I’m sitting on my perch on Frenchmen and Decatur, preparing to send this issue to our printer, all the while listening to Keith Abel, who conducts New Orleans tours. He gathers his people at our corner and tells eager-to-learn visitors about the city, and particularly about our music. He regularly lauds the Louisiana Music Factory (and OffBeat, bless him!) as beacons of music culture. And the tourists drink it all in.
The attraction of New Orleans as a city isn’t derived from our tech industry, or how many shiny new condo buildings we’ve built over the past ten years, or our new airport (not saying we didn’t need one, especially one with connections to Europe). People find their way to New Orleans because it’s a special place; it’s not like other cities, Dallas or Atlanta or Houston. All of those cities are shiny, new and prosperous, and they all have NFL teams—the mark of a “real city” (she said, facetiously).
New Orleans is not shiny and new. It’s old and funky. But it’s also real and authentic. For the most part, though, the city has sold its collective soul to the tourism industry because we have so much to offer—not only for our citizens—but to the outside world: warmth, resilience, great food, deep roots, historic traditions, joie de vivre, and of course, music and culture. You can’t get the real thing anywhere else in the world, not at ersatz Disney or Vegas. We’re unique and we have to make a firm decision and take steps to stay that way, or our unique appeal will evaporate.
It’s that simple and that paradoxical: the things that make New Orleans wonderful and unique aren’t necessarily conducive to creating a shiny and new and rich (?) version.
The city has been really successful in bumping up its high-tech industries and attracting new businesses and entrepreneurs to New Orleans; new young people move here because the city is “hip” and a cheap place to live relative to the west and east coasts. We all know, of course, that living in New Orleans is getting more expensive by the day, with short-term rentals and AirBnBs literally taking over neighborhoods—which then lose their authentic character and residents because they can’t afford to live there anymore. As a former resident of Central City, I can attest to that from first-hand experience.
While business development agencies boast that they created something shiny and new here, and have brought in companies that create jobs, there isn’t a concomitant effort in place to help to preserve, nurture and develop the culture of the city. That’s a real problem: culture isn’t a money-maker, and those development agencies can’t brag that they’ve created jobs in the “cultural sector.” Culture-bearers in this country are usually non-affluent people who are more invested in creating a fulfilling life, preserving and nurturing intellectual achievements, artistic endeavors, and traditions.
What’s missing here is a balance of hustling for the new money and nurturing the culture. I’m afraid if we don’t create a balance between the two, New Orleans will just become like everywhere else: shiny and new with no soul.