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

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

Zack Smith

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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  • 1NONewsladder2

    Cory is great on Thursdays at Vaughn’s. He brings a nice crowd of mostly locals far as I could see. Many times, I’ve watched clueless tourist looking for Kermit but staying for Cory in a big way. He’s tight.

    Of course Vaughn’s is still Vaughns, my Church of Saints Football, and btw I never saw anyone else cook on a grill at Kermit’s gig but Kermit.

    Great article!

    Editilla ~New Orleans Ladder

  • Helen Krieger

    Awesome story by someone who knows quite a bit about the cultural economy here. Where are those jobs that will pay for life in an increasingly more expensive New Orleans? This is why I love the Lens.

  • joeintheupper9th

    Great read. Just to echo Brian, how many musicians are benefiting from the increased number of gigs, and how has the pay changed for those musicians? Do more clubs mean more money for players? Or does the supply of opportunities to play deflate the per gig income? If there’s more theoretical tourist money coming in for musicians, how does that compare with the rising cost of housing?

  • Is this true?: “As tourism becomes a bigger part of our economic pie”

    And is that because tourism is growing at a faster rate than other sectors or are they shrinking or what? What about the new startup businesses and the population growth in Orleans and surrounding parishes? Are we talking about dollars of tax revenue (because many employers/companies aren’t collecting sales tax if they don’t sell things in Orleans Parish)?

    I’d just like to understand what part of the “economy” we are talking about and how we are quantifying it by people or wages or city tax revenue or what. For example, there are a lot of employers (Tulane, Capital One, Whitney, for example) that are providing jobs. There is some property tax revenue there (which employers renting office space are not really paying), but no sales tax. And in some cases, they may have their properties held by separate holding companies that they pay rent.

    I’m not saying the cultural economy is not important or that it’s not significant, but 13.8% of people working in a single but varied sector should be put in the context of the other sectors which might be more of a weak spot. What about oil and gas or banking? Are we actually more vulnerable there? People will always have to eat and drink and pass a good time.

  • kmsoap

    Are we asking the right questions here? Part of what made New Orleans such a cultural incubator in the first place was the low cost of living. It allowed musicians, authors, thespians, artists and other creative types to spend less time focusing on generating income and more time creating.
    Perhaps we need to look in the other direction. What do we need to do to keep New Orleans affordable for those who would like to pursue cultural interests?
    I can tell you what we don’t need to do. We don’t need to run off the option of affordable private market housing by imposing more regulation on landlords. We don’t need to keep fueling the never ending cash drain that is City Hall. If we use tax dollars to subsidize a supermarket in a food desert, are consumers really saving any money overall?
    We need to pare the civic budget like musicians living on subsistence wages pare theirs. Keeping New Orleans more affordable than other cities is critical in attracting and growing artisans of all types. Anything else is just inflation.

  • Suzanne-Juliette Mobley

    2010 to just under 30,000 in 2012, musician income has stagnated at ~17,800 since 2008. Far too many ‘gigs’ are played for no salary at all, with musicians passing the tip bucket for all they’ll make in an evening. The supporting positions of the cultural economy aren’t, on the whole, much better.

    52% of these gigs are concentrated in the French Quarter and Marigny, leaving the 13.8% of our workforce that is the cultural economy dependent of the good will of District C and the vagaries of neighborhood associations. All are deeply vulnerable to complaining neighbors or erratic enforcement, with shut downs or slowdowns having a domino effect on the economic well being of individual workers, and of course, the entire tourism based economy is deeply vulnerable to broader economic trends.

    In the meantime the cost of living has steadily risen in many of the neighborhoods that are the historic cradles of New Orleans arts and culture. As gentrification pushes long-time residents and the creative class out of the city’s core, it brings additional costs in transportation, as well as opportunity costs in a city where gigs are often based on being continuously out in the scene. In 2009, GNOCDC projected that an affordable rent for service industry employees (who averaged $17,608annually) was $440 a month. I haven’t seen rent like that since the storm, have you?

