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What I learned from Sharon: Make your seat at the table count


When we lost our friend Sharon Litwin to cancer in June, NolaVie’s editors asked contributors to share the most remarkable things we learned from her (send your thoughts to kelley@nolavie.com).

It made me remember how when Sharon and I would talk, she’d ask, “So, what is it that you actually want?” She taught me that a seat at the table is only valuable when one can clearly articulate desires or expectations. In advance of her memorial scheduled for August 21 (1 p.m. at the Pavilion of the Two Sisters in City Park), I offer this opportunity to honor someone whose life was dedicated to the cultural life of New Orleans.

In the “new” New Orleans, what do we want?

Answering this isn’t just to honor Sharon. It is also about honoring anyone in your history who wanted the best for our city and anyone who taught you what’s worth the fight.

This isn’t an exercise. Right now, we have a seat at the table and there are many ways to voice what you want.

If you have ideas about zoning changes that might protect or promote our music and culture, you should know that the City Planning Commission has extended the deadline for “Master Plan” amendments until August 31, 2016. Maybe you want community centers with cultural programming for our youth. Or let’s give venues perpetual permits if they have a significant history of live music. If you need inspiration, Austin’s culture-centric Master Plan has broad recommendations as well as approaches to helping their creative workforce.

If you’re the type that is skilled at helping others express their desires, MaCCNO has extended their job search for a community engagement professional until mid-August to ensure that they find someone savvy who not only embraces but also understands the New Orleans cultural scene, as diverse as it is, and shares common issues and aspirations. They are willing to take the time to find someone who will also encourage our culture-bearers to stand up for themselves.

Then, there’s the controversial issue of short-term rentals on the City Planning Commission’s agenda next Tuesday, August 9. In New Orleans, like cities all over the world, the proliferation of short-term rentals is degrading neighborhood character, exacerbating shortages of affordable housing and compromising community identity.

Urban planner Jeffrey Goodman’s has surveyed our scene well , Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance released a statement and MaCCNO is speaking out too. Executive Director of MaCCNO, Ethan Ellestad explains, "A core part of MaCCNO's mission is to collect feedback, input and guidance from the cultural community. Lately, we've heard a lot about short-term rentals, but over the past several years it has become clear that the immediate need for affordable housing is far and away the most pressing issue facing musicians, artists, and culture bearers.”

Do you know a culture-bearer who has been displaced because of what Deborah “Big Red” Cotton, calls “the corrosive element of opportunism?” Their story needs to be heard. By the way, if you don’t know Deborah, trust me, you won’t find a more dedicated advocate for our second-line traditions.

Despite being among the victims in the 2013 Mother’s Day shooting, Deborah told me how privileged she has felt to be able to help chronicle, promote and advance our cultural expressions, such as funerals with music and second-lines. However, having been displaced from the 6th Ward by an absentee landlord who flipped her apartment into an AirBnB rental, she feels that she doesn’t have the same access and isn’t as connected.

As these accounts become more common, the erosion of community spirit in our neighborhoods may make it more difficult for all of us to stay connected to the rituals that make our city so special. Complaining on social media or from a barstool isn’t the answer. The only way to keep cultural erosion from happening is by getting involved and telling our leadership what we want.

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.