When New Orleans Dreams About Itself: An Interview with Brian Boylesby
As Vice President of Content at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, publisher of Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine, and author of 2015’s One Book One New Orleans selection New Orleans Boom & Black Out: 100 Days in America’s Coolest Hotspot, Brian Boyles knows a thing or two about examining our local history for enlightening nuance. Last month, WRBH’s David Benedetto sat down with Boyles to talk about the LEH’s new anthology, Louisiana’s political past and present, and how damn hard it is to piece everything together sometimes.
WRBH’s David Benedetto: You have a new book out that you worked on, New Orleans & the World, which is a tricentennial anthology. Can you tell me about working on that?
Brian Boyles: Sure. We were really fortunate in that— because of our track record with Louisiana Cultural Vistas, our quarterly magazine— the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation approached us to say they were really looking to create something that would be lasting, something that would help them introduce outside groups to the city [and] really give a diverse group of perspectives, even something that they could give to the mayor to go out in sort-of an official fashion hand to other mayors [and] people he’s recruiting to come to the city in 2018. We were able to get really good resources to create this project.
The process was amazing because we had the chance to work with the top scholars in the field and pulled together a scholarly board. Nancy Dixon at Dillard was our editor. We had an editorial board [with] Richard Campanella, Bobby DuPont, Kara Olidge, Freddi Williams Evans, and Larry Powell, an amazing group to sit down with and just kind of kick around ideas. In doing that, we came up with this theme of “New Orleans and the world.”
We felt that making a list of all things New Orleans wasn’t necessarily the best contribution we could make, so “New Orleans & the world” emerged as a theme— and really a filter— that we took with us when we went out to writers and scholars. We really wanted to have them drive a lot of this and tell us what they thought was important, but under the umbrella of— how has New Orleans influenced the world? How have world events shaped New Orleans? I think that helped us suss out where we want to go.
We organized it more around themes than in a chronological order, and I think the things that came out continue to be thought provoking to me after having put it together. Also, reading it and thinking about the position of the city in the world and how, though we’ve had great ups and downs— and certainly economically we’re nowhere near the global capital of finance or trade as we may have been at different points in her history— we still hold this interesting spot on the world stage. We, sort of, are a city as a performer that’s out there creating storylines good and bad that people still gravitate towards. I’ve been thinking a lot more about what that relationship between New Orleans and the world is, and I think that this book really brings a lot of insights to it. We’re lucky to have so many great people in it to help shape that theme.
WRBH: I love having these books. I mentioned to you before we started this about loving [Rebecca Solnit & Snedeker’s] Unfathomable City. This book really reminds me of that because it is an anthology, very much of the moment that is trying to bring all these things together, all these voices. I really love that, and it’s really a great document to have. Having worked on this project, having written for this project, and being in our 300th year: Is there any certain topic that really piqued your interest while working on this that you’re delving into more now or really focusing on during this year?
BB: Well, I think that there’s a lot of things that we know didn’t get into the book, so we’re trying to fill in a lot of those gaps. I think specific to my interests and related to what I said about the theme, I’m very interested in these points when the city tried to get itself together in order to be present for the rest of the world. So [I’m] really looking at things like the 1884 [Cotton Exposition], the 1984 World’s Fair, the Super Bowl in 2013, moments when we were really trying to send a message about ourselves. I think you learn a lot about the city by seeing it do that.
I recently gave a talk on the 1884 Cotton Expo, and I think drilling down to that time period is something I’d like to do more of. Similarly though with 84’s World’s Fair, I think the 1970s and 1980s are fascinating to look at, and I’ve been wanting to get my arms around that. We have a great essay in [the book] by Jack Davis about the rise of Poydras Street and then [its] eventual fall with oil bust. I think that period has interested me for a while, looking at that as a time when the city had certain aspirations. Having, I think, come out of a recent period where we have a lot of aspirations about where the city could or could not go, I like that idea of looking at New Orleans when it dreams about itself and where it’s going to go. Or who is going to catch up to it and what it might be— I think that’s really telling and certainly a great place for writing of all kinds.
