Land Use

Identity politics: Gentry cling to go-cups while kids and roosters face extinction

Rooster and child: Endangered species in the downriver wards?

C.W. Cannon

Roosters and kids are both endangered species in the downriver wards.

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, 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. 

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  • Natalie

    With all due respect to C.W. Cannon, I am one of the loudest shouters I know about the go-cup issue and I am no mere arriviste but a born-and-bred native (-thank you-). Furthermore this article further marginalizes the very real problem that approximately zero new “neighborhood” bars and/or restaurants (that is far, far more than 2, for those of us keeping count) are allowed to give out go-cups unless they put up the money to have special plastic “Mardi Gras cups” printed with their logo emblazoned (which requires them to not just have the capital to pay for customers’ plastic cups, but to pay a designer for a logo, as well).

    C.W. Cannon, as a non-“supernative”, might do well to watch Les Blank’s “ALWAYS FOR PLEASURE” (currently streaming on Hulu) which includes some fine meditations from locals about the go-cup & its relationship to New Orleans street culture and identity. The documentary is from 1978 and the scene I’m talking about refers specifically to that year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in the Irish Channel. The thick accent from the man interviewed in that documentary indicates to me that he is not an arriviste (seriously duder – not everyone who disagrees with you & gets their info from heavily biased & poorly-informed opinion pieces in the Gambit is a “non-native”) but a very engaged longterm local.

  • Darlene Wolnik

    Love to read Cannon. I feel better about going out to pick up the fried chicken trash on my street afterwards.

  • C.w. Cannon

    Yes, that’s a great doc, Natalie. But I think if you read carefully what I wrote, you’ll see that we don’t really disagree a whole lot. I’m all about public drinking, too, but I just don’t see how restricting certain new liquor licenses from being able to hand out disposable plastic cups is a real threat to that. If they’re asked to offer somewhat more durable cups, maybe they’ll be re-used. I don’t see why a commitment to an exceptionalist vision of New Orleans needs to disregard other concerns, such as limiting waste and re-using and recycling as much as possible. I don’t see why the cultural liberals and cultural radicals who people our beautiful blue island have such a blind spot when it comes to these plastic cups, and I don’t see how plans to limit them pose any kind of threat to our culture of public drinking–it just means some bars won’t have them on the bar. Is that really that big a deal? It doesn’t mean you can’t walk down the street with a beer or cocktail.

  • Michael Patrick Welch

    As I mentioned in my two articles on the new go-cup trends starting back in March, what’s more important is that any place where go-cups are now regulated, those places are also generally mandated a CLOSING TIME, which while impeding on New Orleans “culture” also cuts into the potential profits of New Orleans bars and service industry workers.

  • C.w. Cannon

    I agree with you, Michael, that framing issues like these as labor issues makes prioritization of different interests less complicated. I might be inclined to think, for example, that my neighborhood already has plenty of bars (great ones, and independently owned coffeehouses, too), and that it really doesn’t need any more, regardless of when they close. However, when you remind me that my neighbors might need a job and that a job can be had at a new bar, I’m far more inclined to be fine with the idea. On the other hand, other types of businesses in the Marigny/Bywater area would be far more of a blessing. At any rate, the two new schools that have opened up in the neighborhood provide a lot more jobs than a couple of new bars would, anyway.

  • Flora shepherd

    I also want to add that I completely support any ideas to make go cups less harmful to the environment. But requiring venues to purchase expensive Mardi Gras cups will not solve the problem. After all, tourists and locals alike leave mardi gras cups everywhere at carnival. Even the more distinctive hand grenade cups, fishbowls, and plastic hurricane glasses are still discarded on bourbon.

  • Natalie

    … so you admit that this is more than a baseless hysterical reaction to “2 bars” losing go-cup “privileges”? Alright then. Proceeding from this point:

    I think it is just one step of a more systemic movement against public drinking and I don’t believe that this has become an issue (because it was not always an issue, it has only recently become one) apart from the changing demographics of New Orleans. These two things do not exist isolated from each other. If this is truly about litter reduction – and I don’t believe it is, because neighborhood bars do not even generate a large amount of go-cup usage compared to the touristy areas where go-cups will never be regulated – why stop at go-cups? The majority of the litter I see is fast-food and mail-related. Why aren’t these neighborhood commissions coming down on Taco Bell? Arguing that this clear intention to curb public drinking in neighborhoods (where the actual residents spend the majority of their time living their day-to-day lives, as opposed to whooping it up like the tourists in the French Quarter & Marigny do) is about “litter” is simply not a compelling or even convincing argument. If New Orleans wants to start taking the “green” issue seriously (an issue I also take seriously in my own life), why don’t we start focusing on getting a way to recycle glass before telling people they can’t have plastic cups?

