May 16, 2012

NOLA: A Struggle for Authenticity

*Hello there, Tuckerbag readers! My name is Ryan McCoy and I will be your guest writer today. When I first contacted Ash about writing for her site, she was planning on heading to New Orleans. Naturally, since I had been there earlier this year, I had a slam dunk just waiting to be written. Then a certain chowder eating state lured her away, and I felt silly. Ultimately, I kept the NOLA theme and wrote about experiences I had that highlight the gaudy atmosphere that might make living and teaching there a less than desirable experience. If you like my rambling, you can find me at

*Small note: I don't use Blogger, and right now the interface is coming through in Spanish. So there's that.


"It's the most authentic of all American cities." - Brad Pitt

Walking along a hotel lined street just after dark, a pale, 20 something guy in a Lacoste polo stumbles out of a bar immediately in front of me. "Welcome to New Orleans!" He slurs in a direction that, with some imagination, could be described as my own. Gotta love authenticity.

Continuing down the French Quarter, all the bars seem...too perfect. Too
refined, too eye catching.

 "In this vision of the future, the resurrected city will be sanitized of its past charm and turned into a culturally and ethnically homogenous city that is an artificial and contrived version of its old urban self." Professor Kevin Fox Gotham, on how many viewed the prospects after the storm.

That, in a nutshell, is the great catch-22 of the Crescent City. No other destination
in the US relies so heavily on its cultural image to attract visitors; and no other city
must struggle as hard as New Orleans from having its soul trampled.

Hell, even I contribute to the problem when choosing a suburb way in the northwest corner of the city for a boondocking site. Whenever I spend money around my parking choice, I tacitly support the encroachment of this gentrification.

I feel ashamed...I am choosing the wrong side in a battle older than Katrina, fought over the dollars of visitors (like me) and higher income residents gradually overwhelming the makeup of the city.

Am I killing New Orleans to create Houston?

Going back into town the next day, another intoxicated male--again dressed as if in preparation for fraternity auditions--offers the familiar greeting: "Welcome to New Orleans!"


Leaving the pampered atmosphere of the French Quarter, I search for the Faubourg Treme and something closer to my definition of authenticity.

My GPS informs me I have arrived, but this doesn't look all that different from the other neighborhoods in town. I hit the GPS a few times because it must be making an error. There's no sign directing me to a famous artist's house, no walkway conveniently hitting all the choice spots, and no shiny new coffee shops. I hit the GPS a few more times for good measure.

"The place is special because of who lives here...and what they contribute. Not necessarily what it looks like." A resident offered, noticing my confusion.

"For now, check out the bridge, then come back during the night."

(These pillar paintings continue for about a mile in each direction)

The nearby bridge is my first taste of the positive dimensions of tourism; allowing artists an outlet of control over what "Authentic New Orleans" actually means.

"The narrative's lack of specificity leaves it open to many interpretations and creates a discursive space for the inclusion of different peoples and ethnic backgrounds." - Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy

Since Katrina, the city has advertised an image of "artistic re-birth." In order for this to work, at least for now, marketers are cursed with the horrors of actually making room for those insufferable  artistic types.

That night, a walk outside of downtown proper brings this reality to life.

"You can walk off the street and, for practically no cover charge, see someone who headlines a festival in Europe: Germaine Bazzle or James Andrews or Delfeayo Marsalis" -Producer Quint Davis in an interview with USA Today.

Run down buildings appear to sway with the music as revelers stream by in a procession of excitement and vibrant color. Throw a stone, and you are likely to hit a musician discarding large sums of money to play internationally for a modest Louisiana living. Why?

"Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio." - Traveler Lafcadio Hearn, summing up artistic attachment to the city.

(Ingredients of an authentic NOLA street band: Fiddle, soapbox, and a remarkably lazy dog.)

At no location in this city was this exemplified better than Vaughan's Lounge (featuring trumpet player Kermit Ruffins of HBO fame). I was expecting a tourist scene with khakis and high brow types who have accomplished the rare feat of watching more than two episodes of Treme.

Instead, the joint looks ready to crumble. The shoddy walls try desperately to hold the sweltering heap of people crammed inside.

I sip my beer and memorize fire escapes.

Tonight all social demographics drawn to NOLA are coalesced: The older, cultured suburbanites mentioned earlier, 9th ward residents who have been coming for years, adventurous young travelers looking to escape the mundane, and even a few foreigners who have come to the city for work. Ruffins melts everyone together with his wailing jazz.

This is how reviewers on Yelp describe the place:

"Vaughan's was a sweaty, sloppy, hot mess where people as old as my grandmother were grinding on their dance partners in a southern bluesy way."

"The show itself is a good free form performance, but the real draw is the audience and the space itself."

"The outside of this building looks, with no exaggeration, like Adam Sandler's character's house in the movie The Waterboy."

(Pictured: Something much nicer looking than Vaughan's, but nowhere near as fun.)

Will places like Vaughan's still survive once the city has fully recovered it's image (and thus, doesn't need them as much for authentication)?

There is a narcissistic trend among travelers to place that responsibility squarely on the actions of visitors. This thinking is a disservice to the agency of locals--residents with strength enough to control their own destiny.

"But we cannot depend on visitors to preserve Mardi Gras (and the culture in general), that is our job, not the visitors' job." - A Mardi Gras Krewe Cheif in an interview with Professor Gotham.

On my way out of town, I literally run into a man who is working to do just that, Treme and The Wire Actor Wendell Pierce.

"Welcome To New Orleans!" he rumbles, and for once I actually feel...welcome.

(Both of us agreed this is a horribly unflattering picture for all involved, and should be kept secret. Don't hate me, Wendell.)

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