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Renewal or Gentrification: New Orleans Exceptionalism vs Americanism

I found this article about this eternal conflict between poverty and gentrification. It addresses this thing about exceptionalism in New Orleans, how New Orleans has always been exceptional and that early on it was thought that Americanism would come in and plow it under and we would end up like the cities of the Houston and Atlanta and the like.

Renewal or Gentrification: New Orleans Exceptionalism vs Americanism

Home in New Orleans gentrified Bywater area.

Home in New Orleans gentrified Bywater area.

The culture’s of these cities have been plowed up and under over the years and we’ve ended up with truly “American” cities that have lost their heart and soul.

But there is something about New Orleans that is unique.

People who visit and those who decide to stay and make their lives here come here because of that uniqueness, because of our culture and food ways and festivals and architecture.

We have sought and chosen to preserve that which really makes us different. It’s not because we have done that intentionally to be different, it’s just that the New Orleans culture and way of life revolves around celebration, the celebration of life and really the celebrating of itself.

It’s a way of life that is intrinsic to the neighborhoods and architecture and street culture and art and music. It is this way of life that is unique to the rest of the country and we here have resisted being taken over by a homogenized American way of life.

In fact, we are less American and more European/Caribbean. We revel in that. And it is that very thing that attracts millions of tourists from around the globe to partake in. It is that very thing that folks from other large cities decide to move here, buy up homes, fix them up and in the process fix up neighborhoods that have seen better days and return them to their original glory.

C.W. Cannon states in a recent article on The Lens referring to Richard Campanella’s controversial article on gentrification

Exceptionalists have celebrated New Orleans as a place where leisure is more meaningful than labor, aesthetics trumps functionalism, and the very notion of social mobility (the American Dream?) is held in suspicion. Yet the “creative class” movers and shakers who are now buying up the real estate are all about their careers. They demand a level of convenience comparable to other American cities (with their constant worry about parking permits), and have the ambition of putting New Orleans “on the map” when it comes to competing nationally for the continuing infusion of people like themselves (“brain gain”). In that respect, they are indistinguishable from the most unrelenting Americanists.

But here’s the difference.

As Campanella perceptively notes, many of these newcomers are deeply engaged with what they perceive to be the most unique features of New Orleans social and cultural practice: Carnival, second-lining, the cuisine, music, and, of course, the architecture. He calls them “supernatives,” and the shoe fits. It also pinches when, along with enthusiasm for the working class culture, the hipsters flock to the overpriced restaurants and precious boutiques that have effectively driven out the indigenous economy of corner stores and lunch counters.

Is there really that much of a difference between renewal and gentrification? In my view, gentrification is the natural order of things. Abundance will always eventually win out over lack. If poor people are displaced in the process that is unfortunate but the American spirit is all about opportunity.

The poor will always be with us, as Jesus says. And there have been many poor who have raised themselves to become successful and abundant. So the question is: do we allow neighborhoods to fall into ruin, which only breeds squalor, a sense of hopelessness and eventually crime? Do we allow that to happen all over a city just to “protect the poor” in the name o diversity.

Or do we do what we can to encourage these neighborhoods to come back by people who have the will, desire and the money to move into them and return the homes and eventually entire neighborhoods into fine examples of urban renewal? Places that are safe to walk in, live in, have businesses in, that celebrate the culture and contribute to a prosperous fabric of the city?

But what happens to the people that are displaced? Maybe we lose something of the character of New Orleans when once racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods become more homogenized. Perhaps we lose something of what New Orleans is all about, the mix of culture, race, and ethnicities that have contributed to the uniqueness of the place.

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