My review of three books that encourage citizen-led design: Great Cities Grow from Great Spaces and Listening to their Citizens – The Nature of Cities
It is my opinion that New Orleanians are either fascinated by the Schwegmann Brothers Giant Super Markets saga, recounting their own connections to the stores at the drop of a hat or if they have no shopping history there, are completely bored by the attachment that others have to it.
My family is in the latter camp and so never has been heard wailing over its loss and never spent any time preserving any of Schwegmann’s famous printed shopping bags or any of the political buttons within my late grandmother’s massive collection of New Orleans menus, World’s Fair, Superdome souvenir items and Carnival clutter.
My own experience with the chain was also slight- In the 1980s, I did regularly go to the Schwegmann’s out on Airline, but more as a visitor to a strange land than as a shopper. I went with my pal Roger who sold fancy kitchenware to department stores and high-end shops, where I would help him set up displays and tag along as he talked to the buyers. Since he was constantly assessing retail and observing cultural connections in his beloved adopted city, Schwegmann’s appealed to him as something uniquely New Orleans and yet with industry-leading ideas like the bank and the pharmacy within its massive footprint. He loved the food counter and the bar. I learned to appreciate retail analysis in those days while at the Airline and the West Bank stores, listening to Roger explain why John was brilliant in his design and product choices. He would have loved meeting Mr. Schwegmann. He would have loved this book too.
Yet, the list of who will enjoy this book is not just those with a personal fascination for the deep local culture that begat this chain, or those with Roger’s and my obsession for retail histories. Really, anyone who wants to learn more about 19th century German immigration to the area, or the layout of corner stores before supermarkets, or of pricing strategies in the pharmaceutical or dairy industries, or of how early 20th century “fair trade” laws stymied discount pricing, or of the history of the Bywater area of New Orleans, or of the political arena of the latter part of 20th century Louisiana, or of later generations of family businesses who can quickly and shockingly kill the goose that lays the golden egg, will also find this book a keeper.
It is important to note that this is a biography of John Schwegmann and not only a history of the supermarkets that he founded and made into a chain of 18 beloved stores. Because of that, the family’s history is front and center especially in the beginning of the book and may delve more deeply than those without local connections care to know but I suggest readers stick with it even if the family history is not the reason for reading this book. That history offers important detail in the shaping of this supermarket innovator, likely responsible for making him into the type of businessman and later politician who relied on his own intuition, his deep allegiance to his city and a small group of loyalists for advice or support. It also shows how deeply the grocery business runs in the Schwegmann family, and yet how often family turmoil existed among struggling immigrant families even back in those days, too often remembered as perfectly halcyon. That honesty of the family interviewed and the author to note the Schwegmann family life squarely and honestly, is to all of their credit.
This bio also offers many anecdotes from those who were there to show how John was a force of mostly good in the high-stakes world of grocery and drug sales, fighting for principles that most corporate leaders would not spend time or money to fix, all shaped by the place and people of his city. His home life may be viewed at times as calculated in terms of his handling of wives and mistresses but author Capello rightly doesn’t linger too long on modern interpretations of John’s morals and reminds us that the businessman maintained warm relationships with the mothers of his children even after the marriages ended.
The book spends more time on Schwegmann’s world travels and later political life, which was not as impressive as his business career. That career in Baton Rouge was derailed by his opposition to Hale Boggs and almost everyone else, leading to his constant no votes and also not helped by some of his political stunts like having a goat milked while testifying against the milk commission. Those responsible for the building of the Superdome were also targets of his wrath, forecasting many other fights a generation later by communities around the U.S. questioning the logic of taxpayer-sponsored sports arenas.
The research behind the book is impressive, especially when so many other writers of New Orleans history use cliches and oft-told stories that may or may not be true rather than doing the work to find primary and accurate details. Capello’s background in writing technical papers lends itself to a detailed analysis of the retail industry and of the trends in pricing, product development and store design that Schwegmann pioneered. The timeline of the collapse of the chain is shared in unsentimental fashion and should allow New Orleanians to finally understand exactly how son John F. allowed the collapse to happen in such a short amount of time.
