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MAC-Notes: Eye on the prize

"MAC-Notes: Keeping our eye on the prize (and the free RBR)"

After last week’s call for leadership, someone asked why I made a distinction between preserving our city’s character and conserving our culture. After all, our “culture” gives us character. Or, for New Orleans, part of our character is that we have a unique culture.

Although I don’t entirely disagree, the specific feelings of being somewhere because of that place’s reputation or how it is perceived (the place’s character), are not synonymous with the activities and expressions which serve to transmit the values that unite the people of that place (its culture). Protecting culture from gentrification is more urgent.

Gentrification occurs when wealthier newcomers or developers move into an area, often making it less affordable for the established residents. Maybe they left wherever they were before because it had had less character and culture, or maybe because it was conservatively regulated, or maybe they were priced out. Ironically, to enhance their new investment, they encouraged regulation for zoning and quality of life or fought development, and now, where they have chosen to live is quickly becoming more like where they were before.

In New Orleans, this gentrification combined with over-dependence on tourism means that, displaced culture-makers are not only less able to serve their community, but are also encouraged to dilute their craft for visitors, to whom myths of spontaneous and authentic culture are marketed. Aggressively.

In 2010, the New Orleans Convention and Visitor’s Bureau commissioned a Boston-headquartered firm to create a tourism "Master Plan." They set a goal of 13.7 million visitors by 2018, which, if you do the math, fills our 38,000 hotel rooms every day of the year. In 25 colorful pages, culture is only mentioned in the context of “cultural attractions”; music is something that young people travel to “see”;  “authentic” is a brand; and terms such as “character,” “meaning” and “diversity” are conspicuously absent.

(To see the full "Master Plan," you can check it out here: hospitality-plan)

This may seem bleak, but if we focus on culture more than character, we can find meaningful solutions.

For example, our wide socio-economic spectrum is, for better or worse, part of our character. But, since most of our unique expressions have evolved as strategies of the dis-enfranchised in the face of legalized racism and classism, isn’t losing the neighbors who move our traditions forward more of a concern than whether or not the new folks next door look or act like us?

Management of culture hurts character when it hinders self-determination. But more importantly, it damages sustainability of culture. The expressway that razed the 6th Ward, indeed has less character than the historic oak-lined green-space it replaced, but hasn’t the decimation of Faubourg Tremé’s communal life been more detrimental?

Speaking of historic, yes, old things often have more character than new. But meaning and function is more important than symbolism. Isn’t keeping our cultural traditions alive in the community more important than displaying them in hotel ballrooms for conventioneers?

Regularly celebrating what makes New Orleans unique elevates the currency of everything from Po-boys to the African roots of our music and dance. But isn’t something lost when we replace practice with imagery? Or when we let corporate sponsors bully our festivals into formulaic global models?

Next week, on Monday, June 20th, a perfect opportunity to go deeper into this discussion will be offered at the Tulane City Center. Their next “Red Beans Roundtable” will address “Sustainable Tourism.” Join MaCCNO’s Ethan Ellestad, activist and spoken word artist Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes and urban planner/designer Jeffrey Goodman for this casual forum and enjoy free red beans and rice from Café Reconcile.

Joining the conversation is essential. CVB can have their “Hospitality Zone,” but we need to take back our neighborhoods. Let’s recognize that the focus needs to be less on how our city looks or feels and more on deciding how we want to live in it.


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.