New Orleans was shabby chic before shabby was chic. But today we witness how the more chic the city gets, the more unshabby it becomes. Unable to alleviate poverty, we can at least sweep it into the corners, where it won’t clash with our spiffed-up historic renovations.
It may be decadent of me, but I remember fondly the visual aesthetic of the city when it looked more roughly lived in and when a more densely packed working class gave the streets a festival air of public congregation and the messiness of a daily parade.
Every new era promotes its own greatness by turning against aspects of the era before it, patting itself on the back for solving long-standing problems and becoming the city “we always knew we could be.” Part of the sales pitch for the new New Orleans is overplaying the alleged complacency of previous generations, to make it seem like finally something is being done. In reality, much of the trumpeted social healing of our ancient problems amounts to little more than optics.
Depending on your relative distance from the river, the pervasive ills of poverty, inequality, unreliable employment, and attendant symptoms (crime, addiction) haven’t really gone away, as we are reminded every night on the evening news or in chatter carried from stoop to stoop. But pains have been taken to push visual evidence of capitalism’s collateral damage further back than Back o’ Town. The seams of poverty that used to stretch through the riverfront neighborhoods, adding social variety and keeping property values affordable, are on their way to total extinction.
Meanwhile, we see a new wave of warnings about New Orleans’ loss of its historic identity, even as its blend of the modern with the traditional is declared by others to be a tri-centennial triumph.
We’ve heard all this before. These contradictory messages go mano a mano at least every 20 years. Those inclined to think of New Orleans as the exceptional city can complain, but the Americanization continues, because guess who’s got the money?
The latest round of handwringing over our inevitable but apparently glacial Americanization deplores the recent smoking ban, the end of skinny dipping at the Country Club on Louisa Street, and various items in the proposed Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. (Most concerning are the draft CZO’s recommendations for acceptable noise levels and higher height limits along the riverfront below Esplanade.)
But these are all symptoms of change, not causes. This is a time to remember the basic Marxist insight: that economic evolution changes every aspect of society. The 1996 federal grant to tear down the St. Thomas public housing project in the Irish Channel was a first step on the long road to luxury condo proposals for Bywater and Holy Cross.
Alice Walker’s great short-story “Nineteen Fifty-five” has an Elvis Presley character deliver a priceless line to the black blueswoman who is his mentor: “They want what you got but they don’t want you.” This is the anxiety that haunts many a New Orleanian today. Unless the much ballyhooed economic boom can hire the people who are already here — among them the 26,000 unemployed New Orleanians between 18 and 24 — it just spells doom for people trying to stay in a city where people from somewhere else hold the good jobs and make life increasingly unaffordable.
The economic changes bring on changes to the city’s appearance, too, giving it a more sanitized look. The opening of Jim Jarmusch’s 1986 film, Down By Law, features a montage of New Orleans street scenes that captures the look of the city in my youth: peeling paint, litter, aimless-looking loiterers, and, of course, the ubiquitous housing projects.
Today you can see remnants of one of the last of them, the Iberville, right next to Marie Laveau’s tomb, which you now have to pay to visit. Tearing down the projects has been an emotional act that speaks volumes about the city’s uneasy relationship with the working people still needed to keep the whole house of cards from blowing away.
I attended a lecture last fall at Loyola by American Studies scholar Julia Faisst. She spoke about the demolition of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe public housing development in the 1970s, arguing convincingly that its modernist architecture (like that of similar developments, such as Chicago’s Henry Horner and Robert Taylor homes) represented a utopian vision in which economic problems were given an aesthetic solution — lipstick on a pig, as it were, and of course doomed to fail. But the same conflation of optics and economics is with us to this day. It’s reflected in the way anger at the continuing social disaster of American capitalism has been directed at aesthetic rather than economic targets. Thus, the response to long-standing, racially inflected poverty and violence was to “Hope VI” — i.e. tear down — the housing clusters that once seemed to represent a similarly facile solution to an entrenched problem.
