The anxiety of authenticity is a disease affecting many of us today with untold damaging symptoms, especially in New Orleans.
It can be seen in the constant hand-wringing over our ever-evolving music, parading, culinary, and festival scene, and even in the proliferation of short-term rentals.
While many of us feel that the loss of permanent residents damages the authenticity of any residential neighborhood, the whole reason people seek out Airbnb accommodations, rather than traditional hotel rooms, is the desire to experience a place in what is felt to be a more “authentic” manner.
The specter of cultural appropriation is one symptom of authenticity anxiety. It affects how we view the nature and evolution of local culture. In strikingly ahistorical logic, critics of cultural appropriation argue that only “authentic” members of a group are licensed to express that group’s culture.
The term “poseur” used to be hurled at people who engaged in some kind of “inauthentic” cultural performance, but now the stakes are higher. The “poseur” has become a thief, even an imperialist, whose unbounded sense of entitlement and privilege enables him to invade, “colonize,” and deprive “authentic” subjects of their sole right to produce and trade in their exclusive cultural tropes.
New Orleans has become a laboratory for the anxiety of authenticity in the years since Hurricane Katrina, largely because of the ideology of New Orleans “exceptionalism” — the idea that certain sectors of New Orleans society offer an alternative to Anglo-Saxon America’s puritanical capitalist value system, with its emphasis on work, delayed gratification, and social mobility.
There was a great resurgence of New Orleans exceptionalist attitudes immediately after the storm. In the years following Katrina it made for a veritable renaissance of parading, arguably the most distinctive aspect of New Orleans culture in the American context. Free public festivals also exploded.
At first, this renewed embrace of distinctly New Orleanian cultural practices promoted solidarity among the reduced population of people who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, despite the difficult conditions (limited amenities, frequent power outages, etc).
But then came the post-Katrina boom years and attitudes quickly changed. Many of the older parts of the city that had remained affordable for generations suddenly saw huge increases in property values and, accordingly, in rents and tax assessments. Growing economic anxieties led, predictably, to recriminations of a cultural sort.
After the storm, many young people came down to participate in the recovery effort, for economic or altruistic reasons, and became enamored of the city’s current sense of itself in the high-exceptionalist mode. Many fell in love with and embraced a distinctive New Orleans cultural identity, founding new parading societies and street festivals.
In 2013, Tulane geographer and New Orleans studies guru Richard Campanella penned an influential essay entitled “Gentrification and Its Discontents.” He pointed to demographic changes in Bywater, a gentrifying area in the city’s Ninth Ward. He took special interest in a new kind of post-Katrina transplant dedicated to embracing traditional aspects of the city’s culture (public celebration, cuisine, music, voodoo). He labeled these culturally precocious newcomers “super-natives,” implying that their efforts to embrace the local cultural identity were some kind of unearned appropriation.
I had always considered it a point of local pride that many people who moved here wanted to become New Orleanians, rather than just Americans living in a different city. And there’s nothing new about transplants settling here with the express aim of embracing and preserving a culture they view as unique. But now the embrace of New Orleans culture by new arrivals had become suspect, even sinister. It was around this moment that the anxiety of authenticity in New Orleans became acute.
There have been many flashpoints since then, among them a “second-line” parade to honor David Bowie after the international pop star’s death in 2016. “Second-line” parades are traditionally held on Sundays and sponsored by various social aid and pleasure clubs, which are, of course, African-American fraternal organizations. There are also plentiful faux parades put on for tourists, conventions, even wedding parties. Chicago stand-up comic Hannibal Buress has a hilarious routine about organizing a bachelor party parade in the French Quarter for four guys.
The David Bowie event wasn’t a traditional African-American “second-line” parade, but it wasn’t a tourist knock-off sponsored by a convention, either. It was local residents putting on a parade on short notice to commemorate an important global event (in their eyes), in a distinctly New Orleanian way: with traditional New Orleans brass bands winding through the streets playing Bowie standards.
Of course the blowout got hammered anyway, for “appropriating” a traditional practice in some kind of “inauthentic” manner. Similar charges flew later that same year when a carnival club, the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, staged a Princess Leia memorial parade after the death of “Star Wars” star Carrie Fisher.