  • kmsoap

    As these musicians are pushed out of the core and the tourism footprint spreads, organically, new cultural hubs would normally appear. Unfortunately, the entirety of District D is under an illegal alcoholic beverage permit moratorium, and yesterday the Council passed a law forbidding banquet halls from functioning as traditional cultural hub. Essentially, we are pushing musicians into neighborhoods that offer no opportunity for entrepreneurship due to illegal legislation. So, not only are we keeping people poor, we’re also creating culture deserts, and in a city with the stature of New Orleans, that is almost impossible to comprehend.

    Advocate: Last year, for example, Jefferson generated $310.7 million in sales taxes, excluding taxes generated from the sale of food and drugs, automobiles and hotel and motel rooms in the parish. Orleans Parish brought in just $162.9 million, but that includes every category, meaning the gap between the two parishes is even greater. http://bit.ly/1eCPYPg

    So how good are those tourism number? Lets look at those numbers from a different perspective.

    It does not have the Saints games,
    It does not have Hornets/Pelicans games,
    It does not have Mardi Gras Balls and Super Parade Krewes,
    It does not have the Super Dome,
    It does not have the Arena,
    It does not have the Convention Center,
    It does not have the French Quarter,
    It does not have the French Market,
    It does not have Bourbon St,
    It does not have the Port of NO,
    It does not have Jazz Fests,
    It does not have French Quarter Fests,
    It does not have the Fair Grounds,
    It does not have the CBD high rises, hotels, and DDD,
    It does not have Super Bowls,

  • It does not have Final Fours,
    It does not have BCSs Bowl games,
    It does not have Sugar Bowls games,
    it does not have Second Lines Parades every week
    It does not have Tulane University,
    It does not have Loyola University,
    It does not have UNO University,
    It does not have Delgado College,
    It does not have any Cruise Ships,
    It does not have a land based casino (Harrah’s),
    It does not have Mardi Gras World,
    It does not have Street Cars,
    It does not have Audubon Park,
    It does not have Aquarium,
    It does not have Insectarium,
    It does not have a WWII museum,
    It does not have Magazine St shops,
    It does not have River Walk views and Spanish Plaza

    YET, Jefferson Parish sales taxes alone still is TWICE as MUCH as ALL the sales taxes, including hotel taxes, in Orleans Parish.

  • Tourism Economy has been all BIG TALK for the last 30-40 years.

    Don’t want to sound BRASH, but to say that culture, mostly music, has kept New Orleans going “successfully” is not true. Music is still around NOLA, but to say New Orleans is moving “successfully” is completely UNTRUE as the poverty and crime rates are the worst in the nation.

    And to say that tourism, especially music, is the city’s long term industry would mean the that city would continue to do what it’s been doing. Which is record breaking crime and poverty for the next hundred years.

  • New Orleans is not the cultural incubator you think it, or “hear” it to be.
    Look at Los Angeles and Hollywood. Most of the actors and musicians and artists there have other jobs and by the way, the cost of living there is HIGH. And guess what? They still make it there in high cost of living Los Angeles

    To say that New Orleans need to be “affordable” is more socialists short sighted thinking like “affordable” housing. New Orleans and it’s residents (including artists and musicians) need to be more “FLEXIBLE” in it’s thinking and desire to work other JOBS.

  • kmsoap

    Interesting that you see a Socialist bent in a post that decries subsidizing groceries, talks about keeping tabs on the civic budget and specifically addresses private sector (not subsidized) housing. I suppose there are Socialists under your bed, too.

  • kmsoap

    Because it is full of malls and populated by wanton consumers who are likely financed beyond their capabilities. Since you enjoy digging around so much, maybe you can find some stats on the average JP resident’s debt load.

  • Maybe you can find some stats on Orleans parish on the property tax and the Huey P Long NINJA loan “no skin in the game” Homestead Exemption.

