New Orleans The annual Jazz and Heritage Festival or Jazz Fest, as it’s universally known in New Orleans, has become a big time event over the years. I had folks come into town for a board meeting recently and trying to find a place the out-of-towners would like to try, several restaurants had special reservation requirements – and prices! – for what they called the “festival season.” That was a new one on me, even though it makes perfect sense, because it used to be only the Sugar Bowl and Mardi Gras were the tourist scalping times, but now, it’s always open season for that, and French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest, and other spring music-themed promotions have become huge. We don’t mind partially because we always see old friends from around the country who make this part of their regular pilgrimage, and of course with Fair Grinds Coffeehouse only a couple of blocks away from the racetrack Jazz Fest venue, it’s wild there for a couple of weekends, sometimes even making an extra dollar to support ACORN International’s organizing because of it.
Having friends and foreigners around though, they always ask about changes in the city, and the standard, post-Katrina question, now almost 9 years on, “how’s the city doing?” Well, there’s never a simple answer for example if you take the 9th Ward and Bywater, where I live and in following my book a couple of years ago, The Battle for the Ninth Ward: ACORN, New Orleans and the Lessons of Disaster, an area of the city I keep a close watch over.
Bywater didn’t flood, meaning that rents and housing values skyrocketed, and an influx of hipsters, newcomers, and randoms, find the neighborhood under full-on gentrification assault. The hipsters are not without humor and perhaps they are keeping some of the gentrifiers somewhat at bay.
On one hand we see infill construction, which ONLY happens in gentrifying areas, including a squeezed in project to build seven shotgun singles in the former parking lot of the old Frey meat packing plan.
But on the other hand, the same developers off-loaded the Plant and did so when they couldn’t convince anyone that they wanted to live in $400-450000 condos that they had proposed building in the Plant, so they’re now trying to sell the whole shebang for $3 million.
For its part, the City seems confused. On one end of the neighborhood sits the rusting, fenced in F. Edward Hebert defense complex, waiting for a plan not far from the subdued, much delayed opening of the city’s Crescent Park.
The bridge over the railroad track is one of the highest climbs many New Orleanians will ever muster.
Farther down in the lower 9th ward, people are less happy about that park, because research done by A Community Voice, the former New Orleans ACORN, indicated that the money had been diverted for the park from recovery money designated for reconstruction efforts in the lower 9th ward. Where Bywater between the 2000 census and the 2010 census saw its racial mix flip from 30% white and 70% minorities to 70% white and 30% minorities, the lower 9th ward, particularly in the areas hardest hit by flooding is still overwhelmingly African-American. The Brad Pitt “Make it Right Foundation” and its architectural oddities have been curious additions, but not without their own contradictions, one of the most stark is an eyesore of an abandoned gas station near the bridge at the entry to the lower 9th which pretends to be for sale, but was bought by the Make It Right Foundation years ago, but shows no progress even after all these years.
The City of New Orleans is now the largest property owner in the lower 9th thanks to the buyouts after the hurricane, but their policies are nothing but contradictory. On our ACORN Farm they whine if a piece of our grass, even where we have to hand cut, gets over 18 inches, even while other properties hardly yards away get the blind eye.
All of which confuses individual homeowners who are still trying to rebuild on their own next to neighbors and an indifferent city administration who are still stuck at the storm.
So, how are we doing in New Orleans? It depends on who you ask, where you are standing when you ask, and whether or not you really want to face the consequences of the answer.