I wasn’t alive in 1940, but in half a century perceptions, business orientations and city economies can surely change drastically.
I can remember when I was a kid that New Orleans was touted as the Gateway to Latin America. The port was the major revenue producer in the city. We found this video that was made in 1940 and produced by MGM. The series covered major cities in the US (New Orleans at that time was mentioned as the “second most progressive city in the US”. Hmm. What happened?).
What amazes me is that our “nightlife” (compared to Paris) was barely mentioned in the end of the piece. Just goes to show you how much the city is now dominated by its reputation as a tourism destination.
It reminds me that I haven’t heard much about the port for a long, long time. While the city struggles to attract entrepreneurial activities, and to improve its reputation as a center for medical innovation, what’s carrying our economy is the hospitality industry, no doubt about it. Music is a crucial piece of the city’s attraction as a destination.
On another, related, note, Executive Director Sue Mobley sent out a thoughtful letter regarding the interference of the city in our musical culture, reprinted here.
A little over a week ago, St. Roch Tavern was added to the list of music-less music venues. There it joins Circle Bar, Siberia, Mimi’s and a far more numerous, and generally anonymous, group of street musicians, neighborhood parades, and bearers of traditional culture who are being silenced. Too often, these issues are cast in terms of old new Orleans chaos versus the new New Orleans where order and accountability will (someday) prevail. Neighborhood disagreements become polarized into long-time residents, or businesses, versus newcomers, reinforcing the paradigm of gentrification and conflict. Inevitably, all parties throw around the phrase ‘Quality of Life.”
“Quality of Life,” is a treacherously ambiguous term. It calls for an examination of whose definition of quality and whose life we use as a reference point. For a street musician, who has played the same corner of Royal for twenty years, quality of life requires an income, an audience and the right to create, on that spot, the music and culture in which this city claims to take pride. For a shop owner on that same corner, quality of life requires customers, an accessible door and sound levels that allow them to do business. For most residents, quality of life requires that both of these businesses, informal and formal, keep the street clean, the crowds calm, and shut it down before bedtime.
None of these needs, these definitions of “Quality of Life,” are mutually exclusive, but meeting them all requires a certain amount of compromise. Unfortunately, in the new New Orleans, as often in the old, official policies favor regulatory retrenchment rather than mediation. An annoyed phone call about volume at the end of a long day can easily start the process of a business being shut down or clearing Jackson Square of street musicians. In the recent ABO hearing for St. Roch Tavern, evidence rested upon complaints from neighbors, some of whom were also patrons of the venue. Supporters, who sat for hours with prepared statements, were denied the chance to speak at all. The venue owners, fearful of a total shutdown agreed to sign another consent agreement. Consent and good neighbor agreements can be useful tools, when used in good faith. However, small businesses (and most music venues, bars and restaurants are small businesses) far too often find themselves over a barrel, agreeing to impossible terms with no legal advice, and under the coercive pressure of a potential shutdown or the erosion of their profit margin.
The processes in place are deeply flawed. Zoning still requires grandfathering in or exceptions for live entertainment; the much delayed and hotly debated noise ordinance remains in limbo, and so, by extension, do our musicians and culture bearers themselves. Where the City has set out to aid negotiations, it hasn’t always succeeded: City-led mediation for Mimi’s in the Marigny may have come too late in the process. To Be Continued Brass Band is still barred from the corner of Canal, despite having been invited to contribute to the pending Noise Ordinance. Second Line vendor permits have caused some grumbles, despite the inclusion of Social Aid and Pleasure clubs in the permitting plan.
But City engagement has seen some successes too: relations between the NOPD and Mardi Gras Indians have gotten better, thoughtful proposals for arts and culture overlays are being considered with real neighborhood input. The City should build upon these successes, because regardless of what agreements are signed or the heated rhetoric in hearings; in the end, neighbors will remain neighbors, sharing public space and hostile neighborhoods are not in anyone’s best interests. Living in a diverse, vibrant city means living with neighbors who define quality of life in diverse ways, mediation and inclusion can help make that diversity a strength and our neighborhoods more livable, and musical.
New Orleans must work to protect the music and culture of our city, for all of the reasons we trot out in marketing campaigns, or watch celebrated on Treme, but also, and crucially, for the viability of our economy. A New Orleans without a vibrant culture loses its best selling point: the reason students and entrepreneurs are drawn here, the reason tourists extend their visits and return each year, the reason the complaining new neighbor moved in, in the first place.