Featured Essay: Transition in New Orleans


A few years ago, Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedecker asked me to contribute to their New Orleans anthology-atlas, Unfathomable City. My task was to figure out how post-Katrina New Orleans was changing. I’m not a reporter, so the thought of pounding the pavement with camera and fedora filled me with fear. Fortunately, the locals and transplants I encountered were more than willing to share their take on the state of my hometown. Yet, my quest produced an ambivalent answer: yes, New Orleans was changing. But the nature of the change was harder to parse because the process had just begun. It was like trying to understand what kind of tree would grow from a seed. But today, after a decade of change, the forest is self-evident.

Climate change scientists talk about a tipping point, the idea that humans must limit consumption before it’s too late to turn back. Some believe we’ve already passed that point. They think that nothing can save our descendants from inheriting an unrecognizable planet. Reminds me of New Orleans today.

New Orleans is a beacon for young, entrepreneurial people because of our rich culture and joie de vivre. Much of our cultures exuberant creativity comes from the city’s large and diverse African-American community. African-Americans played a large role in the development of foods served at our legendary restaurants, foods like gumbo, greens, and jambalaya. Black New Orleans created music adored by the world, music like jazz, R&B, and hip hop, produced by artists like Louis Armstrong, Allen Toussaint, and Lil Wayne. People come from the other side of the world to experience our Mardi Gras Indian subculture and Carnival krewes like Zulu.

The foundation of these wonders was, in part, our low cost of living. As a service economy, much of our local employment comes from jobs located downtown or in the French Quarter. But policy changes have made life more difficult for the people who make the magic of New Orleans. For example, our brass bands have longed performed on our streets and played deep into the night, much to the delight of tourists. Today, it’s illegal for those bands to play past 8 p.m. in most parts of the city, and musicians found in violation can be arrested. The anti-noise ordinances have existed for some time. Yet, some believe enforcement has ramped up in recent years. Draconian enforcement means musicians play with a leash around their necks. Late night street music attracts tourist money, but the city can yank the leash whenever it feels necessary.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, life got harder for people who can afford a car to drive to jobs in hotels and restaurants. In 2016, the price of parking at meters in the French Quarter doubled. To park on a city street in that part of town today, it costs $33, almost a day’s wages for many part time workers. That’s a pittance compared to nearby parking in the pay lots where one might pay $30 for a few hours of secure parking. The situation has devolved to the point where some hard-working people now park in non-metered neighborhoods like the Marigny, over a mile away from many places of employment.

Meanwhile, gentrification has taken hold in other parts of the city such Mid-City, the Freret corridor, and elsewhere where new businesses have sprung up to cater to the new arrivals while ignoring the needs of families who have lived in these neighborhoods for generations. Neighborhoods in need of low cost groceries and low cost auto shops have seen an influx of spas, boutiques, and wine bars.

For many years after Katrina, the city was dotted by so-called blighted houses. While it is true that some of those houses were abandoned before the floods caused by faulty federal levees, it is also true that many hard-working, fully insured homeowners were swindled by unscrupulous insurance agencies or caught up in deliberately opaque governmental red tape. The net effect is that approximately 100,000 African-Americans could not return to the city. Many “blighted” houses became property of the city or fell into the hands of some of the new arrivals who had little curiosity about the people who lived there before them.

In the rental market, rates continued to climb and will likely accelerate thanks to the city’s embracing short-term rental services like Airbnb, which are, not coincidently, accused of discriminating against non-white consumers. Similarly, whereas many developments of the past two decades were built with the caveat that they would make provisions for low-income tenants, those same developments included sunset clauses that allowed the property owners to expel residents after a predetermined time. One example is the American Can Company apartments where, as of this writing, as many as 52 low-income residents, by some estimates, will be evicted on New Year’s Day.

There have been precious few actions to help people affected by these shifts in demographics and policy. There’s simply no market for kindness or consideration. Here, at the end of 2016, New Orleans is on the gentrification fast-track, the caboose on a train led by places like San Francisco, Oakland, and Harlem.