Is Frenchmen still cool — or just a Bourbon Street for hipsters?

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Carlos Casas/Flickr

For 30 years, Frenchmen has been the street with the beat.

For 30 years Frenchmen has been the place to tap your toes.

One of the most striking examples of the balance between continuity and change in New Orleans has been the meteoric evolution of Frenchmen Street over the past 30 years.

In 1984, two music clubs were emerging as hot new venues in the 500 and 600 blocks. The Faubourg, at 626 Frenchmen (soon renamed Snug Harbor), offered straight-ahead and experimental jazz—from Ellis Marsalis to Astral Project. At 532 Frenchmen, the Dream Palace, with its psychedelic décor and galactic ceiling mural, catered to the rock crowd, most notably through now-legendary Saturday night Radiators gigs.

What brought Frenchmen Street to critical mass as the live music mecca it is today probably was the liquor license Adé Salgado got in the late ‘80s as he converted his coffeehouse into a club called Café Brasil. The shuttered space now sits like a ghostly guardian of legend amid the cultural explosion it helped to set off.

A nocturnal stroll down Frenchmen Street 40 years ago was a quiet and lonely excursion, even on a Saturday night. LaBorde’s Printers, the Swiss Confectionery, the Diamond Grid Battery auto shop — all would be shuttered for the night. Today? Rip van Winkle would find himself in an alien world indeed.

The birth of what we imagine today when people say “Frenchmen Street” is evidence of how rapidly change can happen and, more interestingly, how change is portrayed, in New Orleans. The very first platitude it shatters is the old one about a New Orleans supposedly “resistant to change.”

The notion that New Orleans resists change is rooted in what is sometimes called “Americanist” rhetoric — a tendency to see shortcomings when New Orleans is compared with other U.S. cities. The “resistant to change” rap is laid on us when we don’t uncritically accept the latest national trend, be it a riverfront expressway, high-rise waterfront housing, or placing sharper limits on the rights of African-Americans in the first decades after America purchased Louisiana in 1803.

One political option is cast as “progress” (usually in an economic sense), while the other —reluctance to tear down old houses, for example, or to adopt American-style racism in the 19th Century — as evidence of our “backwardness.” But obviously these are just rhetorical tricks that should not be mistaken for accurate history.

We might do well to remember the incident Frenchmen Street’s name commemorates. The five Frenchmen executed at the foot of the street in 1769 had instigated the first anti-colonial revolution in the Americas, eight years before the 13 colonies came up with the Declaration of Independence. In Louisiana, the enemy was the Spanish crown, not the Court of St. James, and the goal was creation of an independent state.

Slave insurgents weren’t any more successful, but that didn’t keep them from dogged acts of resistance throughout the antebellum era.

After the Civil War, multi-racial delegates meeting at New Orleans drafted the most radically far-reaching of all Reconstruction state constitutions and elected black men to statewide office. The idea of a New Orleans “resistant to change” obscures our ability to recognize a very different narrative of New Orleans, as constantly and radically in a state of change, not only socially but politically.

New Orleanian skepticism toward “progress,” as defined in most of America, can’t be reduced to “resistance to change,” but it is one of the city’s special assets. New Orleans’ “exceptionalism,” the sense that we are something special or, in any case, a city well outside the “Americanist” mainstream, provides a priceless counterweight to arguments rooted in the brand of American exceptionalism, currently embraced by conservatives. New Orleans-style exceptionalism means little in a global context. It exists as a challenge — and invitation — to America, and offers a different, more critical perspective for considering American culture and society.

The Frenchmen Street boom is also evidence of how exceptionalist rhetoric is applied, ironically, to explain (and defend) instances of sweeping change of a particularly American cast — such as the hypergentrification that has swept the old creole districts since Katrina.

The economic rationale is deemed insufficient to justify change in New Orleans, and that’s a unique aspect of local political culture that we should all be proud of. Changes, if they’re going to be welcomed, need to be reconciled with notions of local identity — not just whether something is “good business” or “the American way,” or “best practices,” or whatever.

So Frenchmen Street proudly asserts itself as an expression of a uniquely and deeply New Orleanian spirit, a utopian evocation of an ineradicable New Orleanian ethos, with appreciation of live music as its cornerstone. The most recent Frenchmen club, Bamboula’s, makes the will to embody this ideal explicit, with its eponymous reference to the historic Congo Square song and dance genre. The relocation to Frenchmen of the Louisiana Music Factory record store is further testament to the street’s status as the city’s music mecca. The HBO series “Tremé” might just as well have been named “Marigny” for its many Frenchmen Street scenes.

