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MAC-Notes: A Call for Leadership

April Renae I www.aprilrenae.com

A wedding's police escort facilitates a Hammond B-3 organ move on Frenchmen Street (Photo Credit: ©2015 April Renae)

When I initiated this conversation about gentrification and how it shapes and mis-shapes culture, despite agreement that there is potential detriment to our city’s identity, it became clear that there is less agreement about the causes or solutions.

Stories from other cities illustrate that cultural-related gentrification issues are becoming universal concerns. Take, for instance, Tiblisi, Georgia, where patrons in a vegan restaurant were assaulted with meat and fish, reflecting distrust and fear of their growing subculture. Or Detroit taking their resistance against a pervasive “clean slate” narrative all the way to Italy. Woes of musicians in Austin, Texas are not unlike those of Portland, Oregon’s creatives who are also feeling the squeeze of rising rents.

To encourage people to join the conversation, I introduced MaCCNO, the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, our nearly four-year-old, open-membership, not-for-profit. Currently, they’re our best model for grassroots community engagement and participation. This week, besides petitions to support Pirate Alley, whose zoning hearing has been scheduled for June 12, 2016 and Little People’s Place in the 6th Ward threatened by permitting woes, they shared articles about Harlem and San Francisco, and pointed to Nashville, whose Music Row was added to the “National Trust,” to show how development might support culture rather than supplant it.

With the exception of Nashville’s detailed plan, these aforementioned reads are pretty short and not meant to send you down a rabbit hole. MaCCNO recognizes that other communities can inspire strategies to unify around the traditions that define and distinguish the place we call “home.” However, an essential aspect of this unity is some consensus about what we value and aspire to protect.

On a recent radio program, master drummer, Luther Gray shared with me his belief that to achieve unity, “We can use the power of our culture,” and that, “our musicians are the cultural leaders of our neighborhoods.” I concur, but I also want to ask: What happens to unity when our culture and traditions are diluted or undermined?

For example, when our marketing to visitors, now ten million annually, boasts that our music is “cheap and sometimes free,” what effect does that have on the perceived value of musicians? Or when Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands work as entertainers for destination weddings, how does that engender reverence for our traditions? Or when a music non-profit reputedly bilks over a million dollars from our public library system then proposes the most self-serving way to pay it back, how does that encourage entrusting culture-makers with leadership? Or when phrases like “culture of violence” become ubiquitous and we live without presumption of our safety, what message are we sending to our children?

You see, gentrification isn’t the enemy by itself. Equally threatening to the sustainability of our cultural expressions is the perception that they thrive and depend upon a shabby, service-based economy. We need to concern ourselves less with promoting neighborhood “character” that favors mythology and nostalgia, and rally around conserving true culture. When we don’t honor and practice our traditions at the highest level possible, we can expect opportunism more than meaningful engagement and authentic experiences are reduced to mere commodities.

Furthermore, only our cultural leaders have the authority to pronounce standards for the expressions that provide our sense of belonging and identity and our evolving traditions that teach the values and social codes we need to grow and live together. We need to respect and support their efforts, and they need to step up and speak up, not sell out or bow out.

Sure, it takes effort, but there’s too much at stake to be defeatist or cynical. Who are the leaders you’d like to hear from on these issues? Who do you feel needs to join the discussion?

Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and advocates for the cultural workforce. Click here for his performance schedule. He writes MAC-Notes for NolaVie. Email him with your comments about cultural issues, particularly in the music world, at evan@nolavie.com.