This is the season when we all give thanks for our friends and family. It’s especially meaningful, considering what New Orleanians have been through in the past 18 months. The city is not back to “normal” (it never ceases to amaze me when people from out of town ask me that question). It’s never going to be what it was before to the people who lived here—at least not in my lifetime.
Yeah, the Quarter looks the same, and so does Uptown, for the most part. Broadmoor and Mid-City are making slow strides. So is Gentilly. But Lakeview? New Orleans East? There it looks like the process is only just beginning.
New Orleans is less than half the size it used to be, pre-Katrina. We thought we were a small town before? We really are a small town again. Both of the major record retailers in the city are kaput (Virgin and Tower Records). There’s hardly anyplace to buy a decent loaf of fresh bread in town (will someone please open a bakery?). There’s not an authentic bagel to be found anywhere. It kills me to have to drive to Baton Rouge to get to a Macy’s.
Thank God we still have great music here, and great food. And second lines and social aid and pleasure clubs. And the Vieux Carre and Preservation Hall and Tipitina’s and Decatur Street, Café du Monde and St. Charles Avenue (even without the streetcars—do you know how much I miss those streetcar sounds?). Even the Saints and the Hornets.
The people and businesses who’ve managed to come back to the city are, in a real sense, pioneers, and we pioneers still have a long road ahead of us. I’m particularly worried about the French Quarter, since so many of the businesses there are hurting dreadfully because of the lack of visitors to New Orleans. Please, please—if you’re local, come back to the city and patronize the French Quarter. Even if you can’t abide Bourbon Street, there’s surely a lot that can draw you here. Pretend you’re a tourist from Dubuque for a day and try to remember how unique New Orleans is, and why it’s important that it’s saved.
I’m very pleased that OffBeat has writers who will cover more meaty subjects vis a vis the music community. Did you know that it’s illegal to have live music in New Orleans unless the venue is zoned as a restaurant? When I mention this to our readers and subscribers from outside the city, they are amazed. How can it be that a city known for its live music and musicians, the birthplace of jazz, won’t allow new music venues?
There are many bars and clubs that have live music but are afraid to advertise it because they think the city will close them down if they draw attention to those show (see Katy Reckdahl’s story in this issue). We need a music czar in City Hall who will look out for the interests of the music community, someone who can monitor the live music permits in the city. We need someone who can attend to the musical culture of the city to foster music development, who has the ear of and support from city and state government. We need more live music, not less.
There’s definitely a market for live music, and particularly for festivals. This past weekend I attended the New Orleans Blues Festival, a free festival event organized by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation. The Foundation is working to create smaller festivals in the city. A few weeks ago, they put a Latin festival together in cooperation with Contemporary Arts Center. The Foundation is relatively new at this (the gargantuan Jazz Fest is a production of Festival Productions, Inc.), but the New Orleans Blues Festival seemed to be an unqualified success. There were lots of people there (as evidenced by the lines at the food stands and overflowing garbage cans), but they were the “usual suspects,” locals, not people from out of town. If nurtured, festivals can really help the city draw visitors. Look at the city of Chicago’s series of festivals.
We are the city—and the state—of festivals. The logo on Louisiana license plates should say “Louisiana: The Festival State,” not “Sportsman’s Paradise.” One thing that seems to be missing in New Orleans is a concerted effort to change the perception of the city from party central to a cultural mecca. I’m going to really step out on a limb here and offend some people—something I seem to be able to do pretty easily—and suggest that the Mardi Gras krewes invest some of their organizations’ money into something other than Mardi Gras. While Mardi Gras is a great cultural institution in itself, someone please tell me what all the money that’s pumped into these krewe parties actually does for the citizens of the city in the big picture? Yes, yes, I know we all love and enjoy Mardi Gras. But if we can spend hundred of thousands—millions—of dollars costuming, parading, partying, throwing crappy beads on the street, and spending God knows how much on police and clean-up, why can’t we demand that krewes pump money back into the city for something other than a party-for-a-day? It’s time that New Orleans’ “Mardi Gras mentality” is revised into a long-term strategy for developing and sustaining the city’s educational facilities and its overall culture. Ditto the sports teams. Look, it’s all a matter of hype. In my lifetime, Mardi Gras in the French Quarter has devolved from a local, charming custom to a drunken college street party. Football mania is purely due to the marketing muscle of the powerful NFL. Isn’t it time New Orleans came back with some new, innovative marketing hype of its own? What are we waiting for?
With my rant for the month over, I am wishing you and yours a very peaceful and happy holiday season. We’re hanging in there, but we want change. There’s always the new year.