Frenchmen Street, on just about any night of the week, is a loud and proud symbol of New Orleans’ re-invention of itself as a holy city for live music and the culture surrounding it (including cocktails, food, fashion statements, etc). But then many American cities, especially in our region, boast “night life” districts with abundant live music.

What makes Frenchmen Street a more exciting total experience than similar thoroughfares in Nashville, Memphis, or Austin, is the same thing Bourbon Street has going for it: public drinking. It turns a street rife with music clubs into a unified festival experience that takes root in the public space and thus defines an entire area — and its residents — rather than just being a handful of dots on a map. Every other attribute is secondary but still meaningful.

Frenchmen Street offers a wide range of music styles, many rendered with great talent, most for free or cheap (better for consumers than musicians). Frenchmen Street goes late, but so does the party in other urban music districts — though, again, our liberal alcohol laws, allowing for bars that never close, give us the edge if a never-ending party is the yardstick.

What’s more unique is how Frenchmen starts early. Early gigs broaden the pool of performers as well as audiences, and steer the appreciation of live music (and drinking) away from the limiting category of “night life” and into the unashamed normalcy of daylight. Again, the way all of this activity spills into and occupies the public space depends upon the nuts-and-bolts legal glue (public consumption and legalized loitering) that makes the magic — and the music — possible.

The Blue Nile heats up.

Tim Robertson and Matt Perrine, of Rick Trolsen's group, Neslort, bring the Blue Nile to a boil.

If Frenchmen Street is the temple complex of New Orleans music, more than ever that makes it a temple to New Orleans itself. The city has been famously musical for centuries, a reputation that hinges on the abundance of live music venues, street music, patronage and participation. Previous loci have included Congo Square, the old French Opera House, Storyville or South Rampart Street in the early jazz era. But never before has devotion to an extensive culture of live music been as central, as foundational, to New Orleanian identity as it is today.

This can be seen as an offshoot of a growing “touristic” culture, where locals begin to perceive and experience their hometown in the same way tourists do. Or it can be thought of as the consummation of practices long since baked into the city’s culture, and well-suited to championing by New Orleanians seeking to preserve a sense of the city’s — and their own — exceptionalism.  “Outsiders” — transplants more than tourists — have always played a role in noticing and valuing local cultural features deemed unique.

Bourbon Street continues to be the city’s most iconic street — a competition with Frenchmen as instructive as it is pointless. We’re talking about a competition between symbols, not business zones. While the ϋberhip among us like to demean Frenchmen as the “New Bourbon,” it’s more accurate to say that Bourbon Street was the old Frenchmen.

Not so long ago, Bourbon was the place for live music, what with Louis Prima, Al Hirt and other legends holding forth.* It combined vice (striptease) with live music in a way that invoked a lighter shade of  Storyville, continuing to feed America’s sense of New Orleans as a place that parties in an exceptionally transgressive manner.

Frenchmen Street has succeeded in severing sexual vice from live music, an achievement that says a lot about New Orleans and America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. There’s no real competition between Bourbon and Frenchmen because they cater to different audiences, people of differing social and cultural backgrounds (as well as those enlightened cosmopolitans able to enjoy both).

People with a greater degree of cultural capital — both locals and visiting aficionados —prefer Frenchmen. The ultra-hip have concluded, of course, that Frenchmen Street is already too well-known to confer “underground” cred, so they’re branching down St. Claude and pooh-poohing the poseurs left behind. Thus we see again how the anxiety of authenticity has become more acute than ever in the post-Katrina boom years, even if the hipster compulsion for what French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural distinction ” has degenerated into just another consumer niche.

The comic irony is that Frenchmen Street today is nothing like it ever was before, so it can’t be passed off as the continuation of a traditional use of the area. We need to accept that the explosive downtown cultural renaissance that Frenchmen Street presides over is the result of a romantic vision of what New Orleans should be, more than a continuation of how it has been. Frenchmen Street represents a recreation of New Orleans in a particular version of its own image. Change, yes, shaped by myth. As naturally New Orleans as vegan gumbo and milk punch daiquiris.

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

*Correction: The sentence, as first published, ended with the word “nightly,” which has been deleted. While Hirt had his own club, Louis Prima did not. When in town he often appeared on Bourbon Street at the Shim Sham Club owned by his brother Leon Prima.

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