Heroes or Villains?
Jason Raish illustration
There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, that renovators in New Orleans were urban heroes. They saved houses from neglect or blight. They preserved historic homes for a future generation. They helped to turn around neighborhoods in decline. They helped to save New Orleans, even though their money might have been better spent elsewhere. New Orleans toasted gutsy renovators.
More recently, however, renovators have become the object of some suspicion. There are neighborhoods where, as recently as five years ago, folks would raise a glass to the renovator; now they are just as likely to raise an eyebrow. The renovator is no longer seen as a benevolent intervener. They are seen as gentrifying interlopers. Where once they were seen as preserving New Orleans’ architectural heritage, they may now be seen as destroying the city’s cultural heritage.
On a large scale, renovation means outsiders moving in, mispronouncing Mardi Gras with a hard “R,” and at times, turning the city into a superficial parody of itself. It also means higher rents.
This is not just a matter of perspective. Years ago, when I had the renovation bug, I looked at a double shotgun for sale in Faubourg St. John. The price was good, and the house was begging for renovation. However, as I toured it, I saw children’s beds in room after room. There must have been six kids living there. And their grandma eyed me nervously as I toured the place.
Somebody was going to buy that place and renovate it, which meant somebody was going to turn that family out to do the work and then raise the rent to defray the costs. (But that somebody wasn’t going to be me.)
So I get it. And as a native New Orleanian, I also get the reservations about the cultural changes.
Still, I think there are some basic questions that ought to be grappled with before New Orleanians turn an evil eye toward renovators.
First, can you gentrify an empty house? Many of the properties snapped up for renovation in recent years have been vacant, either as a result of the Big K or just years of absentee landlord-style neglect. What exactly is being displaced where someone is fixing a blighted property?
Why is this an issue only in historic neighborhoods? Renovators in Gentilly or Algiers aren’t accused of ruining the culture of a neighborhood. This suggests that people believe the stasis older New Orleans neighborhoods have experienced for remarkably long should somehow last forever – an unrealistic expectation. If A Confederacy of Dunces were written today, Ignatius Reilly would not have been placed in the Touro neighborhood Uptown. It wouldn’t be believable. By the same token, The Moviegoer’s Binx Bolling wouldn’t live in Gentilly. Neighborhoods change.
Where else are people supposed to go? If I’m an innocent newcomer to New Orleans and A) I want to renovate a house in a historic neighborhood and B) my total budget is $300,000, then my options are probably limited to neighborhoods in the midst of some kind of transition, rather than well-established neighborhoods.
Is reinvestment worse than the alternative? When a neighborhood becomes trendy, rents tend to go up. But longtime residents see their property values (and net worth) rise. Otherwise forsaken adjacent neighborhoods feel positive ripple effects. The public at large enjoys a refreshed urban fabric and a stronger tax base.
How do worries about newcomers square with worries about suburban flight? For decades, there was tremendous hand-wringing about the middle class abandoning the city for new suburbs. Today, there seems to be greater concern about too many middle-class folks moving in to the city core. Be careful what you wish for.
Can you stop the market? New York has become a different place since the 1990s. So has San Francisco. These urban juggernauts have failed to even slow the tide of yuppification washing over them – because we live in a consumer economy. If well-heeled hipsters want to pay a premium to live in a historic New Orleans neighborhood, they will find sellers. And once the well-heeled reach a critical mass, somebody is going to figure out there’s money to be made providing hipstery services. A poor boy joint becomes an artisanal bakery or a fancy boutique plastered with photos of pouting models.
In other words, as long as New Orleans remains a popular place to live, renovation, neighborhood change and the related issues will be a fact of life – for better or worse.