  • Natalie

    Also: I grew up in three different homes here and two of them were next to bars. So I know the inconveniences of living in close proximity to such places. But – and this gets back to what I’m saying about changing demographics – like you & your attitude about parents having to accept that raising children in New Orleans means they will be exposed to certain adult realities (an attitude I also share), the born-and-raised urban-dweller in me thinks that living in close proximity to a bar means you’re accepting the good (never risking a DUI, for example) with the bad (the occasional empty or half-drunk plastic cup on your stoop to throw away in your trash the next morning). That seems like a wholly minor inconvenience to deal with in the larger picture.

  • C.w. Cannon

    I so agree with pretty much everything you say, Flora, and I love the St. Roch tavern and do think it’s getting a raw deal. I also think drinking outside, on the corner in front of the place (as well as on whatever corner you want to crack your store-bought one), is a uniquely beautiful New Orleans freedom. In my youthful “New Orleans Manifesto” (penned in the ‘nineties and now in an anthology that came out after Katrina), I talk about the “public habitation of the public space,” as a key distinctive feature of the cool culture that working class people living on a shoestring put together here. I also don’t want to conflate the idea of exceptionalism generally–my own ideology and one I’ve trumpeted for years–with what I call “vulgar exceptionalism” here. The ‘supernatives’ are right to be enamored of and dedicated to unique features of our culture. And ‘they’ (if that just means transplants from recent years) have already contributed in great ways to building that culture. The downtown carnival renaissance comes to mind, and many new NOLA culture lovers are making that happen, a beautiful thing.

    I’m not anti-go-cup,either, I just don’t think public drinking is as dependent on it as you seem to, and I think people should consider a broader range of distinctive features of local culture rather than just those pertaining to drinking.

  • Flora shepherd

    I think my point is that go-cups are about more than just drinking. They’re about supporting bars/restaurants, and about normalizing outdoor gatherings around bar/restaurants. Bars/restaurants provide jobs and contribute to food and music culture. Outdoor gatherings can include cultural traditions such as festivals, block parties, parades, football, etc. Everything in our cultural ecosystem is closed related. The loud late night jam sessions and the backyard chicken coops and potential new middle school marching bands all deserve to be preserved with go-cups. Go-cups are part of nola.

    I don’t think the solution is to forget about buying a go-cup at the bar, and just send people to Rouse’s for a 6 pack if they want to drink outside. I hope that doesn’t happen. We need our bars, and we use our go cups. I hope they are here to stay.

  • C.w. Cannon

    Actually, Natalie, between you and me (and anyone else who sees this), I have a high personal tolerance for litter in urban settings. My aesthetics are decadent enough to see litter as part of an authentic urban aesthetic experience, maybe as a reminder, like a memento mori, of the chaos always under the surface of lots of people living together in the same space. And compared to cities in the developing world, even parts of Europe, New Orleans has never been on the extreme dirty scale, even in the glorious filth of the 1970s (despite Americanist perceptions and arguments to the contrary).

  • Which, effectively, kills nola’s culture of outdoor imbibing.
    You mean a NOLA’s culture of outdoor drunkenness. What do you think business execs outside Louisiana think when they see a beer in everyone’s hand outside a bar? It’s send a message that NOLA is just a bunch a alcoholics that drink beer 24/7 and can’t say hello to anyone without being high or wasted as they are too stupid or too socially fearful to say hello or maintain small talk

  • They allow patrons to drink outside, which means the bar can make more money than they could using just their limited space (imagine if the tiny clubs on Frenchman couldn’t give out go-cups!). Effectively, it allows the reach of the bar to grow outside of its walls. You can enjoy the music of the bar out on the street, grab a beer and hang out with your children outside.
    Do bars make money for New Orleans? No they don’t. Allowing patron to drink outside means MORE PROBLEMS OUTSIDE that the City and Neighbors have to deal with as there are no bouncers outside in the neighborhood.

    “Hang out with your children drinking a BEER?” Is it any wonder why NOLA politicians OFFSPRING are alcoholics DWI offenders? GROW UP and be a real adult who doesn’t depend upon drugs to feel comfortable talking strangers or friends.