The latest chapter in the drama was the social media sniping this year about a new carnival club, Krewe du Kanaval. It added a Haitian element to the dynamic mix of carnival traditions that continue to evolve in New Orleans. The boilerplate Facebook mini-outrage about cultural appropriation was not well thought out — much less creative than the new parade itself.
The real issue appears to have been the view of some New Orleanians that the Canadian band Arcade Fire — involved in the new krewe as well as the 2016 Bowie parade — is too “super-native” in the way it has adopted and adapted New Orleans cultural practices. But band member Regine Chassagne is of Haitian descent and is active in supporting Haiti and diasporic Haitians, so that solves one part of the bogus authenticity challenge. And co-founder Ben Jaffe, who attended McDonogh 15, the same French Quarter elementary school I went to, solves the other part — unless you deny even people who grew up in New Orleans the right to their local culture. (His father was instrumental in establishing Preservation Hall, which Jaffe now runs.)
The thin foundation of claims about lack of authenticity in all these cases shows not only that people are too quick to judge, but that those whose local authenticity is the most tenuous are the quickest to judge. Simply put, it’s basically people who moved here five minutes ago taking heat from people who moved here 10 minutes ago.
The sad thing about the anxiety of authenticity in New Orleans today is how it makes lovers of New Orleans culture enemies of each other. Instead of the solidarity of the immediate post-Katrina years, now it’s a competition to out the poseurs, the appropriators, the ones accused of not deserving the culture they embrace.
The cultural spats obscure the economic foundations of our fear and anger, but they can also have economic repercussions.
The anxiety of authenticity has fueled the rise of short-term rental apps, for example, because the promise of authenticity to people who are deathly afraid of being recognized as tourists is the go-to pitch for Airbnb and similar listing services. My neighborhood, Faubourg Marigny, has had the misfortune of recently being labeled “hip” and “trendy,” though it has been a haven for low-income bohemians (the truly “hip”) for a hundred years.
Today, short-term rentals are eating us alive, as the City Council struggles to find enforceable ways to license and regulate them. There are blocks where over half the residences are short-term rentals, and the number is growing, forcing out permanent residents because the landlord’s income can be so much greater when renting to stealth tourists.
Price is not the reason people choose Airbnb. The prices are comparable to suburban motel rooms. The wording of the ads makes clear that an “authentic” local experience is the selling point.
“Underground” tourist guides offer the same escape from the dreaded “tourist” label, as if it’s a badge of shame, something that needs to be concealed. Today’s tourist wants to experience New Orleans (and other tourist destinations) “like the locals do.” And so technology and the anxiety of authenticity converge to empty beautiful old neighborhoods of authentic full-time residents — who maybe aren’t really “authentic,” anyway, because they’re probably “super-natives” rather than “real” natives.
The problem for residents of the old Creole districts is that too many of our fellow New Orleanians seem ready to write our neighborhoods off as cash cows for tourists, their assumption being that no “real” New Orleanians still live there anyway.
A recent review of the new Bravo series, “Southern Charm: New Orleans,” is a good example: “In a media landscape saturated with post-Katrina documentaries and shows like ‘Tremé,’ which are tributes to New Orleanian exceptionalism and fodder for the class of transplants that Campanella calls ‘super-natives,’ ‘Southern Charm’ feels surprisingly … authentic.” Why? Because “they don’t all live in shotgun houses and busk in the French Quarter. They live in Gentilly, Old Metairie and the north shore,” the critic wrote.
Two of those three neighborhoods aren’t even in Orleans Parish, and Gentilly is the throwback American-style suburb that Americanists gushed over when “authentic” New Orleans writer Walker Percy put his protagonist there in his 1961 novel, “The Moviegoer.” Yet we’re told that the rich suburbanites of Bravo’s new “reality” show are more authentic New Orleanians than residents of the city, and certainly more authentic than the working people who struggled to pay their bills on HBO’s Tremé (which, by the way, had several native New Orleanians in the cast and on the writing staff).
