Opinion
 

Kalegate: Self-described ‘transplant’ makes a meal of NY Times travel story

Travel writer Adam Karlin moved to New Orleans three years ago.

Travel writer Adam Karlin moved to New Orleans three years ago.

The first argument against “Experiencing New Orleans With Fresh Eyes & Ears,” a New York Times travel piece by Lizzy Goodman that examines New Orleans through the eyes of its influx of transplants, is the quick death of the viral backlash that greeted the story. While the article implies our city is outside the 21st century, it appears New Orleanians are just as subject to 24-hour meme cycles as the rest of the country.

Not me. I haven’t been able to let the piece go. Maybe it’s because I’m a transplant myself, and the story felt like one giant facepalm that confirms all of the worst clichés about new New Orleanians. Maybe it’s because the fresh eyes and ears Goodman engages are a narrow subset of the transplant population whose voice is now amplified by a NY Times-sized bullhorn.

This sentiment got lost in the initial blowback, which largely focused on a quote about kale. Tara Elders, wife of “Tremé” actor Michiel Huisman, told the Times, “New Orleans is not cosmopolitan. There’s no kale here.” It’s not entirely clear if Elders is bemoaning this state of affairs or commending the city for bucking trends, but when a transplant says something that whiffs of New Orleans disparagement, the “I’m-more-local-than-anyone” crowd breaks out the online pitchforks and proceeds to out-Yat itself.

Elders was interviewed in a restaurant called Sylvain, which serves multiple iterations of kale, but this was hardly the article’s most egregious offense.  That honor goes to the piece’s general tone.

Various artists talk about how crazy it is down here; indie folk musician Alex Ebert, of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, says, “In New Orleans success is measured by how unhinged you can get. That lends itself to a wildness that’s beneficial to the soul.” If you’re looking for a thesis to the article, that’s pretty much it: We’re all just Beasts of the Southern Wild (filmmaking collective Court 13 is name dropped in the piece, incidentally).

Other transplants – all bohemian types as opposed to, say, oil workers or construction crews or food service professionals, who also make up the transplant population – rattle off similar quotes about the city’s passionate soul, unkempt beauty and all-purpose anarchy.

This all ends up coming off like a 19th-century travelogue by a Victorian author romanticizing a perceived vital primitivism in Africa or India. Enter the brave New York author; witness her jaunt downriver into darkest Louisiana, a weird frontier where danger comes hand in hand with dive bars but the rents are waaaay cheaper than Fort Greene.

This, of course, is part of the backlash. No one wants to become Brooklyn (by which I mean Brooklyn the brand), yet somehow, Brooklyns are blooming across the country, and rationally or not, many fear Brooklyn is taking over the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods. As best I can tell, this is because millions of Americans – primarily young, privileged and educated, the kind of person who is the face of the new New Orleans – desire a life defined by that murkiest of terms: authenticity.

The Times piece essentially rests on the assertion that transplants come to New Orleans because this town is a big bag of authenticity. It’s hard to say what authentic is, but we all know what it’s not: suburbs, fast food, malls, Bourbon St. Except, in a supreme irony, as noted in a piece by geographer Rich Campanella published the same day the Times piece came out, Bourbon Street is a quintessentially organic expression of local entrepreneurialism and character. And if you’re looking for a deep Yat accent, you’re more likely to find it in Metairie and Chalmette than near my house in the Bywater. Of course, that’s the kind of “authentic” Bywater transplants tend to eschew, given that those now suburbanized Chalmations left the 9th Ward because they wanted modern houses and often (but not always) were fleeing desegregation.

This gets at what I believe Goodman’s article and her interview subjects miss: context. Is New Orleans a special place with a fascinating culture? Absolutely. But that culture is molded by centuries of social division, disenfranchisement, resettlement and tension. Can transplants dilute this society with their Anywhere, America background?

Sure, but only more galling are transplants who don’t want to dilute but don’t want to learn either, who embrace New Orleans without peeling the curtain back and seeing the accumulated refuse pile of colonialism, slavery and struggle this town was built on. Why can artists afford to live in Holy Cross? Because poor black people were either exiled from their homes in 2005, or drowned in them. If you like the Wild of New Orleans, remember that carefree state of affairs stems from serious infrastructure issues, corruption and institutional rot.

The article’s other failing is its obsession with what I’d call lifestyle consumption. Brooklyn and her satellites (Portland, Austin, the Mission, etc.) have a compulsion for consumption that rivals the crassest Middle American commercialism. Those status-quo rejecting hipsters are still obsessed with things – cocktail bitters, graphic t-shirts, hand pressed cards, whatever. They just want them artisanal, local and organic.

In many ways, New Orleans does consumption better than anyone; we were drinking cocktails and arguing restaurants way before San Francisco. But consumption alone doesn’t define us. Our consumption is a function of a thriving culture that emphasizes public space, shared rituals and mutual celebration. Our foodies eat crawfish with friends and neighbors, as opposed to savoring foie gras by themselves.

In essence, our consumption is an outgrowth of an existing culture that not only emphasizes, but is inextricably bound up with, community. In contrast, “Brooklyn” and places derived from Brooklyn – and I’m sorry, but the interviewees in that article felt very “Brooklyn” to me – has turned consumption into an end in itself, disconnected from any higher aspiration or greater good.

Maybe I can illustrate by way of an anecdote. I was walking home the other day and passed a woman and her toddler son. They were sitting on the porch of a lovely Creole cottage, the sort of home that makes you want to live in New Orleans forever. The night was silky and lovely. I waved at them and said hello; they both smiled and said hello back.

More than drinking in dive bars or live music or good food – and look, I love dive bars and live music and good food – that is what I moved here for. Not just neighborliness; friendly people who talk to strangers can be found across the country, including large cities (Salt Lake City and Minneapolis spring to mind).  And while they’re not on the same level, dive bars and live music and good food exist elsewhere in America.

But no city integrates the two like New Orleans. Here, the Community comes with the Wild. Here – and I’ve never seen this anywhere else – the Wild bends to make this home a better place for our children. We embrace the eccentrics the rest of America rejects, but not solely for the sake of their eccentricity. It’s for the promise that they will use their idiosyncrasies to improve our community.

My old neighbor – a lawyer who walks his dogs every morning wearing only his pajama pants and the gray chest hair God gave him – may be a kook, but he is also a community organizer who makes great crawfish enchiladas while always looking out for his block.

This is how I see New Orleans as a transplant. There’s indulgence, yes. But there is a home as well, one that allows me a longer lunch hour, but also demands more of my time and attention when it comes to building a community. And that’s because the community existed before I arrived; it’s on me to step carefully in my new home. The Times piece stomps without considering the natives who already have their feet firmly planted here.

Adam Karlin’s published work includes three editions of Lonely Planet’s New Orleans guide. He is also the editor of New Orleans & Me, a website dedicated to travel and culture in the city.

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  • Rebecca Leviah Frank

    Love that you write for the Lonely Planet – the guidebooks that have been helping me not to stomp on communities around the globe for 20 years.

  • Marjorie Lewis

    I loved this article! We embrace the eccentrics the rest of America rejects, but not solely for the sake of their eccentricity. It’s for the promise that they will use their idiosyncrasies to improve our community.” I’m on my way and will do my best.