The cityscape of New Orleans has changed significantly since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Neighborhoods have been torn down and rebuilt, bearing little resemblance to what used to stand in their place. Seeing the change in buildings and streets is certainly interesting, but what truly strikes a nerve is the front row seat we as New Orleanians are given to the change and meshing of cultures. The “revitalization” of St. Claude and the surrounding neighborhoods brings insight into the delicate balance in which residents of these changing neighborhoods exist.
The existence of bars and venues on St. Claude, in the Bywater, Marigny, and St. Roch neighborhoods, has always been known, yet its popularity seems to have skyrocketed in the past few years. Prices for rent have almost doubled since before Katrina, and longtime residents who have lived in their homes for generations are seeing changes that are difficult to ignore. Scores of young, white musicians and artists now live in what had been historically black neighborhoods, and the feeling of uncertainty is palpable as the neighborhood and its residents try to decide exactly what it will become. Plans for a streetcar line to run down St. Claude and the brand new Healing Center (which offers yoga classes and an organic food co-op, among other things) are juxtaposed against the decrepit food markets and Family Dollar buildings. This mixing of cultures brings about an air of absurdity that seems to only be able to exist in New Orleans.
“Moving to the Bywater won’t make you cool; it will just get you shot.” This is a quote comes from a New Orleans business owner, who has lived in the city his entire life and seen his fair share of changing neighborhoods. Though it seems blunt and simplistic, it touches upon a serious issue which can be easily overlooked: crime. This influx of people can translate into an influx of targets; offenders prey upon victims who seem out of their element, and the element on St. Claude is presently undefined. Another component to this theme of easy and constant crime is that it is not hard, under certain circumstances, for people to forget exactly where they are. The garage-rock band playing inside the venue does not make this neighborhood any safer outside; it only makes this neighborhood more bizarre. Coming home to find houses broken into, bicycles stolen, and blocks shut down because of shootings should not be so surprising. It is not ridiculous that one’s car was stolen while one watched L.A. Guns perform; it is slightly ridiculous that L.A. Guns performed in the Ninth Ward. The failure to recognize what is going on is what makes this neighborhood dangerous to those who prefer to stay unaware.
Incidents of crime are obvious repercussions of the clashing of cultures, and they fall squarely on the negative side. Yet, when one looks on a more personal level, the culture clash affects more than just crime, and is not always negative. It is present in daily interactions between neighborhood residents, and at times it makes itself so apparent one simply cannot look away. It is difficult to ignore the older lady with three teeth when she’s kidnapping you into a bathroom with her “to protect you,” or when she’s jumping up on stage to sing with a well-established and popular band in her bra. This is why the revitalization, gentrification, renaissance, or whatever one wishes to call it on St. Claude cannot be ignored. It is in your face, and it is working itself out in strange ways which affect all who venture into these neighborhoods. It truly displays just how peculiar and inexplicable life in New Orleans can be.
“Why do y’all all want to live here?” This question was posed to me by an older black man, around 75, while I stood outside of a show. He went on to explain that he had noticed the new trend in his neighborhood, and the ones adjacent to that, and he could not grasp it. “Don’t y’all want to stay Uptown?” he asked. He had some decent points. Why does it seem as if entire groups of people have begun a mass exodus from Uptown to the Bywater? What is it about this neighborhood that holds such a draw? For one, there are the venues. This neighborhood has become especially appealing for musicians since some of the best venues presently in New Orleans line St. Claude. These venues are in close proximity not only to one another but to the surrounding neighborhoods. Another reason may be the opportunity for art, as the Marigny/Bywater has become the hot spots in the city for galleries, installation art, and performances. Though it may be confusing to some, all of these elements are attracting a different group of people than longtime residents are used to.
If St. Claude had no appeal, there would be no street car plan. If property owners did not see an opportunity for money to be made out of this new, changing culture, there would be no Healing Center and the plans for re-development in the neighborhood would never have come about. All of these plans and changes may be successful, and ten years down the line St. Claude may be a thriving, prosperous community without blight. Or, developers may tire of trying to change a community which has strong roots and even stronger will. Either way, in this strange, interim period, it is important to witness the aforementioned absurdity. If the images of graffiti condemning “Black Metal Fags” next to long-abandoned buildings and residents on their porches across from signs that call all to “Support Local Art” aren’t an apt enough display, perhaps the feeling must be experienced. The atmosphere can be described over and over, but some things you just have to see for yourself.
St. Claude/Neighborhood Slideshow:
Photo Credit: Sam DeLucia and Briana Hobbs