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MAC-Notes: Everyone seesthe elephant. Now what?

Editor's note: Welcome to a new column by New Orleans-based clarinetist Evan Christopher, a tireless advocate for the local cultural workforce.  MAC-Notes will offer a discourse on music and culture in New Orleans; the title is a nod to MaCCNO, the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, an organization with which Evan has been involved in its inception. The goal here is to start conversations about how culture evolves, and how it can be managed in a sensitive way. So do speak up, with comments directed to evan@nolavie.com.

Short-term guests in Mid-City, New Orleans. (Photo: ©2016 April Renae)

Short-term guests in Mid-City, New Orleans. (Photo:
©2016 April Renae)

Gentrification is a hot topic. In my recent travels, I’ve heard accounts of awkward transitions from denizens of Barcelona’s Raval to Istanbul’s Tarlabaşı, East London to West Oakland, North Portland, to South-Central L.A. and Bed-Stuy back home to Mid-City.

For New Orleans, our “elephant in the room” isn’t just gentrification, but how it affects our indigenous culture.

At some point this became unconscionable for me to ignore, although I don’t know precisely when. Maybe when I was late for a happy-hour gig in the French Quarter because, in my barely 3-mile commute from Mid-City, I got stuck behind a gaggle of Tremé-philes tooling through the 6th Ward on Segways, then stymied by the streetcar construction on North Rampart Street, then gouged $6 at a parking meter?

Or, the time I overheard a tour guide on Frenchmen Street praising the architecture of the Disney-esque “gourmet hot-dog” restaurant whose menu doesn’t have even one reference to Ignatius J. Reilly?

Or, during “Heritage Fest” when a friend and I, enjoying a beer on the porch, were accosted by a sloppy millennial who, besides clearly choosing the worst week to relearn how to ride a bicycle, gloated that she recently moved here to, in her words, “hang around and see what New Orleans has to offer me.” No, I’m not particularly proud of the rest of that conversation.

Or, when the newly renovated house next door became a short-term tourist rental with a revolving cast of fanny-pack-wearing characters who habitually block driveways and rarely say hello as they pass on the sidewalk?

These moments have made me confront my own notions of “authenticity,” identity and the politics of urban progress. But, in a city that is arguably more inviting for visitors than livable for residents, they also encouraged me to attempt this more nuanced conversation about gentrification and culture. Some debates reveal disturbing tensions and prejudices often based on racial or socio-economic divisions. More benign are the whines of “long-term tourists” whose deep ties to their hood consist of nostalgia for their favorite music club, or brunch spot, or maybe a bartender who remembers their names. In my opinion, neither the Bohemian fantasy they came for, nor their imminent retreat to whence they came are of much consequence.

Let’s get serious about this damn elephant. He’s being too well-fed by our civic leadership, which continues to march toward a goal of 13 million annual visitors by 2018. Though they are beginning to listen to the bearers of their culture, they mostly try to measure our contributions in terms of “cultural economy.” And, given their attentions to the tourism lobby and neighborhood associations, it seems they still regard us more as an extension of the service industry than part of our city’s lifeblood. The resultant clashes between policy and organic culture are exacerbated by ham-handed and selective enforcement of our sound ordinance and an unwieldy process for amending the Comprehensive Zoning Order and “Plan for the 21st Century.”

Those of us who are truly committed to our community’s cultural vitality need dialogues that reflect appropriate ambivalence from all stakeholders and respect the issue’s complex dynamics. To this end, I will be drawing heavily upon the work and concerns of MaCCNO, the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans. I was involved in the inception of this open-membership non-profit more than three years ago, and, like me, they are trying to encourage engagement of the process and mature their role in advancing the understanding of how culture and policy interact.

Join the conversation. What was the moment that gentrification impacted your New Orleans?

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.