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Can culture and progress co-exist?

10th June 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

On Thursday, June 6, Tulane University’s Hillel Foundation hosted a panel discussion on the impact of progress on culture as a part of its “The Big Issue” discussion series.

Panelists included local music legend Ellis Marsalis, journalist Katy Reckdahl, geographer Richard Campanella, jazz trumpet player Shamarr Allen, and Mike Valentino, past president of the New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association.

The issue of progress and culture has been a hot-button topic in New Orleans recently. As more people move into the city, specifically more people with money, zoning and permit issues have arisen around traditional cultural institutions like brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians.

Campanella said the battle between grumpy residents and culture is not a new one to the city, going all the way back to the mid 1800s. He reminded the audience that after Storyville was shut down, live music moved to Bourbon Street. Once then-district attorney Jim Garrison tried to clean up Bourbon Street, Lower Decatur and Frenchmen became the hipper destinations.

The geographer, who recently authored a highly discussed article on gentrification published on NewGeography.com (http://www.newgeography.com/content/003526-gentrification-and-its-discontents-notes-new-orleans), said culture maintains a dynamic equilibrium. It only dies if it stops moving forward.

“We’ve been through this many times before and what we see is not death and destruction (of culture), but transformation,” said Campanella.

Allen believes many of the issues with residents complaining about noise from music venues and brass bands partially come from a clash between expectation and reality. People move to New Orleans because they’re seduced by the romantic images of music and dancing. However, the reality isn’t always to their liking.

“When they live here and they realize there is music everywhere, it’s a problem,” said Allen.

Reckdahl, who moved to New Orleans in 1999, said the increased influx of transplants has yielded some positive results, but another result has been that New Orleans has begun to feel more like other cities. As new residents with money and a more direct line to City Hall voice complaints about cultural institutions, old-guard residents feel under attack, leading to an adversarial relationship between the two groups.

“It feels like there’s not enough middle ground,” Reckdahl said.

While the reality may not always meet the expectations of full-time residents, these romantic images of New Orleans culture are luring more visitors than ever less than eight years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Valentino, a veteran of over 40 years in the hospitality business, said members of his industry have never been more hopeful about the future.

Valentino said he disagrees with some of the portrayals of the city and its residents put forth by the TV show Treme and the glut of movies that have been filmed here during the city’s ongoing Hollywood South period, but these images have been so powerful that they attract thousands of new visitors to the city. These visitors want to experience a piece of the New Orleans culture they see sold by the media.

“Our stock and trade is our culture – it’s what we sell,” Valentino said. “The hospitality industry will hold cultural uniqueness up high out of our own interest.”

Marsalis reminded the audience that changes can be good, like Mardi Gras floats being pulled by tractors instead of mules, but that which is called progress can take its toll on a community. As an example, Marsalis cited the construction of the interstate on Claiborne Avenue. What had once been a green space used by African-American families and surrounded by local businesses was destroyed to build the interstate.

“What is progress?” Marsalis asked.

This article originally published in the June 10, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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