i've got a routine like anyone else in the northeast: work and snow. but i'm just getting back from breaking that routine and visiting a place that continues to be a touchpoint for every important conversation going on in our country.
i've been to new orleans now 8 times, 5 before and 3 after. i've been to play shows, to write, and to record an album. i've passed through with friends; i went once for a retreat with like-minded activist artists. this time i went for a novel purpose: vacation.
i did all the touristy things i never do. we rode the street cars. we ate at coop's, the camellia, and cafe du monde. we visited cemetaries and museums. we went to see brad pitt's houses he's building in the 9th ward. we walked and walked and walked. we stayed with friends. we slept alot. unconventional as it was as a "vacation" choice, we definitely got away from our own lives for a few days.
but new orleans has changed. it isnt the city i remembered from my last trip, taking small but firm steps toward recovery. or the city i had fixed in my mind from "before". it felt like an entirely different place.
perhaps it was the process of sharing it with someone who had never been there before that caused this feeling. perhaps it was my own life changing and shifting, such that i cant see a familiar place in the same way. this is, in fact, one of my favorite reasons to travel, re-read a book, or watch a movie again. how do we feel returning to the same place? it's usually that the place stays constant in its solid mass of buildings, streets, and natural contours, and thus we see the change in ourselves as we age and shift.
yet new orleans has changed in a way beyond what i know has changed in me. i dont know why this has surprised me so much. part of the magic of new orleans is that it has never been a place you could pin down or categorize. i have never been to any place like it, and at times, it can feel other-worldly. and when i say that it is a touchpoint for every important conversation going on in our country, consider what that means. economic recovery, urban renewal, arts economies, gun violence, race relations, gentrification, corruption, music, and politics- new orleans has something from experience to contribute to all these national dialogues.
but, for better or for worse, change in new orleans has always happened at a snail's pace. the government is notoriously slow, the erosion of the inner city has been like an acid river eating at the walls of a canyon, and the post-flood recovery has inched back. katrina was a sudden, but inevitable, cataclysm of water built on years and years of neglect, a man-made disaster fomenting for decades.
yet something has moved too fast now in new orleans. i think it is two-part.
first, i recognized some familiar signs that i have seen elsewhere traveling the country these last two years. vacant store-fronts sit next to vacant store-fronts. "for sale" signs emblazon house after house. there are more people lining up for services and fewer people on the streets outside their houses. in a time of foreclosures, unemployment, and isolation, the recession has left its inimitable mark here, as elsewhere.
secondly, there is a new tension in parts of the city. before going, a friend had warned us to be careful:
"new orleans isnt safe," she said, referring to some recent gun violence, sexual assaults, and a warehouse fire that claimed the lives of several young people. the underlying fear in her statement was that new orleans wasnt safe for white people.
i hate these kind of statements: alarmist on the surface, masking many more complicated factors underneath. rather than keeping any one person safe, they only make everyone more mistrustful and on edge. many people unconsciously conflate race and class, expressing class tension by perpetuating racial fears. this kind of thinking isn't new to new orleans, either. the tension that poverty brings has been a defining factor there for a long time.
we stayed in a neighborhood called the bywater, a place i have called home every time i have visited new orleans. the bywater is technically part of the 9th ward, but as its particular mix and motion became more pronounced, it acquired its own neighborhood designation. the bywater has been slowly gentrifying for the last 20 years. again the emphasis is on slowly.
so what was different this visit was this: a neighborhood that was for a long time a unique and vibrant mix of race, class, and occupation, has been suddenly infested by young white street kids. and it is not just in the bywater. it's in treme, the 7th ward, the upper 9th. here is an article from the times-picayune that came out while we were there. it explains who these kids are, but it also, rather predictably, leaves out a real exploration of the tensions they are causing.
this has happened fast.
and it's highly visible.
and it makes me so sad.
and it makes me uncomfortable.
and it makes me examine myself and my motives for being in new orleans. what am i contributing to the city as i visit each time- as a tourist or for work? when i walk around new orleans, am i afraid? if so, why? and why do i feel so sad about "new orleans being new orleans", that this dynamic city has changed again and will continue to change?
new orleans interrupts a lot of easy narratives with the hard facts of its reality. we saw this interruption on a global scale after katrina, a third world city made visible, a blight on the mythic narrative of our first world self-image (our dirty secret: in america, many many people- disproportionately of color- live in systemic poverty). in that same way, visiting new orleans interrupts my own easy narratives of a city where diversity exists without tension, where the grand unifier of music colors the landscape with a rose colored lens, where i can just pop in with my white-ness and economic mobility, soaking in the "real-ness" as i get inspired. and then i leave, back to my own comfortable, functional life. i'm trying to take responsibility for myself here. i'm trying to notice my own privelege, predilictions, and fantasies.
and then, i get mad.
no, crust punks, you dont get to just drop in with your dogs, jeans as tights, and thick framed glasses. somebody used to live in that abandoned house you're squatting in. ever wonder why they're gone?