The author’s obvious unlimited approval of the free market system as defined by Schwegmann and others rings loud and clear throughout this book even if a few might quibble with some of the broader denunciations of the old public market system (which supported the port, small family businesses and farms by offering regulated food sales in every part of the city for 250 years) or, of his portrayal of John having an entirely altruistic nature in fighting for some of the price discounting that benefited his stores so clearly in a city that had no other supermarket chain to compete with his for decades.
I’d love to see Capello add to his research on this family and this sector with later papers on the superstore sector’s (meaning post Schwegmanns) complete lifespan in New Orleans and others across the U.S. with more attention paid to how the makers of things were ultimately priced out of their small production work because of this discount pricing strategy. It would also be interesting to see the author detail how the concept built and consolidated multi-generational family fortunes for discounters like this one and the Arkansas-based Waltons among others, and what those families have done with their newfound power. The destruction of Main Street might also be examined in terms of the formation of the superstore era, an era that now seems to be slowing with the latest retail category killer- the internet – and the Millennial generation’s expectations of impersonal speed and 24 hour convenience of online shopping over local retail culture and family shopping trips.
Still, there is no doubt those low prices and huge new stores meant that the mostly poor residents of this old city in those days felt attended to if they were lucky enough to have a Schwegmann (Brothers) Giant Super Market within distance of home. And with an air-conditioned bar with the cheapest liquor in town to drown their sorrows at for good measure.
I expect that this book will be used in university courses on retail and marketing, as well as in any history course devoted to the people who made New Orleans great. John Schwegmann’s story, as written in The People’s Grocer, certainly deserves that.
The People’s Grocer can be ordered here.
One relevant reason for this book is the recently reignited protests centering on race inequities and immigration across America, a conversation that is always sadly necessary in the American South. Local historian Rien Fertel addresses it by writing about the elite Creole literary circle that, starting in the 1820s/1830s, largely created and sustained the story of the region’s “exceptionalism.” That era of virtuous manifest destiny – not just in the South of course- is largely to blame for the lack of understanding among those who continue to grow up amid their own ethnic myths in the U.S.
For New Orleans, most people know the story of Creole culture only through Creoles of color who continue to inhabit the city, partly because they are largely responsible for much of what we continue to value culturally in New Orleans such as live music, public and family culture, and informal Carnival activities. But it is also convincingly identified here as resulting from the profiled writers unapologetic and sometimes incorrect assertion of their whiteness and its embedded privileges during Reconstruction through the turn of the 20th century. Yet the historical details contained here give those actions context and perspective; Fertel’s description of the politics of post-Louisiana Purchase New Orleans and the concern from the White House on any potential allegiance to the Old World as partially responsible for the Creoles’ sensitivity about the eclipse of their history is especially informative.
By offering individual profiles of prominent writers of Creole history starting with eminent historian Charles Gayarré, “Transcendentalist” New Orleans Choctaw missionary Adrien Rouquette and through those writers who took up the “cause” in the 20th century, including Grace King, Robert Tallant and Lyle Saxon, Fertel offers a human-scaled trek through that complicated history and time. Having the book end with the profile of George Washington Cable and his more inclusive history of the city, he shows the reordering of history that began with Cable as well as the tension among writers, which (partly) led to Cable’s self-imposed exile from the city. Fertel does his best to fairly catalogue both good and bad (or the long and the short) of that tension; for example, he shares how Grace King’s later-in-life acknowledgement of Cable’s value to the city showed the potential for change among those earlier devoted only to the “gallant” Creole story.
The details gathered by many of these writers will continue to offer us a rich tapestry of Louisiana life and cannot be entirely eclipsed by their love of heroic epics or even their insistence on racial “purity” and entitlement that belied the truth that existed in the tumultuous and complicated times of Jim Crow’s America. Yet, the dismissal of most of these writers works in the last 50 years as provincial cheerleading with either a stated or unstated allegiance to the “Lost Cause” should be a lesson in these Tea Party days and is vitally important for any writer in these times to consider.