The New Orleans projects were rooted in the same inequitable economics as the massive high-rises of the industrial Midwest, but were markedly different in design. Porches and balconies on low-rise structures faced each other across park-like grassy quads. I was charmed by them as a child; a first-grade classmate at McDonogh 15 regaled me with stories about how fun life was in Iberville. They looked so much like university campuses that mayoral candidate Virginia Boulet actually suggested moving the University of New Orleans to the Iberville development in the heady, visionary election of 2006.
If the aesthetic of Pruitt-Igoe and similar developments was futuristic, our projects conveyed a more paternalist message. Rather than break radically with the past, they wove aspects of the past into visions of a possible future. Both architectural styles, however, were eventually tarred with the brush of “government assistance,” considered the ultimate degradation by gung-ho American individualists. For their own self-respect and to assuage the guilt of others, the working poor now needed to be housed in a way that camouflaged the role of government in mitigating the abuses of capitalism.
The reworked developments take pains to send a very different visual message than the projects they replaced. The new structures don’t face each other across quads; they face the street, dispensing with the interior park-like atmosphere of yore. Some re-developments — like River Garden, which replaced St. Thomas — invoke traditional New Orleans residential models, the signature approach of Pres Kabacoff’s HRI Properties Inc. Others, like the Magnolia and St. Bernard re-developments, go with a more generic suburban look. Maybe if it looks like an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., subsidized residents will shake bad habits like destitution and the violence it breeds.
But the names of the new developments are the most telling detail of all: River Garden, Harmony Oaks, and…wait for it…Columbia Parc (with a “c,” no less!). Who needs satire when farce becomes social policy?
High priests of the city’s triumphant neo-liberal gospel have required that other names and buildings associated with the less fortunate also be unstitched from the city’s semiotic weave. Charity Hospital, for example — gone and not coming back, after a 250 year run. “Charity,” it seems, is now shameful, a symptom of dependency in a society that hangs its hat on “freedom,” (whether or not, as the minstrel insists, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”) Our local, affordable public university isn’t looking too healthy, either. Be thankful that you’re free to be unable to afford college. After all, we can get college graduates from other places.
To their credit, some preservationists joined advocates of the working poor in (vain) resistance to the City Council’s unanimous 2007 decision to re-develop the “Big Four” projects. The scattered-site units peppering riverfront neighborhoods were less architecturally significant and have found fewer friends. Yet they served the purpose of preserving the working-class character of the area and keeping property values affordable for a broader swath of residents. The Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association groused about the scattered sites and greased the skids for their elimination; now they’re worried about the inevitable proposals for luxury condo high-rises on the river.
I’m a proud sentimentalist when it comes to preserving what I feel to be the cultural attributes that make New Orleans distinctive, but fighting the cultural fight after the economic one has been decided is like tearing down buildings that came to represent poverty, racism, and crime rather than addressing the actual problems.
What I call New Orleans “Americanists” — those among us who champion mainstream business and economic development as the solution to every problem — have made common cause with culture-loving New Orleans “exceptionalists” by converting culture into cash, and celebrating the “cultural economy.” The exceptionalists fret about the city losing its identity while the Americanist masters of the cultural economy stay busy packaging that identity.
Maybe the only tonic for worried exceptionalists is good old New Orleans fatalism. Hey, man: Cultural change happens. I’m an English professor facing the death of print culture. How does that feel? You get over it. And then you die.
In his 1924 tome Literature and Revolution, Leon Trotsky surmised that after the workers of the world united in victory, art and literature would disappear altogether. What’s more likely is that a truly just society would have less need of the kinds of art — social realism in literature or the blues in music — that are responses to and coping strategies for the victimization the haves repeatedly inflict on the have-nots. Judging from the ongoing assault on economic equality in Baton Rouge and Washington, we have no cause to fear the end of gritty, edgy, angry art. We may in fact witness a glorious re-birth of the blues.
We’ll need to look in different neighborhoods to find it, and there will be arguments about whether the new art forms are legitimate or authentic. But when those aesthetic quarrels subside, we can grab the real estate and put up plaques in honor of the cultural pioneers, while their descendants pack up and try to find housing they can afford. After all, compulsory mobility is the American Way. Enjoy the boom!
C.W. Cannon teaches New Orleans Studies and English at Loyola University.