Understanding New Orleans
Or maybe not
Jason Raish illustration
New Orleans is an odd and contradictory town. Not exactly breaking news, right?
We cling desperately to our charmingly dilapidated and antiquated past while leading the way with new innovations in the national urban redevelopment movement. We are the most backward looking city, stuck in 1954, yet an incubator of new tech development and best practices leading into the 21st century.
We decry the influx of newcomers and out-of-towners to our old neighborhoods, yet are fully aware that those old neighborhoods would remain blighted wastelands for decades if they did not come.
Gentrification is a bad word. Yet it also has a synonym: Investment. It means new life, new business, new chances, new air to breathe when the old stuff was getting a little stale. It means new money. It means a lot of us get to work.
We bemoan the daily arrival of millions of visitors and conventioneers who clog our streets and defile our sacred traditions and have fake second-line parades and – worst of all – wear Mardi Gras beads when it isn’t Mardi Gras season.
Oh, the horror.
Then again, without these streams of defilers unloading daily at Armstrong International, more than 50 percent of us wouldn’t have jobs.
We are as a community an interesting conundrum. Both self-adoring and self-loathing. Protective of the past, yet progressive about our future. Near death experiences have a way of changing not just people, but cities as well.
Everyone knows by now the chronological progress of the American youth exodus. Austin, Portland, Brooklyn – now New Orleans.
(For those of you who like to invest in futures, may I suggest Detroit as your next stop along the hipster space-time continuum.) Big spaces. Cheap rents. A desperate need for population rebuilding. A desperately welcoming government and community.
A place where graffiti is the least of their worries.
Which brings us to, of all things: Jazz Fest.
Let me back up here: New Orleans night life has followed a well-known trajectory in recent years: Bourbon Street devolving into the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, with its Huge Ass Beers and lurid strip clubs and T-shirt shops featuring slogans such as: “I got Bourbon-faced on Shit Street.”
Fleurty Girl it ain’t.
And then there came Frenchmen Street to save us. We called it Bourbon Street for locals. And it had a magical run as we all discovered and embraced it; this idea that so many restaurants and so many music clubs could coexist in such a tight space, yet offer such quality and charm. And more than that: Localism.
Or is the term exceptionalism?
But then something happened, again. (You ever notice that? How time marches on; things keep happening.)
Maybe it was the guidebooks revisiting their nightlife sections with each updated edition. Maybe it was word of mouth. Maybe it was the TV show “Treme.”
But something happened on Frenchmen Street to the general dismay of locals. Word got out. And the out-of-towners followed. And we once again looked for a new place to go.
Hence, the rapid and nearly shocking explosion of Saint Claude Avenue and its lively nightlife scene – so much of it local. And now we call it “Frenchmen Street – for locals.”
And now back to Jazz Fest. The schedule has been released. And with it, the annual and predictable ruminations and handwringing and calibrations of how the end of the world is upon us, New Orleans is dead to me, etc.
It is perhaps one of the stranger phenomena in a town full of strange phenomena. We bitch, we moan, we threaten to boycott and then we buy our tickets and go have fun and stuff our bellies with “oyster (fill-in-the-blank).”
Then one day the French Quarter Festival came along. Suddenly hailed as Jazz Fest for locals, it took off. It took off big. In fact, some might point out, it has taken off too big. Too crowded. Too commercial. And so, some locals began to revolt.
And so events like Bayou Boogaloo and Chaz Fest were born to appease to hyper-locals. They became the French Quarter Fest for locals. And so the tribes gather. Wherever the music is good, the food is warm and the beer is cold.
Our shining city on the hill – but without the hill. We soldier on. Evolve. Change locations, but never attitudes. And one phenomenon remains true, inviolable and unchanging: We’ll never stop bitching about how bad things are getting, but how good we have it here.
Me, I’m looking forward to the Mavericks and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and, as always, John Boutte.
How about you?
Or are you boycotting this year?