Orleans. That city everyone thought of as just a humid Las Vegas—a place of gambling, excessive drinking, and college girls flashing their boobs—was back on the map as a cultural Mecca right there in Cleveland’s backyard. The hurricane stirred up a renaissance of sorts as people in Anytown became interested in gumbo, jazz, Mardi Gras, and the second line. Movies were made about it. And of course we got to witness the wonder that is Scott Bakula pretending to be a New Orleanian in CSI: New Orleans. If you’re a New York or Texas developer, you see this and you also recognize that as people from Anytown will visit unique cities around the world, but don’t want to be too far away from their Starbucks and Olive Garden. Americans need some level of familiarity to travel. A person from Madison, Wisconsin will visit New York City for the first time and despite the great local restaurants one can choose from, they will still eat at the Times Square location of Applebee’s. So you go into NOLA and transform all these poor neighborhoods into high end real estate. If you build it, they will come.
But here’s the problem. Where are the people who lived there going to go? Here’s a bit of a history lesson. When the French founded New Orleans in 1718, they brought slaves with them. But swamps and humidity bred disease-carrying mosquitoes, and on top of that, famine plagued the settlers. They could barely feed themselves, much less their slaves. So they let them go. They were freed—some of the earliest freedmen in all of what would become the US. They were allowed to set up residence outside the all-French (and all white) colony now referred to as the French Quarter. These early French-speaking African Americans (who often gave birth to mixed-race children) became known as Creoles. The neighborhoods they founded have been predominantly black Creole sections of the city ever since. They invented jazz in these neighborhoods, and still give residence to some of the best jazz clubs in the city. They also invented Creole cuisine in these areas. People. Culture. Uniqueness. The very elements that give New Orleans its soul—the whole reason people visit.
Are we then willing to sacrifice the local musicians and cooks, not to mention the people who work in the hotels and businesses throughout the city, just to get rid of the “crime element” within it? Let’s say you find a trailer park where one of the residents has a meth lab. Do you get rid of everyone the in the trailer park and build a strip mall with an Old Navy and a Chick-fil-a? And where are these people going to live? What about when Bernie Madoff stole billions from investors. Did we kick every millionaire out of Wall Street or out of their penthouse apartments? No. We went after stock swindlers and increased regulations. We attacked the problem, rather than the people. Why can’t we do that in New Orleans? Why can’t we improve public education or transit systems so that people in these neighborhoods can get to the better-paying jobs? Instead, there are those who want corporate restaurants and themed blues bars on Frenchmen St. in place of the local venues and flavor. They want these neighborhoods to be too expensive for the residents and once they’re all gone, they can up the rent or tear down 150-year-old Creole cottages and shotgun houses to build million-dollar high rise apartments for Hollywood actors and pretentious pop stars. The look of New Orleans will change. The sound will change. Street performers will disappear. Your crawfish etouffeé will cease to taste authentic and become a processed, preservative-filled version of its former glory. You will ruin New Orleans the way Silicon Valley has ruined San Francisco, and Carnival Cruiselines will ruin Havana. Austin, Honolulu, Key West…all facing the same fate. I’m all about making NOLA safer, cleaner, and better. I’m just not willing to make it Cleveland in the process.