Reading the Leaves in the White Teapot

Posted by on Mar 21, 2013 in WORDS
Reading the Leaves in the White Teapot

“How gentrification is evaluated depends a great deal on how it is defined.” -Peter Marcuse

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Richard Campanella’s recent article for New Geography, “Gentrification and Its Discontents” elicited many comments around New Orleans, both online and off. It seemed to perpetuate the now common reaction many people have when the gentrification topic bubbles up: “Change is inevitable” “Gentrication just happens, get over it” or “Would you rather the city be a slum?” But such reactions tend to gloss over policies on the local, state, and federal levels, and the role of market and marketing forces that actually facilitate urban socio-spatial restructuring. It also places people affected by these changes into two narrow camps: those stodgy stalwarts against any change at all, and those forward-thinking individuals that see any and all change as good. This is not a particularly realistic interpretation, but it helps to keep the “inevitable” part of the gentrification narrative intact.

The term gentrification, its causes and definitions, has been a major topic of debate amongst scholars in the fields of urban history, sociology, geography and economics since it was coined in 1964. Geographer Tom Slater has written that varying debates over defining gentrification hampers more critical analysis and creates a false choice that cities must remain in “either unlivable disinvestment and decay or reinvestment and displacement.” In a recent interview, Sociologist David Madden reiterated the limits that these false choices represent, that reinvestment in urban neighborhoods does not have to be a choice between “decay or condos” or boutique and slum. Most importantly, it doesn’t “just happen.”

How, why, and where is the gentrification happening? Where isn’t it? Gentrification is not always driven by “naturally occurring” or “organic” forces, but also by the implementation of policy. It’s worth taking a short historical review of the gentrification patterns of the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods over the last forty years, rather than the last four. (*although Campanella addresses Bywater specifically, here the Marigny/Bywater are conflated synonymously as the neighborhoods are often marketed, e.g. as part of the St. Claude Arts District.)

Describing the influx of the estimated “15,000-20,000 (and continuing)” young creatives flocking to New Orleans, Campanella designates “It is primarily these second-wave transplants who have accelerated gentrification patterns.”

That assessment might sound true; a lot is happening in the neighborhoods. New people and new businesses are notable changes. But to place the burden of gentrification on the latest spat of newcomers is neither wholly fair nor accurate, even if their arrival coincides with its acceleration.

Strangely, what Campanella does not take into account are the factors which primed the pump, so to speak, for these new residents to find the Bywater so desirable.

Campanella notes that in order for a neighborhood to be a hot spot, “It must be historic”, but he forgoes explaining how the neighborhoods became historic. I’m sure he did not mean to insinuate that Lloyd Sensat and Gene Cizek were gutter punks, but by omitting the 1970s “Back to the City” movement, and the role of the Preservation Resource Center and rehabilitation in the downtown neighborhoods, Campanella’s first of his Four stages of gentrification overlooks the historical record.

Writing for the journal Economic Geography John O’Loughlin and Douglas C. Munski also describe the stages of gentrification of the Marigny in the “advanced rehabilitation stage”:

…identified by skyrocketing prices, of both dilapidated and renovated houses, the presence of large scale real estate development interests, the departure of the original renters, and closure of small neighborhood businesses.”

Sound familiar? It’s from 1979. Consider also Lawrence Knopp’s 1989 dissertation “Gentrification and Gay Community Development in A New Orleans Neighborhood.” Although both focus on the Marigny and not Bywater, the preservation movement was marked in both eras with the establishment of their respective neighborhood associations, Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association in 1972 and Bywater Neighborhood Association in 1975. The then-changing character of Bywater is identified by a Preservation Resource Center neighborhood brochure:

In the 1970s a core group of young renovators moved into Bywater. They formed such a strong and determined neighborhood association that their readiness to fight for the community plus the conviction of their reasoning took City Council by surprise, according to Councilman Brod Bagert who represented the district at the time. In the process, Bywater and other newly formed neighborhood associations became powerful and effective voices in city politics.”

