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MAC-NOTES: Taking a cultural initiative

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Executive Director of MaCCNO, Ethan Ellestad (©2014 Kate Gegenheimer)

Well, the “G” word really struck a nerve last week. First, to clarify: I did not say that gentrification is inherently bad, and I didn’t label all transplants “gentrifiers.” Gentrification is a process, and whether or not you are technically a gentrifier depends more upon income than actions. In the Crescent City, you’re likely gentrifying (neighborhood withstanding) if your household makes over $60k annually.

My assertion remains that in cities worldwide, gentrification can negatively affect the practice, conservation and evolution of indigenous traditions. When I asked if you’ve noticed alarming indications of this, several of you gave personal accounts on how your communities have changed. Here at home in New Orleans, natives contrasted vibrant memories with recent experiences. Others expressed dismay at demographic shifts and questionable community engagement, while some newcomers and conscientious visitors pondered their contribution to displacing the very people who define their experience.

I moved here in 1994 to make great New Orleans music with great New Orleans musicians, plain and simple. (I had already started a career making less-than-great New Orleans-style music with non-New Orleans musicians.) Coming from Southern California meant that, for better or worse, I came with no cultural values of consequence, so absorbing and assimilating the rich culture of New Orleans was pure adventure. All I wanted to do was try to fit in and adapt to my fascinating new home, and thanks to the rich resources within my occupational culture (y’all know who you are), over time, my experiences supplanted mythology. Upon my 2005 exile and 2008 “post-levee failure” return, however, I was less accommodating with my expectations.

I thought it was time to make better music, demand more than tips in a bucket, and take a seat at the table to forge our future. Just because culture-bearers in New Orleans have not traditionally had much political influence or power and have existed on a very “modest” scale of economy, were my aspirations a form of gentrification? The question wasn’t rhetorical. Fortunately, around 2012, the answer came when I learned that many in the cultural community did want more respect, and I felt relief that my hopes weren’t overly presumptuous.

That summer, aggressive enforcement of zoning and permitting affecting live music galvanized musicians, venue operators, buskers, and concerned music-lovers to get informed. By November, these weekly gatherings coalesced into the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, which today is a not-for-profit with open membership. Though this self-representing character sometimes makes for uneven dialogue about our city’s cultural life, allowing all points of view is better than a select few speaking for others.

The Greater New Orleans Foundation has been their biggest supporter, but they also received a 2014 award from the Threadhead Cultural Foundation and a 2015 grant from the Ben and Jerry’s Foundation , The MaCCNO Website and Facebook page offer official statements, whereas the MaCCNO discussion group is a loosely moderated, open forum where you can read what your neighbors (some like you, and some not) are saying about current issues such as the possible closing of Pirate’s Alley or the emergence of an arts district in Arabi. Lastly, the Twitter feed curates an array of content related to cultural issues including live action from City Council meetings.

For our personal visions for our community to reflect congruity with our cultural milieu, we must thoughtfully choose with whom we will work and engage to form and pursue that vision. MaCCNO’s not perfect, but they’re a laudable introduction to conversations about the cultural landscape, gentrification and public policy.

Keep sharing observations about changes you’re noticing, but let’s strive to be more than armchair anthropologists, long-term tourists or finger-pointing complainers. If we truly want positive change, we need to reconcile ourselves to differing viewpoints and examine our own relationship to our community.


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 [email protected]