The ways in which New Orleans changes and resists change, and the reasons why, continue to fascinate. For a variety of reasons — I’ll get to them — this process is even more contested in the downriver working-class wards, especially now. As I wrote back in April, a long tradition of what I have termed “exceptionalism” — of insisting that our distinct culture somehow elevates us above more mundane cities — shapes debate about every change, whether proposed by government, business interests, or the recent influx of new residents.
Arguments, some of them verging on hysteria, have arisen this year over a couple of issues touching on our unique culture. Oddly, such ardor was conspicuously absent from discussion of the one City Council action so far this year that actually entails sweeping change. It affects an economic and aesthetic aspect of New Orleans life as old as the city itself — and I’m not talking about go-cups.
Rumblings on social media alerted me to the prospect of a city ban on go-cups, and I was as outraged as the next guy. But then I noticed that reasonable reporting in The Times-Picayune, Gambit, The Advocate, WWL, WDSU, and every other “traditional” news outlet made clear that the cyberspace commentariat was piling up a mountain alongside what really amounted to a molehill: Far from being a citywide go-cup ban, it turned out that the fuss was over restrictions on go-cup use at just two bars.
Why did that non-issue strike such a jangly nerve — if the nerves of a handful of bloggers and tweeters can be called more than merely virtual? The anatomy of a rumor in this case demonstrates the way internet-savvy arrivistes in our fair city are able to seize on an issue and define the terms of debate, especially if it has any implications for the newly dubbed “St. Claude Corridor.”
One of the culprits drumming up the fairy dust-up was a misleading petition on neighborland.com, that newly imported watchdog for building a virtual New Orleans to compete with the real one. And why such chest-thumping from the newbies over the humble go-cup? The go-cup in itself is just litter waiting to happen, or, if disposed of “properly,” another non-biodegradable addition to the waste stream clogging our landfills. The more responsible approach to portable libation would be for people to tote their re-usable Mardi Gras cups from bar to bar and refill them. Just sayin’.
Ah, but advocating such a reasonable solution would be to underplay the symbolic significance of the go-cup: in a general sense, an emblem of the city’s famously liberal drinking laws; more specifically, a token of our celebrated freedom to consume alcohol on the public ways.
While the spirit of the former and the letter of the latter should be preserved in perpetuity, the level of freak-out over a relatively minor and arcane issue affecting only a couple of taverns shows that a dogmatic mentality is taking hold, one more tightly bound up with identity politics than with honest debate over the city’s real and urgent needs.
As soon as essential and reductive identity markers are in place, the loudest shouters get to enhance their own identity status by affirming the dogma. In this case, people who may not have lived very long in New Orleans can demonstrate commitment to their brand-new New Orleans identity by defining it narrowly and pledging allegiance.
It’s right and good that the dogma includes public drinking, since that is, in my view, one of those only-in-New Orleans qualities that people like me feel should be preserved. They’re a beacon of values that contrast sharply with the boring other places that actually run the country. But if the range of aspects defining New Orleans’ uniqueness is too narrow — go-cups? really? — then we fall into the trap of a vulgar exceptionalism, which cheapens the whole project.
We could group the go-cup scare under the same heading as two very real city enforcement stories of 2013: the noise ordinance debate and the rooster ban. Each is an example of the city resorting to stricter code enforcement in an attempt to impose order on the human mass living under its jurisdiction: i.e. you and me. Balancing enforcement against the generally cheerful chaos of a few hundred thousand strong-willed residents has often been tricky in New Orleans, to put it delicately.
Revising the city noise ordinance impinges directly on live music, one of our greatest cultural attributes. A review of past practices provides necessary perspective. Last spring’s raid on the St. Roch Tavern for offering (unlicensed) live music reminded older residents of the raid on Tremé’s “Little People’s Place” 15 years ago.
The earlier raid inspired what became an anthem for lovers of live music angry with what they viewed as capricious enforcement: Davis Rogan’s tune, “Little People’s Place.” But as music writer Alex Rawls reasonably framed the issue in June, the most important way to view this is as a labor issue. When a place is unpredictably raided and shut down, as happened at the St. Roch Tavern, musicians lose income. On the other side of the debate are neighbors who fear waking up one day to find that the corner by their house has become Bourbon Street.