The disdain of residents outside the Creole districts toward people in them is not new. I experienced it as a Marigny resident attending school in Gentilly in the 1970s. The issue then was the “freaks” in the area — as I was told by both white and black classmates.
Mid-20th Century writers like Tennessee Williams and John Kennedy Toole document well the conviction that the Quarter was a place for freaks, feared and despised by those New Orleanians who just wanted to be good (conservative) Americans. As the bohemian population has been forced further and further downriver by rising prices, the disdain has also shifted to include, apparently, anyone who lives in a shotgun house.
Today, terms like “hipster” and “super-native” are additional tools for demonizing people who choose a lifestyle that’s an alternative to the suburban American Starbucks dream of commercialized and sanitized homogeneity. It’s not PC to call them “freaks” anymore, so now the implication is that they’re inauthentic, culturally appropriating yuppies, even though most of my (non-tourist) neighbors are schoolteachers, waiters, social workers, contractors, musicians, and artists — as they have been for generations.
I wish Richard Florida had never coined his well-meaning “creative class” label, because it falsely conflates traditional urban bohemians with “gentrifiers,” even though the bohemians may not have any money.
City Council District C, combining the Quarter and downriver neighborhoods with Algiers, is a microcosm of the social divide between urban bohemians (now maligned as “hipsters”) and the suburban Americans who resent them, since it’s perennially represented by a West Bank resident who views the East Bank part of the district as a constituency of real estate developers and tourist industry leaders.
Outgoing District C rep Nadine Ramsey consistently voted against the will of East Bank riverfront neighbors fighting to preserve the small-scale residential character of the area. Ramsey favored developments pushed by real estate and tourism interests. We might be tempted to hope for better from returning District C rep Kristin Gisleson Palmer, but I can’t forget that in 2012 she designated my childhood neighborhood in the Marigny Triangle an “adult-oriented section” that children had no business living in. Her recent sponsorship of a bill to halt new short-term rental licenses is, however, grounds for cautious optimism.
A widely shared story about the dangers of short-term rentals told of a lawyer in Tremé who was shocked to see an inflatable dildo installed by Airbnb tenants near his home. He said that he didn’t want to have to explain the dildo to his young child. As it turns out, he wasn’t a long-term resident of the area anyway, but a suburban transplant and a lawyer with deep-pocketed clients — so he certainly wasn’t helping to keep rents down.
The problem isn’t the dildo, and complaining about risqué practices in neighborhoods that are traditionally risqué totally misses the point. What many people who did not grow up in my neighborhood don’t realize is that for generations there has been a coexistence of family life and “adult-oriented” behaviors in urban districts of this type.
Krewe du Vieux paraders who complain about seeing kids on the route also miss the point. Those of us who are from the neighborhood grew up in a sexually open environment and we and our kids are not shocked by nudity or sexual innuendo. We want neither an American-style family suburb, nor an “adult-oriented” district that no one actually lives in. But my fear is that other New Orleanians — not to mention Trump-voting suburbanites — may be less amenable to the kind of traditional mixed bohemian neighborhood I grew up in than transplants from other cities are.
After Hurricane Katrina, the Urban Land Institute advised against re-building newer, flooded neighborhoods like Broadmoor and New Orleans East. I was at first receptive to their recommendation, until I heard from residents of those neighborhoods who were aghast that the city might consider moving on without them.
Today, we in the older, unflooded neighborhoods need our fellow New Orleanians to stand with us, to help preserve our way of life, even if it seems either too freakish or too “inauthentically” New Orleans exceptionalist for their tastes. A “super-native” makes a better neighbor than an incognito tourist in a whole-home Airbnb.
There’s a huge difference between a tourist from Brooklyn and a transplant from Brooklyn who lives and works here. And suburbanites who deride transplants for continuing to “appropriate” and adapt the local culture (as they have for hundreds of years) shouldn’t take out their resentment on those of us who still live in the historic neighborhoods.
So let’s limit short-term rentals to homes with homestead exemptions (permanently) — and insure that inflatable dildos be made available only to permanent residents.
C.W. Cannon’s latest novel is “Sleepytime Down South.” He teaches writing and New Orleans Literature at Loyola University.
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.