    I am hearing through the grapevine only 35% of the properties in Orleans Parish pay property tax. There are so many Section 8 and Mixed Housing, I wonder if they pay any property tax? And what about all these new Housing Developments? Do they pay property taxes? If so, how much? as you never know the breaks, kickbacks, exemptions or grants these housing projects current receive.

    By the way, I stats were stated by the City of New Orleans, not me and I didn’t have to dig around. Plus I didn’t have to dig around to know that the Superdome is in Orleans Parish. I can Google it.

    See it’s here: http://bit.ly/15DiJ4Z which is in Orleans Parish.

    The question is not why Jefferson Parish has so many malls.

    The question is why doesn’t Orleans Parish bring in any sales tax revenue with all its CULTURE or music, bars, clubs, FQ, Bourbon St, hotels, festivals, see list above? Are not these events NATIONALLY publicized?

  • Groceries? Do you know why the city wants high end Whole Food groceries? It because it attracts professionals WHO PAY TAXES. Taxes that pay the salary of police, fire, SW&B and so on.

    Why attempt to make housing affordable for artists and musicians, who don’t pay taxes or contribute to a tourism industry that is just BIG TALK, when the city can’t even keep the lights, streets working or the crime under control?

  • Cade Roux:
    Are you being too diplomatic or polite?
    The numbers are in and New Orleans needs to take a hard look at itself and tourism.

    From the aforementioned URL, Tourism is all BIG TALK.
    Out of the 9 million visitors there is more VFR (Visiting Friends and Relatives) than the traditional tourists) Please see my comments here on Where’s THE TOURISM MONEY?

    (reference: http://bit.ly/19wGaAt)

  • Vaughan’s is a DIVE bar.

    It this place has had Kermit Ruffins for these many years and it’s still can’t make the place at least look respectable, paint wise from the exterior, you have to ask yourself, do they really bring in any money? Isn’t Kermitt Ruffins pretty famous? Why yes he is. So where’s the money?

  • kmsoap

    I never said housing should just be affordable for artists and musicians. Did you go to school here in the old days of OPSB? I said spending more money for the same thing you were previously getting for less is inflation.
    Inflation will drive wages up in a never ending spiral. So, take your pick. Keep housing prices stagnant or raise wages.
    If Whole Foods can make a living here, more power to them. The Census Bureau released figures recently that stated 8% of New Orleanians were not living here a year ago, so neither you nor I can say what this city will look like in a year or two. But people with a lick of common sense know that buying the same gallon of Klienpeter’s milk for a dollar more is just stupidity. If that sheds some light on your professionals, don’t shoot the messenger.

  • kmsoap

    As non owner occupied property, Section 8 voucher housing is not only taxed, it is not eligible for the Homestead Exemption. But I suspect you knew that already.

  • kmsoap

    Sure seems like you are trying to impose your personal taste on someone else’s real estate. What people do with their personal income is none of your concern. Sounds awfully Socialist to me….

  • Let’s see, wasn’t it not too long ago when an NOPD officer claimed a homestead exemption on ineligible property? Why yes.

    So don’t be surprised many Section 8 housing vouchers are illegally claimed as the feds, state and city don’t seem to be on the same page and can’t detect fraud like the aforementioned NOPD officer.

    Regardless, how much are these Section 8 housing taxed? The value of these houses are already very low (like really really low), the property taxes without a homestead exemption might be minimal. And by the way, even though Section 8 has “standards”, the city, state and feds apparently lack the manpower to inspects and check to see if the Section 8 housing is kept to standards…i.e. blight, but still occupied by Section 8 thugs.

    I bet the penalties are minimal for Section 8 standards violations.

  • Isn’t this DIVE bar located in a residential neighborhood? Are not other residents in this same neighborhood fixing up their homes and doing something about blight?

    From the Google Maps, this dive bar could easily be mistaken for blight, could it not?

  • kmsoap

    I knew you’d come around. In an earlier post, I stated, “We need to pare the civic budget like musicians living on subsistence wages pare theirs.” That includes collecting revenues due.
    I’m no fan of subsidized housing, as my earlier posts have indicated. I believe housing subsidies inflate the market for those who are paying for housing out of pocket. But you fail to understand the difference between your personal preference and economics, preferring to “prove” your point by name calling and inflammatory language instead of looking at issues rationally. That says more about you than it does about any of your targets.