WRBH: I’m very interested in that point because I think it describes our current predicaments in a way that we really haven’t mined yet because it has been too close until now. I’m interested to see more writing coming out about that. Are you working on anything?
BB: Trying, man. [Laughing] But, you know, as people that run magazines will tell you, it’s very hard to get much done. There are a few things that I’m trying to work on and at the same time looking for other people who are writing about those subjects and want to help publish them and make sure that there’s as many scholars working on fields that, frankly, I’m interested in and I think that are relevant.
WRBH: One of the things that got me excited for this interview was to revisit your 2015 book New Orleans Boom & Blackout. In reading through that introduction and thinking about the idea of the economics of culture and your fascination with that, being the end of the Landrieu tenure [in New Orleans], I was wondering if you had any thoughts about what’s changed since you wrote that book? Where do you think New Orleans is moving as far as our focus on culture and the tourism and gentrification, all the things that are wrapped up in that conversation?
BB: I think that in some ways finishing that book to me was the finishing of a long thought process that I had. I do sort of always preface things by saying that I don’t feel as tuned in as I was when the book was finished. Since then I’ve had children, I’ve worked on the stuff at the LEH (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities). We work really statewide, so my finger is not as close to the pulse of New Orleans as it was when I was chasing things down all the time writing that book. I think that the reason that I wanted to write that book was because I knew that the Super Bowl was going to provide the stage for the mayor and other folks to talk about the recovery— and as it turned out, to talk about the recovery as this recovery is over, we’re now in this whatever we want to call it. Looking back—and certainly the lights going out in the Dome sort of prefigured this— I think that was a high point.
WRBH: I get that.
BB: I don’t know if it was an intentional high point, but I think if you look back at the momentum that was going there and specifically around federally funded projects, the people moving to the city, the film industry really driving a lot of expenses, and also attention to the city in a good way, you really saw that as— now looking back—not to say we peaked, but I think that the buzz was as high as it was going to be then.
In the years since, I think that it’s not that any grand disaster hasn’t happened since. I certainly think that the environmental concern has become more acute, and I think more people in New Orleans, especially with the flooding we’ve had and just the overall thinking around the coast, have more of a sense that there is this larger thing that really needs to be addressed that can’t simply be a matter of New Orleans appearing in commercials and things like that. I think that the affordability issue became much more of a visible one for everyone in the last few years. So that whatever was being generated around that time in 2013 [and] 2014, one thing that came out of it was—it’s a much less affordable city. I think that a lot of people are upset about that. I don’t have a solution to that. I feel it for sure. I think that it continues—the pressures that were on culture bearers that I documented—[at] probably an even worse degree.
At that point, a lot of people were still really up in arms around noise ordinances and attempts to redevelop the French Quarter in certain ways. That’s certainly still a part of the conversation—and again, I’m not as tuned in as I was—but I think this affordability thing on top of all that—when you look at it as I did in the book, the hurdles for a brass band member to make a living, stay safe, be appreciated by the city, all of that. Then you throw on top of that the fact that it’s very hard for him, if he has a couple of kids, to find a place to rent. That’s a whole other layer.
I do think people are doing some good work around that for sure. I don’t think that things like Airbnb were as big of a concern when I was writing that book. I think that’s a major force in what’s happened here. So again, as to where we are today, there’s a good part of me after that book and after doing New Orleans & The World , it feels like— to some degree—we are where we always are. It’s a great place. It’s also a very difficult place, and maybe more people than ever feel that pain and some of it because they’ve invested so much money in it, whereas most people feeling that pain were on the lower end of the spectrum for a long time. In any case, I think that, as far as the administration, trying to look back on eight years— that would be a really good book for somebody to read. [Laughing] And write.
WRBH: [Laughing] Yeah.