  • So, go-cups can help bars, and helping bars helps musicians. My father is a professional musician, and trust me, musicians want the bars they play in to make more money. After all, most bars in town pay their musicians a cut of the bar. Banning go-cups anywhere sets a precendent that can be used to encroach on this aspect of our culture.
    The Musicians of NOLA are SO CLUELESS when it comes to BUSINESS. Is it any wonder why Musicians are so poor that music foundations have to hold fund raisers to support them. NOLA doesn’t have good businesses that have good jobs because good businesses need good employees to SHOW UP FOR WORK. Not those who take part of the culture of PUBLIC DRINKING.
    This public drinking aspect of your culture needs to be stopped at all costs as all it has done is produced a city that has no jobs and there are more public companies in tiny Lafayette than New Orleans.
    Keep up this culture of public drinking and you will continue to get the same results. A bottom of the barrel city where nothing works, streets, light, you name it don’t work…..very much like Detroit…..including BANKRUPTCY….

    And what does bankruptcy mean?

    It means all those CITY EMPLOYEE PENSIONS FUNDS are going to take a HUGE HAIRCUT….just like Detroit.

  • I lived in Pennsylvania for college, which has incredibly restrictive liquor laws.The idea of a go cup there is just laughable. I don’t want the idea of a go-cup in a marigny bar to sound completely absurd.
    You know what’s also laughable and absurd in NOLA?
    A good company with good jobs ….that’s laughable cause everyone in NOLA is an alcoholic who don’t show up for work….hence, companies said, “You know what? Don’t show up for work, we need to go to a state where people do want to work.”

    Truly amazing, NOLA clueless want it both ways. NOLA reminds me of one big Frat Sorority house that hasn’t grown up. It is anyone wonder why NOLA is the worse city in America and the 130,000 who left after Hurricane Katrina never came back.
    For a city that needs a bumper sticker to say, “Proud to call New Orleans Home” says a lot about how clueless its residents are…..

    It seems like there are more Jobs in NOLA to create/edit/produce pro-NOLA websites/blogs than actual good paying Jobs.

  • Let’s face it. The Bars on Barf and Barker St. (Bourbon St) in the French Gutter, as well a PUBLIC DRINKING via Go-Cups make New Orleans looks like a bunch of 24/7 alcoholics to business execs outside of NOLA. All these tourists and conventioneers see you with a beer in your hand inside the bar and outside the bar and what should they think? You live life LARGE? WRONG. You live life LAZY.

    What’s wrong with New Orleans? THE CULTURE.
    Public drinking for the whites. Second Line Parades by poor Section 8, EBT blacks who shouldn’t be parading in the first place but working to pay for their many kids. (and blacks should stop trying to be equal, or be better than NOLA whites, by showing they can drink more)

    Keep it up New Orleans and you will go bankrupt like Detroit.
    Oh, and by the way, bankrupt means your CITY EMPLOYEE PENSION FUNDS are going to take a MASSIVE HIT. I think the bond holders of Detroit were offered 10 cents on the dollar. If the bond holders of Detroit were offered so little, do you really think your pension funds are going to be offered much more? When there is no more money, there is no more money. Only takes one hurricane or evacuation to wreck city finances.

    Hey, you like to live large and you say you drink a little too much.
    Well, guess what? With bankruptcy, you can still live large, but your pensions funds will pay you little, if that.


    The City of New Orleans, the Inspector General, the ATF, the Louisiana IG, The Lens, but really the FBI (someone outside Louisiana, with no ties, as usual) should investigate under-reporting of alcohol sales.

    Here’s why.

    The Beer Report, using reported alcohol sales put Louisiana at around #11 in alcohol consumption per capita. Yet, two (2) other reports with New Orleans at #1 in bars and Louisiana at #1 in highest car insurance via DWI don’t match with a #11 rank.

    Fox News: Which states drink the most (and least) beer? – Lousiana at #11?

    THE BEER REPORT – Louisiana at #11 per capita?

    Louisiana has nation’s highest auto insurance rates – again

    Q: What City Has the Most Bars Per Capita?
    A: New Orleans

    Also the politicians offspring are also messed up
    Sen. Landrieu’s son arrested for hitting pedestrian while driving drunk – 2013

    Mayor’ Landrieu’s son arrested on suspicion of DWI – 2012

    The NOPD – New Orleans Police Dept is just as bad…seems like one officer a month…is not more as they seem to be always in the news.

    Google – Mandeville Mayor Drunk

    Business Insider: Louisiana – #1 state people think are drunk.

    Louisiana and New Orleans is notorious for under reporting crime stats, confusing or overstating tourism numbers. (Does anyone know if Louisiana lawyers edit these reports?)

    So don’t be surprised that ALCOHOL sales are under reported to avoid TAXES…..many are CASH transactions

    And lastly, don’t be surprised it’s with big name or local distributors in cahoots with so called inspectors and those who are supposed to keep watch on true alcohol sales, even those at the very top.