Though it’s intended for a worldwide audience, this recent piece by Press Street co-founder Anne Gisleson in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs presents a more clear-eyed, comprehensive personal assessment of the city than any other I’ve recently encountered. It’s the city from Gisleson’s individual perspective, and like the rest of her work, this piece pretends no objective authority. But her synthesis of the major issues confronting New Orleans in a voice tinged at turns with bravery and dread makes the essay hit home in sentiment as much as in fact.
Being the subject of intense media attention for years can change your relationship to the news, and make you appreciate how hard it can be to get a story right. In July, there was a local outcry when National Public Radio (NPR) referred to New Orleans as a “blank slate” after Katrina, implying that young creative types from all over the country could come scribble on it and create something anew. It was an astoundingly wrong line, contradicting years of NPR’s own coverage, but it did manage to stir up the old defensive feelings about “our” culture and who has rights to it. The New Orleans brand, with its Mediterranean-African-Caribbean influenced music, food, and architecture, draws people to the city and sometimes keeps them here, but its “authenticity” has been compromised by tourism and outside interests for ages, subject to the same global and corporate infiltration as everywhere else. Jazz Fest is now officially the Louisiana Jazz and Heritage Festival Presented by Shell Oil. Mardi Gras beads and carnival throws are shipped by the container load from China. Jazz is rarely heard on Bourbon Street anymore and many of its infamous nightclubs are not only corporately owned by out-of-towners, but have been cited by the Louisiana Landmark Society as damaging their architecturally significant eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings merely by doing their raucous tourist business in them. On the more subtle higher-brow, we even have our own quality Home Box Office (HBO) series. David Simon’s post-Katrina Treme films in my neighborhood often, and it’s an odd feeling to see the light trucks and crews and messes of cables snaking into our bars and corners stores, knowing that a parallel post-storm narrative, albeit a few years behind in chronology, is being created. Lately, heading over the Judge Seeber Bridge which spans the Industrial Canal near the breach that killed hundreds in the Lower Ninth Ward, I pass a billboard for the show’s new season, its somber, sepia packaging compliments the drawbridge’s rusty trusses and makes for a strange meta-moment; our difficult reconstruction processed through the creative machinery of cable television and then advertised back to us.
Read the entire essay at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.