BB: You know, I felt in 2010 [and] I feel now that Mayor Landrieu is a fascinating historical character. Whether or not you’re concerned with the larger sort of national politics, but really even just looking at the history of the city, the history of his family— it really continues to interest me to see where he goes and to see, again, where history will look back. A lot of my work started when we did a project on the mayors of New Orleans right before Mayor Landrieu was elected, and we ran all the way through Mayor Nagin. We did that project all the way up to like a week or so before the election, looking at different mayors. I think the thing that really came out with each of them was—when their defenders were present—that there were signature large capital projects. There was a budget turnaround. Everybody turned the budget around, you know? And city hall worked better. That’s what everybody tried to say, I think. That’s probably what you would say right now, right? But it’s going to take a few years to be able to say did it all work better? So again, not as informed as I’d like to be, but I definitely think someone needs to put this in a good perspective. I remain glad that I wrote the book because I learned how to write better, but also because I do think that was a time worthy of documenting. I think we’ll always look back at that and be able to have a better sense of where the city was going, moving out of what had been a really horrible period.
WRBH: You were right in the middle, as well as on the cusp of so many things. Rereading your first chapter again— talking about the taxicab strike. And that’s even before the Uber—
BB: [Laughs] Yeah, no Uber back then.
WRBH: — or Lyft back then. That completely disoriented that conversation.
BB: It’s wild. I think about that too.
WRBH: You mentioned the New Orleans mayoral history that you did. How did you end up deciding to do that project?
BB: I guess the election was in 2010, so it was 2009 into 2010. Usually, when I think back I realize I didn’t really know any better, and I was fortunately given the space to do it. We had opened the Humanities Center not that long before that, so I was, again, really lucky to be given the opportunity to do programming especially during those years when I think public forums needed to be happening and were happening all the time, but not necessarily always in a way that was super respectful or neutral.
I think that the LEH had a reputation as being politically neutral and [Laughs] I certainly wasn’t known by anybody. So it wasn’t a matter of me asking folks to participate and then thinking that we had an agenda. I think that’s why we were able to pull together people we were. The genesis of it really was a feeling that your average person who had moved here since the storm— who at that point was just being praised to high heaven and seen as this driver of the new economy and the new politics and a new society— they probably didn’t have much of an education on the political history of the city. That is good equipment to have as you go into a voting booth.
I’d been kind of lucky because working at the LEH those first couple of years, I learned a lot about history, and I was interested in it. The real motivation for doing the project was to say, “OK, people are going to show up asking you for their vote. They may play on all kinds of different interests that you have. One of those could be a feeling that, as a newcomer, you might need to join this tribe or that tribe. Or that this issue or that issue is a new issue or one that’s not fixable.” Let’s go back and look at each of these administrations starting with Chep Morrison after the Second World War and talk to people who were— in most cases—there [and] who covered them, who have studied them [and] figure out a sort of job description for what the mayor is and does because I think that’s something that’s always necessary—to really just say “Look. A mayor does this.” As I said capital projects— that could be a big part of what he or she does. Finances—that’s a big part of what he or she does.
Then, this more sort-of charismatic role of being out there as the face of the city, which, frankly, I think that at that point Mayor Nagin had really receded a little bit under a lot of criticism and for all kinds of different reasons. We didn’t have a recent experience of what a mayor of New Orleans did. We had this real lightning-rod person and a government that was pretty kneecapped by everything that had happened. So we brought those people together every two weeks—every mayor all the way up through Mayor Nagin—and brought in good people to moderate and asked the questions. Other people have done that, but I think that it was a nice way to frame everything because there were always misconceptions about what the city looked like in 1970. I think that getting to sit there and watch and really to be active in putting these panels together and seeing the threads that connected them all was an amazing experience. The turnout helped put the space on the map, and it also, to me, affirmed creating histories that did have a direct relevance. I think with Boom & Blackout, that kind of arrangement influenced the structure of how I wrote the book. I thought that people could be given anecdotal stuff about history in New Orleans and draw their own conclusions.
WRBH: I think that’s important. You’re providing constraints for yourself as a writer as well, which is useful! Thinking about understanding local history better, what are some of the most influential books on New Orleans and Louisiana, political and cultural history that you’ve read and have helped shape your views?
BB: Earl of Louisiana by AJ Liebling, Bad Bet on the Bayou by Tyler Bridges, The Parade Goes on Without You by Andrea Boll, [and] Black Life in Old New Orleans by Keith Weldon Medley.
