I may not be standing there right now, however, it was just over a year ago that I gave up on my second attempt to make a life in the Big Easy, took one last look at an empty Jackson Square, picked up my bags and headed to boarded a bus back to Missouri. Feeling homesick is a horrible thing, having the feeling while standing in the middle of the city which was that home is crushing. The buildings were all still there, some of my old friends were still there, what had changed?
What had changed? The topic came up frequently over drinks after work, during slow nights at work or really at any time. It seemed to be one of the two most common conversations. What had changed and will the city ever be the same? The Big Easy wasn't so easy any more. Most of the people I was friends with were service industry. While we all relied on less tips than were rolling in before Katrina, rent was three to four times greater than it was then.
People had different answers for what had changed. For those who moved to the city after Katrina, well, they couldn't tell you what had changed. They'd point out that rent was getting higher while income wasn't that great. Crime was rampant and finding a decent place to live was nearly impossible. Those who had been around a little before Katrina would point out where they were wrong. Crime was always rampant, though, if you looked local, knew what places to avoid and when to avoid them it wasn't an issue. They'd point out that Katrina is what changed everything. Katrina drove a lot of the great people away and the high cost of living had kept them away. They'd point out that the biggest change was really the people, all the cool people that had made the city the great place it was hadn't returned yet. One thing they were all sure of was that more people were coming back all the time and as soon as all the people that WERE New Orleans came back, everything would be so much better. Sure, rent would still be insane but that didn't matter because it was the people that made New Orleans.
They had a general idea of what had changed, they just hadn't been there to see the why. Katrina isn't the reason everything changed. Katrina was just a more efficient vehicle for the changes that were already under way, years before the storm. If it was just the storm then things would have been rebuilt quickly with a focus on bringing the city back. After all, I would point out to my old friends, didn't a lot of us leave a couple years before Katrina?
No the change was caused by people like Jackie Clarkson and her Condo Class real estate friends. By the City Council and the Chamber of Commerce. By all the talk of rebuilding the city better than it was before. Mostly it was due to gentrification by the tourists that came to New Orleans and never left.
It's kind of funny for me to talk down about the tourists that never leave. After all, when I first visited New Orleans, I came for Halloween. I had planned on staying for a couple of weeks and then moving on and ended up living there for a few years. Doesn't that make me a hypocrite? To understand why it doesn't you have to understand that New Orleans is such a unique place, with unique people, a unique and a unique spirit. Within days I was infected with the spirit of New Orleans and in love with both the people and culture. I may have come for a visit but I found a home. That's just how the city is.
The tourist who never leaves has a similar yet perverse reaction. They seem to fall in love with spirit of the city and some twisted ideal of what they think it should be. Failing to recognise that they are the ones that chose to move to New Orleans, they team up with other tourists that never left and impose their version of what New Orleans should be. Rather than buying a house in one of the upscale suburbs of New Orleans, they get an Apartment in the Quarter then demand the Quarter change its' ways because they live their. Then they start buying up houses, plural, one for them and a few to rent. Of course they refuse to rent them to the low life service industry that were already renting them. No, they'll only rent them to other Condo Class tourists that hate the city but refuse to leave. This drives up property values and rent, the higher rent drives out the the people. You'd think that would be a bad thing, after all, the culture is one of the wonderful things about the city and without the people there is no culture. Well, you'd be wrong. As I said, the tourist that never leaves isn't in love with the city. They're in love with what they'd like to turn the city into. Unfortunately for those of us who do love the city, one of the things they want to turn the city into is a city without us. A city without the freaks, the punks or the many other quirky people that made New Orleans such a vibrate and interesting place to live. The faster they can get rid of those people the faster New Orleans will be rebuilt better than it was before.
I don't know how bad it has gotten. I haven't been there in over a year. What I do know is what got me to thinking about this. I was thinking about home and went to the forums on nola.com looking to see what's going on. I went to the Orleans Parish forum and there was nothing but posts containing heaps of right wing talking points, strange for an open minded and progressive city that New Orleans was. I moved on to the Vieux Carre(French Quarter) forum. I expected to find postings about local happenings and whatnot, nope. Nothing but posts complaining about how bad crime is, wanting police patting people down every couple of blocks, reports of suspicious people and complaints because police refuse their requests to randomly harass those they find suspicious. The list of those they find suspicious seem to include blacks, transsexuals, people enjoying a walk or anyone who doesn't look like an affluent condo owner. Rather than enjoying a nice evening walk themselves, it appears that their lives consist only of monitoring police scanners, monitoring surveillance cameras, peeking out their windows and calling the police to report all the activities of the people they think are suspicious. Things only got worse in the Marigny/Bywater forum. Among their topics of conversation were the same as the FQ forum with posts hailing the glory of gentrification. I had hoped that somehow the people who made New Orleans the wonderful city that it was would end up coming back someday.
Now, I'm just sad and afraid. Afraid that I'll always know what it means to miss New Orleans, even if I am standing in Jackson Square.
Remembering the begining of the end.
Back in '03 when Clarkson took out all the benches w/o anyone's permission. Then there was the ban on tarot readers. This was pushed for strongly by the artists and by City Council for the artists because the tarot readers were supposedly crowding them out. Funny thing is that, as soon as the ban on readers went into effect, hardly any artists showed up on the Square at all.