  • kmsoap

    One man’s blight is another man’s palace. You sure seem to enjoy being all up in everyone else’s personal business. If you do not want to live next to a dive bar, don’t move there.

  • “pare the civic budget “
    Can you give any examples of what could be pared/cut?
    And how much would be really saved?

    “That includes collecting revenues due.”
    Revenues from where, who, what?

  • Cade Roux:
    You seem to know other industries.
    OK, the stated numbers for tourism is 9 million per year.
    From the aforementioned VFR numbers, the 9 million has about 33% actual tourists who stay in a hotel room. So that 9M is really 3M per year.
    So 3 million / 365 days per year is about 8,219 tourist per day. (Forget summer slow down and max out hotel events for a second)

    The New Orleans Arena has a capacity of 18,000 for basketball.

    8,219 / 18,000 = 45% capacity.

    So the GREAT New Orleans Tourism and CULTURE experience is basically a “less than half filled” New Orleans Arena Basketball Game of 8,200 tourists that are: riding, driving, biking, walking, eating and drinking around town and the metro area? Correct?

    And these 8,200 tourists are supposed to pay the taxes and personal bills of an Orleans Parish population of 300,000 each day?

    So one (1) tourist is supposed to help pay for 36.5 residents each day?

  • kmsoap

    The revenues due comment made reference to your claim of fraud in the Homestead Exemption system. If there is fraud, we should fix that.
    As for trimming the budget, let’s start with a whopper. NOPD is budgeted for 1583 officers and has 1200. When you divide the personnel budget by the number of budgeted officers and multiply it through, they are over budgeted by $30.5 million. It will cost $55 million over 5 years to execute the Consent Decree, leaving another $19.5 million a year in fluff. Is that a substantial enough chunk to get things rolling?

    I believe there is a lot of fraud in the Homestead Exemption BUT also Section 8 and ESPECIALLY Section 8 and the maintenance of HUD STANDARDS.

    In many neighborhoods, the landlord rents out to their immediate family members, relatives, or their thug boyfriends, who by the way, DON’T say anything, or will not say a thing to the HUD or any housing inspector or official, as it’s in the family. This makes sense as the Poor in NOLA have many single moms with children from multiple fathers…at rates of like 90%!! Many of the single moms have multiple boyfriends, who are always THUGS, and they live in the same Section 8 house owned by their close family member or relative landlord.

    (a) Thug boyfriends live with their Section 8 girlfriend w/ kids enabling them to live RENT FREE. At least one of those mother’s kids is usually from some other father who not the current boyfriend.

    (b) Food Stamps and EBT for the mother provides food for the THUG boyfriend.

    As far as I am concerned Section 8 is no different than PUBLIC HOUSING as opposed to Mixed Housing as it facilitates IRRESPONSIBILITY via SYMPATHY for a mother with kids.

    Let’s face it.


  • kmsoap

    Get back to me when you have more than an opinion. Meanwhile, the police budget numbers are online for all to see.

  • Do you have a URL to the NOPD budget numbers AND personnel you just mentioned?

    If you say there is $19.5 million in FLUFF, it’s got to be going somewhere.
    Do you know where this $19.5M is going?

  • kmsoap

    The city budget is here.


    Manpower numbers here:


    Honestly, Au Contraire. Google is your friend. You really could have done this on your own.

  • joeintheupper9th

    What do we need to do to lower the cost of housing?

  • joeintheupper9th

    It isn’t productive to tell low income people to go get jobs. I’m against subsidizing as the solution as well. What can we do to lower the cost of housing?

  • Can you tell me the exact page on the budget about the NOPD manpower?
    What I see is a URL to many budgets.

