Saturday, July 7, 2012

In New Orleans: Yes Virginia

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Dharma Bums
Yes Virginia
            Yes, My Darling, I’ll tell you the story about a French Quarter that was long ago and far away; so far away that it might have been on another planet or a parallel universe. The time I speak of is one when bohemians roamed the Quarter and the Italians still lived here. From The Café u Monde to the end of the French Market, as far as the eye could see, there were seafood markets, cafes, vegetable stalls and shops that sold ordinary household supplies. There was a gas station, post office and hardware stores. There were no tee shirt shops, visitor information shills and no one sold (or wore) Mardi Gras beads (except during Carnival). This was a time before hand held electronic devices, parking meters and hand Grenades. Baby Boomers were in grade school; Gen-Xers were not even a gleam.
            Rent was more than reasonable, coffee houses were owned by individuals and bars didn’t have blenders or stock Red Bull. Roaming the streets in the sunlight were market workers, shoppers making groceries, kids throwing newspapers and carts delivering seafood, beer, ice and fresh vegetables. When (and where) shadows fell were artists, writers, musicians and hipsters; the avant garde; the bohemian; the existential. This was just before Hippies and just after dinosaurs; there were places to get your car fixed, your shoes soled and your ashes moved (if you get my drift). Bourbon Street was for middle class adults with live music in the strip and burlesque joints.
Black families communed, the gay community thrived and Dharma Bums waxed poetically on philosophical premises over cheap wine, espresso and chess boards. Broccado had an ice cream place, Cosimo Matassa had a recording studio, Faulkner and Tennessee Williams had cheap apartments, you could run into Hemingway at the bar of the Monteleone Hotel. Reuters had a feed and seed store, Puglia had a grocery, LaNasa had a hardware store, Lubat’s had a restaurant supply, by god. The French Quarter was made up of three classes of people: the poor, the mostly poor and the truly poor. It was the days when people repaired their own cars and you could get parts for those cars in the French Quarter. Small publications were printed here and flourished. That was then and this is now; those rag tag ne’er do well, raconteurs and salts of the earth are either dead and gone or decaying in nursing homes on the outskirts of town. And yes, Virginia, the Bohemian legacy has been priced out of the market.
In the publication Urban Studies vol. 42 no. 7, Kevin Fox Gotham (Dept of Sociology, Tulane) discussed the socio-spacial transformation on New Orleans Vieux Carre (French Quarter) using causal dynamics and employing heuristic devices. He had a lot of facts and figures from sixty years of census’ and drew allegories, comparisons and depressing realities across twenty four pages; interesting reading.
Here’s the way it boils down: we’ve had at least three recessions since the seventies, we’ve had the oil business leave the area and manufacturing jobs tanking. This causes a drop in employment and residency. The taxes from income take a dip so the powers that be focus on taxes that they can bring in from sales. So, redesigning the French Quarter (indeed New Orleans in general) into a visitor driven economic machine, investing in things like gambling, sports arenas, festivals, convention centers and hotels; World War II museums (and now, hospital complexes). Property values go up (X3) as do rents (X7); gentrification is encouraged.
Since 1960, in the French Quarter, businesses catering to residents go from 143 to 26. Tee shirt, souvenir and daiquiri shops go from 58 to 259. The transformation into a tourist city and a vigorously marketed entertainment destination works its magic, the poor (white and black) are squeezed out. Interesting enough housing rental vacancies are higher and rose from 9.5% to 38% in that same time period.
The population of the French Quarter has gone from about 12,000 in 1960 to a little over 3,200 in 2010; there are 2,000 buildings in the French Quarter. Where does that leave us? Affordable apartments turned into expensive condominiums; hardware stores turned into offices and cafes; the second floors above expensively rented tourist shops are left vacant; doorways and hallways are turned into fortune telling enterprises. There is no pride on Bourbon Street.
And now, yes now with the economic downturn across the country, the almighty disposable tourist dollar is disappearing. After the turn of this century (2000) the population dropped below the 1940 level and the lowest since then; the last big hurricane dropped it further and still housing is unaffordable.  There aren’t job offering in any sector unless you want an early Sunday morning stripper shift at Big Daddy’s. Still, the ability to sell alcohol 24 hours a day seven days a week keeps the ball rolling; the income from sales and taxes of beads, booze and broads is funneled to feed our less than functional infrastructure. But I digress.
Yes Virginia, I am nostalgic for a simpler time; when imaginations were limitless, as well as possibilities; when I thought in musical and poetic cadences; when I dreamed in Technicolor; when my spirit floated like a little kid on the big swings. I read books, I thirsted for knowledge. Let me tell you of a time when I could afford to be poor and happy
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us”.  

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