MAC-Notes: Why our culture war does not exist
There’s a New Orleans ethos, and even if it’s not easily defined, we know when it's in jeopardy. Threats from over-dependence on tourism, gentrification and the affordable housing crisis give the impression that there is a "war on culture" to be fought. But understanding why this isn’t true is key to letting the spirit of our culture steward our community's future.
After we remind ourselves that culture is ever-evolving and that traditions don't stand still, we need to re-visit why and how our cultural expressions exist. The beliefs and values that help members of a community navigate daily life take expressive form in the hands of creative culture-bearers. Over time, continuity of these expressions form traditions and are passed to future generations. Ideally, diversity, imagination and even technology drive their organic evolution. However, when we allow our traditions to be shaped by histories that are not shared, standards that are not our own, or motives that undermine the aspirations of the community, traditions can lose their unique character as well as their meaning. The dilution of our culture, is the real war to fight.
Some who have joined the conversation have posited that the city's leadership is the main impediment to authentic culture. True, official attempts at "organizing" culture in New Orleans have a controversial history as old as the city itself. Two hundred years ago, it was a city ordinance that allowed African slaves to trade, dance and drum on Sundays in Congo Square. In this colonial period, managing Quadroon Balls could make or break an official’s career. A century later, the Storyville “District” closed after nearly two decades of creative law-making. Today, our Second Lines and special events need Mayoral permits, and from Frenchmen to Freret, St. Claude to the 6th Ward, our "cultural overlay districts" require zoning exceptions.
But regulation only alters the climate for creative effort; it doesn’t dictate how we express ourselves. Even when the climate seems hostile, culture workers need to not settle for less than we’re worth. Presenters and marketers, meanwhile, need to resist selling our traditions on the cheap to visitors on a “bucket list” holiday.
Others blame neighborhood associations, when the vibrancy of our expressions is viewed as a challenge to quality-of-life. These tensions often play out in City Hall. Last month, despite remarkable support, Café Istanbul was still bullied into a "community benefit agreement" by the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association. And just last week, representatives of another one of our city’s over three dozen associations convinced the City Planning Commission that "good neighbor agreements" are somehow more valid than written laws and regulations.
But, choosing to reside in a neighborhood doesn’t come with the right to control it or dictate what’s best for the community. By engaging the civic process, neighborly goodwill can simply mean respectful compliance with our laws instead of unenforceable “agreements.” Resources such as MaCCNO can help us speak for ourselves as well as hold our lawmakers accountable for enforceable policies that respect our culture-bearers.
This column started with observations about gentrification's effects on New Orleans culture, and I continue to assert that this is a complex issue. Lower crime, better schools and new businesses are generally positive effects until higher property prices displace the people who define the neighborhood.
But, it’s on us to help them stay in the neighborhood and benefit from those changes. Furthermore, for those outside the community who commune around our indigenous traditions from abroad, beyond showing economic support, you too can follow these issues and create opportunities to actively share and sustain our values.
There’s no war on culture to fight because the real enemy is the un-nurturing sides of ourselves, our greed, arrogance, ignorance, insolence or passivity. Our culture can only serve us when we stay true to the hopes of our community and remember, as cliché as it may seem, that we are actually all on the same side.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.