what is now, was then

It sure does it feel like we’re fending off a concerted attack around here for the last decade. Mayor hunkered down deep in City Hall as he talks only through his figurehead deputies and condescending brief chats on live TV, sheriff building a huge prison that he fought to be as big as it is to make a profit in taking in others prisoners even while it has low marks for safety and usability, charter schools busing every kid all over  the city and failing still, crime random and brutal as always, streets falling apart even while they detour us daily for mythical repairs… And even as we worry about the next decade, we argue on facebookistan about what makes the place unique and how native each of us are. This myopia is sweet but also dangerous.

What keeps floating up in my mind during these “this is not my city any longer” claims is that the uniqueness of New Orleans has been under attack forever and can not or should not be viewed as a new problem.

(To be quite clear though: I do NOT include the takedown of the white supremacy monuments as part of the uniqueness that should be defended. Some shit should just go away and that includes the false narrative and the warping of history by those (at least 4) statues. That b.s doesn’t help us and isn’t a serious representation of this cosmopolitan, diverse city, but of its segregationist public sliver. But absolutely, keep the statues somewhere with some real history attached for when we forget. Because we will.)

What has helped me get some perspective on the ever changing history of our little port city are two books that illustrate that this issue has been ongoing from our earliest times. One focuses on the 20th century and has the unfortunate title of “Madame Vieux Carre: The French Quarter in the Twentieth Century”and the other has another confounding but intriguing title: “Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans.”

The first is chockfull of tidbits of twists and turns of recent history that even locals have forgotten about: as an example, one event included a name I am familiar with so I emailed my pal of the same name, asking about this event decades before. He replied immediately that this was about his father and was a story that he had never been told.

Quotes will tell you a familiar story such as “as property values rose sharply from the beginning of the decade, low income people were being forced out”; that decade was the 1960s. Or as you read about the bitter fight put up by preservationist Elizabeth Werlein to keep Pat O’Brien’s from their new location mid-block because of noise and trash concerns, you’d have to double check to remember they are talking about the mid 1940s. This book also talks about the precipitous drop in population to 5,200 by the 1970s, with a short hike to 5,600 during the oil boom of the late 1970s.

I’d like to note that the current population of the Quarter has climbed a bit to be a little under 4,000 which is not that far off from this time, a time that many of my contemporaries see as some of the most vibrant days of the FQ. So maybe it’s worth a second look?

The second book is a researcher’s theory of rogue colonialism well argued. Details of the French plans for the area and how it failed are little understood in our Lyle Saxon boosterist-style history lessons. Additionally, the author cleverly aligns that time with the post-K colonial era, without pushing the point. Finding history that focuses entirely on the French colonial period and its extractive nature is helpful to understand our present situation with its post-Katrina economy limping along. The author points out that France largely ignored the colony by the 1730s when its use as a successful tobacco and indigo colony seemed unlikely. That left New Orleans as a struggling small port that was a drain on its mother country  and one that did not increase its population significantly until the the Spanish takeover and the cultural changes that came with the Haitian revolution.

So my point is in this present time, some comparable historic data exists that might suggest that the FQ and New Orleans could in fact rebound from its influx of new. And I believe that we can DO something about this “fait accompli” by fighting the oversimplified presentation of these issues that divide us.

Seriously folks; what we cannot do is sit back and talk about the loss of culture without realizing it has been ongoing since the French gave up the idea of tobacco exports. Yet I will vehemently agree that there is a very real purposeful shredding of the dominant culture that has existed for all of the second part of the 20th c in New Orleans and that most of that shredding is negatively impacting people of color and the remaining white blue collar community, which is very small indeed since the white flight of the 1960s but is certainly feeling left out of any “recovery.” THAT is what we should be concerned with, and not the presumption of the fake Confederacy as seen in those monuments or in our homeowners letting their extra room or apartment  to visitors.

And that as with all things changing at system level, there are positive impacts that also may untie some of the snarls of the institutional racism that has been acceptable for far too long in New Orleans or may attract funding not tied to extreme capitalism such as affordable housing initiatives or real neighborhood schools. The problem is the good and bad of it is difficult to see and since our government is spending all of its efforts and time in simply trying to manage its own mess of bureaucracy and inertia, it has no time to lead us to a more equitable future.

Our despair cannot stop us from trying or from being realistic about all of the effects of the post-FEMA economy with its brand new medical district (for me, VA hospital= good, loss of Charity= totally and criminally unnecessary), improved sewerage (someDAY… )and thriving restaurant sphere (lots of b.s. but some good healthy local inspiration too), no matter what we think of any of it as it looks today. One such effect are new residents, some of whom will be good neighbors and others who will not. To lump all new people as bad is wrong, as it would have been when my family moved to the city from Lafourche Parish  in the beginning of the 20th century. We were a boon to the city, but we sure weren’t Creoles or city folk. Some of them even lived in subsidized housing -gasp! and yet all of them grew to love their city. I think of the tacked up photo of the Superdome in my grandparents living room or the black and white pictures of their rental on Marengo where my mother and aunt grew up: what they appreciated was not necessarily what others of generations before them did, but they all contributed. And when I came from Ohio in the 70s, I sure wasn’t Creole or even a Lafourche Parish Barrios born and bred. But I contribute too.

In other words, maybe we can learn from past colonizations.  Maybe some of it is good. Maybe we can still avoid being an American city and remain a Caribbean capital. Maybe we should just consider it all a bit more before we decree it is lost.

 

Breakfast  by Everette Maddox

Oh hush up

about the

Future: one

morning it

will appear

right there on

your breakfast

plate, and you’ll

yell, “Take it

back,”pounding

the table.

But there won’t

be any

waiters.

 

First book  and second.

 

 

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About DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist. Public market consultant.

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