Of course I had noted Gerber’s pictures before, but like so many of our “journeyman” photographers, her work has most often been published in our ephemeral media and with that comes a tiny name credit all that marked it as hers, likely often missed. And oddly for such a visual city, the writer of words is usually given prominence over those who use a camera. It’s not that photographers are never celebrated: Gerber’s own photography mentor Michael Smith is renowned as are at least a half dozen or more names. But since working photographers are thankful to get one shot at a time published, it is often only when you see a number of photos together that the individual’s viewpoint emerges.
This book offers Gerber’s sensitive and sensible view of her city and of her neighbors. You notice she is often at near-to-middle distance, close enough to catch an eye or to elicit a smile or gesture, but not too close to influence the moment, which points to her work as a photographer for Gambit and other news outlets. Action permeates her work, but just as often she appreciates a simple moment of acknowledgement. Humor more than glee, sadness more than despair make it seem like she just happened to photograph a thousand normal days here. And gives me a sense of the photographer quietly saying to me over my shoulder, “see that guy? he…”
The physical space of New Orleans is covered here, especially in the time of Katrina when less people were here and those who were did not need their picture taken (as Gerber well knows) but her favorite subject seems to be a single person. Even when there is more than one in the photo, the others are usually reacting to the protagonist. And that seems very right in a book about New Orleans since musicians, parades, sporting events and yes even murder scenes all have main characters who propel or narrate the action, all done publicly. Yet the choice of photographs and the layout of this book means the juxtaposition of two or more images on a single page or across two pages forces us to to consider each photo as part of a more complex story; even the choice of Chris Rose and Lolis Elie as the essay writers at the beginning tell us to prepare for that. A photo at the JCC uptown pool with white children jumping in is paired with two African-American boys landing on a pile of mattresses outside of a boarded up house. The two photos uncannily mirror each other in the physical layout and are connected by the childish joy seen in both but still, the divide is vast. Both the connection and the distance between linked images is presented again and again, although not with one image dominant over the other. As a matter of fact, the pairings or clusters seem necessary to tell the entire story of each. Buffalo Soldiers and NOPD on horseback, Metairie Cemetery gleaming and paved next to weedy, handwritten Holt, Roller Derby girls as bulls on skates next to Mardi Gras Indians with horns, even David Vitter and his Canal Street Madam (well that one made me laugh)…all together tell the story. I don’t think I have seen the life here shared in photos any better.
Two of my favorite writers/people discussing Dixon’s new book:
From Rich Campanella’s upcoming book, “Bourbon Street, A History” published this month by Louisiana State University Press. Campanella has long been one of my favorite (quirky) New Orleans historian/writers, as he brings his own flair and point of view to everything he does. He tirelessly walks and bikes and searches for tidbits of history in our city and does much to point out the delicate line between history and lore, while reminding us that sometimes it doesn’t matter which is which.
For all its flamboyance and swagger, Bourbon Street is one of the least pretentious places in town. It’s as utterly uncool as it is wildly successful, and in an era when “cool capital” is increasingly craved and fiscal capital increasingly scarce, there’s something refreshing about a place that flips off coolness and measures success the old-fashioned way: by the millions. And authenticity? Not only does Bourbon Street not try to be authentic, it doesn’t even think about it.
Brand new card game for Carnival enthusiasts from one of my favorite illustrators, Dalt Wonk (whose name resembles my real signature way too closely!)
The Riddles of Existence is an oversized deck of fifty cards, each with a full-colored figure wearing a costume. Beneath the illustration, there is a riddle in verse. The costume is the answer, or hint, to the riddle. This is the game. The illustrations and the verse provide great pleasure, above and beyond, the game. There is also a card with the answers to The Riddles of Existence for those who are stumped.
other work: http://www.daltwonk.com/illustrated-texts/