While the reductively defined “pro-music” camp dishes out jeremiads against “destroying New Orleans culture,” neighborhood residents also have valid fears. I felt this fear myself a couple of years ago when my own City Council rep floated the idea of a curfew for young people beginning at 8 p.m. and including not only the French Quarter but the Marigny Triangle, where I grew up. The area was described as an “adult district;” children really didn’t belong there, the solon reasoned.
The fear that St. Claude is being sucked into a Frenchmen Street vortex was dramatized by comments on a WDSU story that ran Aug. 8. The parents of some kids enrolled at the new KIPP charter school in the old Colton building were apparently upset by a theater poster down the street depicting a topless woman. A man interviewed by reporter Casey Ferrand said of the shiny new Colton renovation, “At first, everybody thought they were just building condos, but then we found out it was a school, and we all thought that was weird just because of what is in this area.”
But the conflict that pits families and schools against theaters, bars and music clubs is a false dichotomy. The truth is that New Orleans’ authenticity as a culture and a municipality overrides plastic cups and even our famously blasé moniker as “the city that care forgot.” Because even closer to our core is the idea of métissage, as revived in Shannon Lee Dawdy’s 2008 study of French Colonial New Orleans, Building the Devil’s Empire. It means a radical living and growing together of groups and practices that are separated in other places.
Parents of school-age children need to realize that part of the fabric of downtown New Orleans is an edgy bohemianism that includes tolerance of licentious sex. It’s been that way as long as I’ve been around — going on 50 years — and, of course, much longer. But, more importantly, it means that newcomers who are drawn primarily by the Fifth Freedom — the freedom to party hard — should not assume that area families are as squeamish about adult-oriented activities as were the folks back in the suburbs these newcomers are fleeing.
At any rate, for older residents like me, the opening of two new schools on St. Claude Avenue — KIPP and the home-grown Homer Plessy down the street — are more important linchpins in preserving neighborhood authenticity than another high-priced craft-cocktail boutique in Bywater that doesn’t get to have go-cups.
So I’m happy about the salutary influx of school kids to counter the 20-something boom in Marigny and Bywater, but I’m worried about the noise ordinance, not to mention the council’s most unprecedented exertion of its authority this year: the rooster ban.
When I was a child in the 800 block of Frenchmen Street, the area was not known as a live-music destination. But every dawn was greeted by vocalizations of another kind: crowing cocks. The same was true of my dad’s neighborhood on Piety Street a few blocks downriver. During the years I lived away from New Orleans, I always knew I was home when I heard the avian orchestra tuning up. As in many cities in the developing world, the practice of chicken breeding in New Orleans blurred the typical American boundaries between urban and rural, thus contributing to that sense of métissage, that blending of commonly segregated people and practices. Gambit did a story on the ban July 30, but, predictably, it treated urban chicken cultivation as a growing national trend rather than as the extension of a very venerable local tradition. The only mention of local culture was a reference to cock-fighting, thus tarring roosters the same way pit bulls get tarred by their own victimization.
Viewed in a national light, the ban on roosters adheres to best practices put in place by communities faced with a new trend. Viewed from New Orleans’ downtown working-class wards, however, it’s a draconian measure that excises what had been a distinctive local culture. Meanwhile, an imaginary threat to plastic cups elicits a greater outcry than this culturally prohibitive new law.
Despite the angry rhetoric, New Orleans isn’t about to seriously restrict live music. If anything, the current dust-up is a response to its vast expansion over the past couple of decades. But if the urban rooster really does vanish from the sonic tapestry of our neighborhoods, we will be one step closer to the average American burg. Not that there’s anything wrong with Springfield; it’s just that people who claim an interest in preserving what’s different about life in New Orleans should broaden the scope of their critique beyond their sacred right to carry a cup of hooch into the street.
C.W. Cannon teaches English and New Orleans Studies at Loyola University.