WRBH: What’s your optimal writing environment? You do a lot of writing for the magazine. Obviously in writing articles you are in more of a time rush most of the time, but if you could have an optimal environment what would it be?
BB: Oh man, that’s a great question. I usually try to be at a desk—if I get away and go to a coffee shop or I’m in my house when everybody’s asleep. I think that’s usually the best time for me. It’s hard for me to write at my office at LEH, although I’ve been trying to train myself to do that just to save time.
I always found it was interesting [that] when I lived in New York I wrote on the train all the time. A lot of times not legibly or anything that was worth anything, but there was something in that building up the ability to do that, to sort of wall myself in while being in this super public place. To just observe and play with words as that was going on and then to try and do something with it afterwards. At the same time, it gave me the ability to write on the fly, take notes on the fly that are worthwhile, really be a good observer. For about a year, [I] covered the then Hornets and sat baseline for those games, and writing there was very interesting because you’re kind of just writing what would essentially be Twitter now. But you’re surrounded by like 20,000 screaming people. It is a very interesting feeling. Again I guess all those things made me feel like I was prepared to go out into the city and do the kind of notetaking I want.
But actually really good writing, yeah, I need all my stuff, you know? I need to feel comfortable, I need to have headphones on [and] I need to have a lot of different things to drink—
WRBH: Coffee, water, tea? Whiskey?
BB: Yeah. You know, I don’t really drink alcohol too much when I write anymore. It’s interesting. [Laughing] Definitely a big part of what it was about when I was younger, but also the struggle I find is that the platforms we use now give us so many opportunities to have your stuff everywhere. You think that writing stuff in a cloud somewhere is the answer to that, but you can have fifteen different clouds too. So I really need to get it together a little bit on some of this stuff. I think interacting with an editorial team for the magazine is an interesting process because in the end I need to keep the deadlines that I set. [Laughing] I wish sometimes there was someone else selling them. Our Senior Editor Ann Glaviano does a good job of that, but I think, again, I need to keep working on it.
WRBH: I understand that—the eternal struggle. One thing I love to ask people is what exactly are you reading right now? And what’s one piece of art—could be a film, painting, whatever—that’s really affected you in the last year?
BB: I just got back. I was over in Lafayette this weekend doing some site visits and then on Sunday went to St. Landry Parish near Opelousas and the visitor center there. They unveiled a statue of Amédé Ardoin, really the founding voice in Cajun-Creole music, who was tragically beaten in the 1920s, ending his career. And [he was] buried in an unmarked grave in Pineville near the sanitarium there. Poet Darrell Bourque and really a great coalition of people were fighting to bring his remains back. That was impossible, but they were able to raise money to commission a statue. I went to the unveiling of that statue on Sunday, and you ask [about] a great piece of art—I think that was a great piece of art. The name of the sculpture keeps slipping my mind. The audience was also a great vision. To see the diversity of the audience there— which I think St. Landry Parish is a very diverse place—I think in Acadiana to see that kind of crowd is a big deal for folks there. And that was an amazing piece of art.
As far as what I’ve been reading, I read a piece about Paul Manafort in The Atlantic. That was really amazing. And I thought that Nathaniel Rich’s recent book was really great, King Zeno. I think I’ve been reading Jack Davis’ The Gulf for a while. Not quite finished with that, but it’s a heck of a book.
WRBH: Before we go, thoughts on the Saints for this upcoming season?
BB: Oh, man. I wish I was more into it! I see the tricentennial years being the perfect year to make a run for the Super Bowl. They’ve got magic.
This interview was transcribed from an episode of The Writer’s Forum, a weekly program on WRBH Reading Radio for the Blind and Print Impaired focused on showcasing local and national authors, poets, historians, journalists and historians. You can find the full archive of programs here: www.soundcloud.com/WRBHreadingradio/sets/the-writers-forum
WRBH Reading Radio is a New Orleans station whose mission is to turn the printed word into the spoken word so that the blind and print handicapped can receive the same ease of access to current information as their sighted peers. You can listen to your favorite books, magazines, and interviews locally at 88.3 FM or stream on WRBH’s website www.WRBH.org.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.