Gentrification flap rooted in an older debate over New Orleans ‘exceptionalism’

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New Orleanians and tourists flock to the city's first post-Katrina second-line parade in January 2006.

Natives and tourists alike flock to the city's first post-Katrina second-line parade in January 2006.

The rapid demographic changes in some of New Orleans’ older neighborhoods  have sparked consternation among locals as well as professional observers of the city. The firestorm over Richard Campanella’s article on gentrification is only the most recent flashpoint. Is what’s happening in places like Bywater best thought of as a renaissance or mere gentrification? And is there a difference?

As always, word choice is the lifeblood of any good dustup in the public square, and there are certainly other ways to frame the current debate. One of them, dating at least to 1803 and thus as old as Louisiana itself, pits New Orleans “exceptionalism” against “Americanism” as a model for progress.

In the simplest terms, exceptionalists savor the distinctive features of New Orleans culture as an alternative to mainstream American lifestyles and ideology. Americanists, on the other hand, bemoan our distinctive cultural and political quirks as detrimental. They’re what’s “holding the city back;” they’re why we’ve “fallen behind” Houston, Atlanta, etc. The Americanists smell mystification and self-delusion in exceptionalist paeans to New Orleans’ “uniqueness.”

Exceptionalism’s modern trappings date to the 1880s, when writers George Washington Cable, Lafcadio Hearn, and Grace King began packaging accounts of New Orleans culture and social customs for consumption by the American mainstream. While Cable often promoted an Americanist view, bemoaning the city’s cultural inheritance as rife with racism, nepotism, xenophobia, corruption, and bad business decisions, Hearn constructed an identity for New Orleans that touted the city’s polyglot diversity while mourning that so unique a cultural island would inevitably be crushed by the steamroller of American capitalist “progress.”

Both of these writers, as well as King, draw liberally on decadent aesthetics in their portrayals of New Orleans’ physical beauty. That is, they acknowledge that crumbling, dilapidated buildings have always been a source of the city’s moody beauty and allure.

A question that concerned those writers continues to rankle both residents and non-resident aficionados of the city: to what degree is New Orleans defined by its physical identity, its built environment, and to what degree by the culture we share? Indeed, this is the question at the heart of the gentrification debate. If we keep the same buildings but replace the residents, has the city been successfully “preserved”?

The popular catchphrase after Katrina was this: “New Orleans isn’t the buildings, it’s the people.” I admit that at first I found the formula too reductive. The buildings matter. Yes, people built them, but our architecture has shaped the life of we the people in distinctive ways. To a degree, this put me in stride with the exceptionalists who had long viewed our shotguns-and-stately-homes cityscape as part of its charm — an attitude the Americanists once dismissed as sentimentality and an obstacle to “progress,” whether embodied in the riverfront expressway struggle of the 1960s (an eventual triumph for preservationists) or the post-Katrina fights over tearing down the mid-century housing projects and building the giant hospital complex now going up where a Third Ward neighborhood used to be.

But casting architectural preservation as a self-sufficient alternative to American-style economic development pivots on a woefully outdated duality. In our own era, the far more common phenomenon is architectural preservation in the service of economic development. Neither tourists nor newcomers (shopping nationwide for a place to reside) are interested in a New Orleans that can’t be recognized as such in an easy iPhone photo posted on a Facebook page.

So the more germane question for our times is whether distinctive cultural traditions can have the same durability as structures. Can certain cultural practices be learned by newcomers not raised with them, and then perpetuated and adapted in the manner of all living cultures? The answer is yes, though nagging questions of authenticity and survivability remain.

In his Bywater-focused essay, Campanella outlines a cycle of gentrification common to many American cities over the past 50 years. Using my own terms rather than his, it basically begins when starving artists and assorted desperados (gutter punks) are drawn by cheap rent and a sense of adventure to an economically depressed urban  neighborhood. In New Orleans that’s going to mean an area like the Ninth Ward or St. Roch that’s home to low-income groups, usually African-American, who succeeded the blue-collar ethnics who took to their heels when the schools were integrated in the 1960s. Ideally such a neighborhood is a stroll or bike ride from a more thriving area, where the newcomers can panhandle, busk or work for tips — i.e. the Marigny Triangle or the French Quarter.

These “pioneers” are followed by better-educated hipsters and yuppies (the “creative class” or “bourgeois bohemians” or “bobos,” as they’re sometimes called). These second-wave winners are folks responsive to cheap but rising real estate values and hungry for the cachet that comes with being at least in proximity to a cultural cutting edge.

The losers are obvious: the low-income households, usually rife with kids, that are forced out of the neighborhood by rising real estate values, if not cultural estrangement. Campanella goes on to identify further stages of gentrification, including, as in today’s French Quarter, the eventual elimination of the pre-gentrification population and its replacement by tourists and the soulless rich.

As already asserted, this cycle is not unique to New Orleans. So is it still shaped by the older New Orleans duality of Americanists vs. exceptionalists? Yes, indeed. But not without an interesting synthesis having occurred, one that champions social and cultural relics of the displaced population as well as the architecture in which the working poor were housed.