Likewise, omitting the 1980s/1990s/pre-K 2000s, waves of both native New Orleanians as well as non-native transplants into the Marigny and Bywater also ignores local and recent history. Campanella may poke fun at the supposed pretense of “super-natives” and their rituals, but the Krewe of St. Anne was founded by locals in 1969, and has hosted events in the Bywater for over 30 years. And not to romanticize the very real cultural changes the Bywater has seen since the 1970s, but in the pre-Katrina era the neighborhood did in many ways retain the sort of diversity promoted as a key economic indicator characterized by a mixed-race, mixed-income, mixed use community. The gentry have been here, and the “lawyers, doctors, moneyed retirees” are not new. And with a few exceptions, many of the recent new businesses in the neighborhood were established by pre-Katrina residents that came in waves from the ’80s to the mid ’00s.

What is new is the re-gentrification, or super-gentrification of the Marigny/Bywater, as that ideal “mix” becomes more homogenous. So what are the contributing factors?

In July 2005, then Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu unveiled the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism’s “Louisiana: Where Culture Means Business: A Strategic Plan for Louisiana’s Cultural Economy.” This study extolls in great detail the promise of arts based redevelopmentIt identified existing cultural assets and ways in which the state and local municipalities might capitalize upon them. In 2007 the state legislature passed Act 298: The Louisiana Cultural Districts Program. The purpose of this act was to “spark community revitalization based on cultural activity though tax incentives.” St. Claude Avenue, as major historic commercial corridor for Marigny/Bywater was designated a cultural district in 2008. (For more on the “golden goose of our cultural heritage” see this synopsis, or for the whole report, here).

By 2009, 59 cultural districts were designated in the state of Louisiana.

The St. Claude Corridor Cultural District, from the Lt. Governor's Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism

The St. Claude Corridor Cultural District, from the Lt. Governor’s Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism

As Mayor, Landrieu established the New Orleans Office of Cultural Economy and the designation of 20 Cultural Products Districts.

It didn’t take long for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation to join the city in its promotion of the downtown neighborhoods:

The Marigny and Bywater are shining examples of how history and urban renewal can successfully merge together to create a funky harmony only found in New Orleans. A commitment to preservation and diversity along with a heavy influence from the arts makes for beautiful and vibrant neighborhoods”(whole page word count:vibrant (2), bohemian (2) funky (2)) http://www.neworleanscvb.com/visit/neighborhoods/faubourg-marigny-bywater/

Faubourg Marigny has all the life and vivaciousness of a real life New Orleans neighborhood.”

(From:The Official Tourism Site of the City of New Orleans: NewOrleansOnline.com All contents © 1996-2013 New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation unless otherwise specified herein. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED )

That’s real life, babies. The boosters expound the area’s arts vitality and exciting cultural amenities even where they do not yet exist: riverfront warehouses now accommodate artists’ studios and performance spaces” (NOTMC)

This coming May, Landrieu will co-host the 3rd annual World Cultural Economic Forum in conjunction with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. According to its web page, the WCEF “highlights the role of culture as an economic and social force that drives the creation of vibrant cities.”

There it is, the “vibrant” city. Much has been written about the promises of economic resurgence, a national trend centered on the hope that by implementing creative-placemaking and “vibrancy strategies,” cities will recapture the dynamism lost in the second half of the last century. These efforts, it is believed, will make cities “places where people want to be.”

Earlier this month, a symposium at Harvard University featured the leaders of the arts redevelopment movement:

“If you can make [the arts] important enough to people, they will come,” said Dennis Scholl, vice president for the arts at the Knight Foundation, a nonprofit funding organization. “But you have to create an atmosphere where you can look around and say, ‘It’s not just me and blue-haired ladies.’ You have to create a scene…”

Do residents, both long term and new, within Louisiana’s 59 cultural districts and New Orleans’ 20 cultural products districts fully understand they are living in a potential “scene”?

“The arts have an important role to play in revitalizing communities,” said Carol Coletta, president of ArtPlace, which in the past two years has awarded $29 million to 80 projects in 46 communities, from Anchorage, Alaska, to Little Rock, Ark., to Miami Beach, Fla. The foundation is primarily interested in how the arts make a community more diverse and vibrant; to that end, she said, “ArtPlace gauges a project’s impact on a particular place by measuring its effect on factors like walkability and cellphone activity in the area.”

