As Vaughan’s loses Kermit, pondering the fragility of an economy built on culture

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Zack Smith

Kermit Ruffins has dropped his Thursday night gigs at Vaughn's, the Bywater bar he helped make world famous.

Kermit Ruffins has dropped his Thursday night gigs at Vaughan's, the Bywater bar he helped make world famous.

On a Thursday in mid-August, I arrived at Vaughan’s Bar in the Bywater. Earlier that evening I’d interviewed drummer Derrick Freeman for an Offbeat profile (scheduled for the October issue), and now I had come to catch him in action with Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers. It was my first time at that legendary gig in at least four years. Little did I know it would be the last of its kind.

Earlier this month, Ruffins announced his “retirement” from the Thursday night gig via a Facebook post, citing a decision to play fewer late-night shows. “Kermit and I are trying to change the world,” his manager Tom Thompson told NOLA.com’s Keith Spera. “You can have a good time between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.” They’d tried to get folks to show up earlier, Thompson said, but “concierges didn’t get the message,” so tourists kept showing up for late-night partying.

In recent years, tourists drove that gig. The story is not wholly unique: a treasured local spot is adopted by visitors who gradually become the main source of revenue until soon it’s mostly tourists on the dance floor. In the case of Vaughan’s, the tourists came once a week, a boon for a neighborhood joint three blocks from the Industrial Canal.

On Kermit’s final night, I watched them dance, guzzle, make out, slump on stools. “New Orleans is a factory that gives you moments,” Treme creator David Simon once declared. No factory was more efficient than Vaughan’s on a Thursday (not incidentally a setting for Simon’s TV show). Thousands of us have had our “moments” in that room with Kermit. Up until the end, the factory functioned as smoothly as ever.

But it’s important to ponder who operates the machinery. The barbecue man outside, the girl taking tickets at the door, the cabbies delivering customers, the bartenders and bar backs, and, of course, the band — all of them have jobs in that factory. The hope is that Thursday night parties continue as announced, with trombonist Corey Henry at the helm and new bodies drawn downtown to move, drink and spend.

After centuries during which hardly anything seemed to change, we’re living through a period of significant upheaval in New Orleans. Bemoaning the latest closed restaurant is a civic pastime, like being the first to try a new one. Yet as we mourn the loss of cultural touchstones, we should also consider the economy in which they reside.

In a May 2013 report, the Landrieu Administration boasted that jobs in the “cultural economy” made up 13.8 percent of total employment. Nearly half those jobs are in the culinary industry, and we have more live music gigs than ever, the report said. But nowhere did it analyze the stability of these jobs or the quality of life they afford.

Never did it question whether tourism is the best growth industry for a city with a poverty rate of 29 percent, nearly double the national average, according to the latest Greater New Orleans Community Data Center report.*

Yes, there are more jobs available, but do they provide incomes that rebuild a middle class of permanent residents in the new, expensive New Orleans? Not one page of the report considers the costs of replacing longshoremen with oyster shuckers, diners with curbside food trucks.

What happens when a gig changes? In recent months, we’ve spent a lot of time arguing over live music. Aside from the vital role music historically has played in our collective identity, the debate is important because of the jobs involved. As tourism becomes a bigger part of our economic pie, more residents depend on jobs that are vulnerable to cranky neighbors, uneven law enforcement and the vagaries of popular taste.

As we trade stable jobs with long-term prospects (shipping, manufacturing, teachers who stay longer than two years) for seasonal, mercurial jobs in the service industry and cultural economy, more livelihoods are dependent on short-term gambles like the Super Bowl, on concierges getting the message, and on musicians who never tire of playing late at night.

At Kermit’s finale at Vaughan’s, I marveled at all the lives dependent on that long-running gig, how the bar was now world famous, and how any tourism official could point to it as a paradigm: authentic New Orleans embraced by free-spending outsiders for the benefit of hard-working locals.

“They have a point,” I thought. “Perhaps this is the future.”

In an important sense I was mistaken, of course. That particular factory disappeared with a statement on Facebook. But the model remains and expands, translating local culture into tourist dollars. We wrestle over culture because ours is invaluable and makes us love living here, but we need to examine the money that culture generates and how it’s distributed, the stability of those incomes, and how much we should depend on tourists to pay our rents and mortgages.

On a cultural level — indeed, on a spiritual level — the loss of Kermit’s gig is regrettable, but completely understandable. The man wants to go to bed earlier; someone else can take his place. But as we continue down this road towards a larger role for tourism in the economy, it’s worth asking: What kind of factories do we want to build? How long will they last? And what will be there when they close?

Brian Boyles wears several hats, among them creative director of www.thepeoplesayproject.org

*Correction: This post originally misspelled Vaughan’s. Data on poverty were also misstated and have been trued with the GNOCDC report. (Sept. 27, 2013) 

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