Volume 18 • Issue 31 | December 16 - 22, 2005

The Penny Post

New Orleans gentrification

By Andrei Codrescu

We’ve all seen the agony of the poor on television and heard it first-hand from our friends, who are mostly poor. The poor are everywhere, image-wise. They are the faces of the Katrina victims, they are the reason for massive charity drives, they are the subject of editorial laments, and the raw material for political rhetoric. Whether any of that attention is going to mean anything remains to be seen. The poor make good copy but are they going to be truly helped by all the noise? I doubt it.

The other day I attended a social occasion in New Orleans and had a chance to observe a rare phenomenon: the agony of the rich. I joined a circle of people listening to the laments of a florid man I’ll call Mr. Gentrification. This good-hearted man had believed in and publicized the cultural assets of our city and turned them into gold. He gentrified, condo-ified, and Hollywood-ized the old city that he kept enlarging to suit the grandeur of his faith in the “arts renaissance” that our city was seemingly undergoing. He didn’t do it alone, of course. The myth of New Orleans as the new capital of music, literature, theater, and art was one carefully tended by everyone from city commissions to yours truly. Tourism was New Orleans’ biggest cash cow. I can make an excuse for myself because I touted New Orleans as a place of still-cheap rents, but it’s a poor excuse.

Every breath of air pushed into the hot-air balloon of the New Orleans “arts renaissance” was another gold ingot in the coffers of Mr. G. Now, surrounded by worried property owners at this social event, Mr. G was unhinged. He ranted about the city coming back, about a greater and shinier city rising in its place. The disaster was a temporary setback. Three months after the storm, his real-estate advertising ran in the papers offering houses at pre-storm prices as if nothing had happened.

But what was this pre-Katrina “arts renaissance?” There was less and less cheap rent for artists and less and less funding for the arts. The arts in New Orleans were so lightly rooted it didn’t even take the strength of Katrina to blow them away, a breeze could’ve done it.

Outside the artistic cultures of the poor, there were three life-style cultures shared by both the poor and the rich, Mardi Gras culture and food culture, and bigger than them all, Drinking Culture. Mr. G made money from those, too.

Is it all gone? For the time being, yes. But Mr. G will survive, he’ll emerge from this stronger: New Orleans will be a smaller city, the better to accommodate the myths of “culture.” A whole lot of inconvenient culture will be gone, along with poor artists and the just-plain poor. Without the embarrassment of reality, there is no telling what the arts might be worth.



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