  • Not productive to tell low income people to go get jobs? So low income should just sit around in a subsidized housing for the rest of their lives waiting for jobs to come to them? If so, when has that ever happened in the ghetto or low income area?
    Perhaps gentrification, but then the low income people will be pushed out regardless, due to lack of skills.

    Giving one way tickets to low income people to places that have jobs is far better than subsidized housing as all Sec 8, public and mixed housing has done has perpetuated the cycle of poverty and violence.

  • kmsoap

    That may be the most disturbing part of the anti blight initiative. It presumes that people do not have enough sense to figure out how many dollars they have available to contribute to housing and what type of housing they can afford to buy. There is a need for low cost private market housing for those who do not want to be involved in the subsidized housing racket, and every time the government adds a requirement or an inspection, it raises the cost of rentals.
    Perhaps the biggest controllable factor is taxes. Instead of finding more ways to inflate housing costs, reducing taxes would allow property owners to rent their units out for less. That overbudgetting for NOPD mentioned above? It adds about $200 a year per housing unit, and that’s just one department.

  • Enough of this “affordable” housing.

    There will NEVER be affordable housing if one doesn’t WORK. Or if one doesn’t want to improve their skills to get better paying work.

    If you want to really make a difference, you should find ways to GET WORK. That is, MOVE, even if out of Louisiana. Or get companies to move back to Louisiana that have a job for you and where you can offer them a service or product.

    Regardless, NOLA needs people to be “flexible” in their housing, which means MOVING to where the jobs are as opposed to asking things to be more “affordable”.

  • kmsoap

    You’re stuck on stupid again, Au Contraire. Skilled people who work need reasonably priced housing and should not be over taxed. Once again, your blind hatred of everyone and everything is poisoning your reasoning skills.

  • joeintheupper9th

    “Affordable” and “low cost” are two different things. “Affordable” is Section 8 and subsidized housing, where the government puts tax money in the pocket of developers to help pay for expensive housing that only the rich can afford. What can we do to LOWER THE COST of housing? I know one thing we can do; we can stop living in a neo-capitalist fantasy land where we imagine that there are plenty of living wage jobs for any skill level, all over the city, state, and world. These hypothetical anecdotes of thug boyfriends and women having babies for food stamps represent a tiny proportion of low income people, and are the exception. The truth is that if a person’s skill set is in the tourism/food/bev/hospitality/customer service industry, AND/OR are some sort of art or performance, THE WORK IS IN THE FRENCH QUARTER. THE LOW WAGE JOBS YOU WANT PEOPLE TO HAVE ARE IN THE FRENCH QUARTER. And the expanding tourist footprint: Warehouse Dist, River Side of St. Claude. You want people to move to low cost housing in Mississippi and commute to a dish washing job on Bourbon? Most actors move to Los Angeles, live beyond their means, wait tables, and then LEAVE. Is that what you want for musicians in New Orleans? You want the population to be MORE TRANSITORY? Some people don’t have HIGH wage skills. I had bad grades in math and science. The fact that I can’t afford HIGH COST housing doesn’t mean I don’t go to work everyday. What can we do to get some low cost, not “affordable” housing?

  • It’s not blind. Basically NOLA is clueless. You have had 40 years of declining population, last place in everything. And now you want something for free….again.

  • Drop tourism, music and redo the French Quarter the right way. Not some GUTTER. It should redone to have the cleanliness and class of a CRUISE SHIP, not a gutter where people get shot all the time.

    The FQ has millions of visitors yet no companies want to set up shop without massive tax credits.

    The fact that you are complaining means you are seeing change in prices going UP. That’s GOOD. Get rid of those who want something for free…The city already have enough con-men panhandlers

  • kmsoap

    Nobody’s asking for a freebie. We’re asking that the people we elect keep an eye on our money that we work hard to earn. It’s going somewhere, and it is apparent it is not going where the budget says it should. Are you advocating for government corruption?

  • kmsoap

    Prices going up is good? The French Quarter should be like a cruise ship? Take your fantasy to some other city. Oh, and lay off the sauce. It will kill you in the end.