It’s the preservation of this cultural overlay that prompts urban boosters to declare Bywater-style gentrification a “renaissance,” a still meaningful alternative to mainstream Americanism. (That they are irked to be lumped in with garden-variety gentrifyers is apparent from the amazingly overwrought kicking and screaming in the comment section below Campanella’s wry and erudite essay.)

Exceptionalists have celebrated New Orleans as a place where leisure is more meaningful than labor, aesthetics trumps functionalism, and the very notion of social mobility (the American Dream?) is held in suspicion. Yet the “creative class” movers and shakers who are now buying up the real estate are all about their careers. They demand a level of convenience comparable to other American cities (with their constant worry about parking permits), and have the ambition of putting New Orleans “on the map” when it comes to competing nationally for the continuing infusion of people like themselves (“brain gain”). In that respect, they are indistinguishable from the most unrelenting Americanists.

But here’s the difference.

As Campanella perceptively notes, many of these newcomers are deeply engaged with what they perceive to be the most unique features of New Orleans social and cultural practice: Carnival, second-lining, the cuisine, music, and, of course, the architecture. He calls them “supernatives,” and the shoe fits. It also pinches when, along with enthusiasm for the working class culture, the hipsters flock to the overpriced restaurants and precious boutiques that have effectively driven out the indigenous economy of corner stores and lunch counters.

Indeed, the new “supernative” celebration of New Orleans’ distinctiveness smacks of tourist industry branding practices utilized for decades by the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau and other civic boosters. A shining example is the Idea Village’s development of a “festival season” for vetting and financing new companies. Thus, are New Orleans’ public frivolity and American competitiveness at least superficially joined.

There’s nothing new about the most ardent exceptionalists being transplants. It was true of Hearn and in every generation since. As I pointed out in a 2006 Times-Picayune column, culturally sensitive transplants were responsible for key efforts in the ’60s and ’70s to preserve unique New Orleans cultural practices, of which Preservation Hall is a perfect example.

In a sense, we could view the smitten newcomers as a socially constant class, though one that replicates itself by means other than birth. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has noted that the petit-bourgeois class “endlessly remakes the history of the origins of capitalism.” Similarly, waves of newcomers re-invent and nourish New Orleans exceptionalism.

Every couple of years, it seems, especially since Katrina, a new arrival pens a column on how special New Orleans is compared to other places. A typical example of the genre, entitled “A Fool’s Journey,” was penned by Brett Will Taylor for nolavie.com’s first anniversary last year. New enterprises like Nolavie and WGNO’s News with a Twist trade in exceptionalist superlatives faster than Café du Monde shovels beignets.

But newer transplants also overlap with previous generations of like mind, as blogger Christine Horn has made clear in a well-researched critique of Campanella’s analysis. Horn also points out the way institutional interests, from local government agencies to national urban design firms, collude in redefining exceptional (or “historic”) as salable, thus bringing an area once perceived as an alternative to the national economic rat race, right up to the starting gate of a classic American real estate boom.

Which brings us back to the central question of whether New Orleans can continue to be exceptional if the buildings are preserved but the people are largely replaced. If transplants buy into certain tenets of exceptionalist ideology — our regard for public performance and embrace or at least toleration of sensuality, for example — will they and their descendants be culturally recognizable New Orleanians? (How about if they start calling each other “darling”? Will that do it?)

The paradox is that the final triumph of exceptionalist rhetoric, in convincing the nation how special New Orleans is, also represents the greatest threat to preserving the city’s exceptional social character. This is where Americanist goals and the utopian daydreams of the exceptionalists must finally part ways. Because the Americanist vision of a thriving economy and high property values clogs the paradoxical wellspring of much of the city’s exceptional culture: the proposition that grace and elegance can arise from cheap materials and a legacy of trouble.

Implicit in decadent aesthetics was the reality that beautiful and crumbling mansions bespoke economic doldrums. The only reason the French Quarter didn’t get torn down in the 1920s was because developers weren’t interested. Economic desuetude was like amber. Could it be that a good chunk of the rest of the culture was also tied to a shortage of cash? A meal at Bywater’s Maurepas Foods is much more of an investment than a pound of crawfish and a forty taken right on the sidewalk, or on somebody else’s stoop.

The racial situation is even more alarming: my Marigny neighborhood is suddenly way whiter than it’s ever been in my lifetime. True, my new neighbors are not racist as many of the old white residents certainly were. But black neighbors are becoming exceedingly rare — a major shift AWAY from the city’s traditional and quite exceptional racial mixtape.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, too many of my newer neighbors are keen to have their fabulous New Orleans experience without children. The Marigny of my youth was poorer, more run-down, and less self-consciously exceptionalist, but it was also far more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation — and we kids were everywhere.

With such a thin claim to social diversity, no amount of exceptionalist posturing can hide the fact that the old downtown riverfront neighborhoods are actually becoming more American, not more distinctive. The older, non-assimilated exceptionalists, who dreamed that a move to the creole districts would be an escape from the rat race, are waking up to discover that the rat race has come to them.

C.W. Cannon teaches English and New Orleans Studies at Loyola University. 

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