Here’s Artplaces latest arts and economic development “Theory of Change” “The thinking” they note “continues to evolve”

"An updated version of ArtPlace's Theory of Change. The thinking continues to evolve," from the Artplace facebook page.

“An updated version of ArtPlace’s Theory of Change. The thinking continues to evolve,” from the Artplace facebook. (eds note: See how Artplace penetrates the community’s vibrancy & diversity?)

 

Furthermore, Coletta warns, “A vibrant cultural scene won’t transform a community on its own, but the arts should be a part of a “portfolio of strategies” to transform communities.”

What exactly does ‘transformation’ mean? Interestingly, in July 2011, the Bywater Neighborhood Association wrote a letter of support for the extension of the Rampart/St. Claude streetcar line extension to Poland Avenue, noting “If there were more adequate and sustainable transportation solutions, total residential redevelopment could be achieved more readily.” Is total residential redevelopment the kind of transformation New Orleans is looking for?

On March 7, 2013 the RTA hosted its first citizen planning meeting to unveil a portion of the plans for the above-mentioned street car line. HRI Properties CEO Pres Kabakoff reportedly was the first to speak. Responding to apprehensions of traffic congestion, Kabakoff, (who in January called the streetcar a “powerful magnet”) noted “To the extent that people have a difficult time in traffic getting down the street it may cause them to want to live in the area and use an effective streetcar.” (For more on this see http://librarychronicles.blogspot.com/2013/03/wedway-people-mover.html )

Streetcars are being sought after in Minneapolis, Washington DC, Atlanta, Milwaukee and many other American cities in a quest to up their vibrancy. Commenting on cities competing for limted Federal Funds to bring back their old streetcar lines, transportation expert David Levinson cites a Federal study: “According to a report published by the Transportation Research Board, the link between land development and streetcars has not been substantiated by empirical evidence. Most of the evidence that does exist comes from project promoters or advocates, who obviously have a stake in the outcome.” 

In July 2011, The Louisiana Council of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) hosted a lecture titled “Streetcars and Transit Oriented Development: Moving New Orleans Forward.” On March 14, 2012 ULI hosted its 5th Annual “What’s REALly Going On” in New Orleans. The lead topic was “How Infrastructure Creates Markets.” Transportation is infrastructure, and HRI Properties is one of the event’s sponsors.

Geographer Tom Slater writes there is “next to nothing published about non-gentrifying groups living in the neighborhoods into which the much-researched cosmopolitan middle classes are arriving enmasse.” It’s “…as if the middle classes are the only characters occupying the stage of the gentrification” Local media outlets’ streetcar coverage focused on the concerns amongst bike riders and those worried about traffic congestion. Not much time addressed perhaps the most important issue surrounding the streetcar: what effects will it have on existing commuters, the riders of the Franklin and St. Claude bus lines? Will they switch at Elysian Fields? Will it affect commute times? Will the bus run alongside the street car or in the designated transit lane? If retained, will bus riders get new weather protection sheds too?

The RTA's desire for a downtown streetcar, from 2003

The RTA’s desire for a downtown streetcar, from 2003

Is the streetcar for residents, new residents, new potential residents, or tourists? If it extends to Poland Avenue, it will be a feather in the cap for developers hoping for the kind of super-gentrification of which Marigny/Bywater are now on the cusp. True, some may benefit from an increase in property values, but heightened property taxes represent a burden for those residents who wish to remain, including renters. The results of the streetcar development on the St. Claude and Franklin Avenues’ bus routes will largely affect those residents outside of what Campanella calls the “White Teapot.”

If the point of “Transit Oriented Development” is, as its proponents claim, to create vibrancy and “Build Livable Communities” in languishing urban areas, why not embrace some history and build a streetcar line following the path of the old Smokey Mary? The former Pontchartrain Rail Road route, one of the oldest railroads in the nation, could become a streetcar line reuniting the river and the lakefront. Milneburg’s got history, and there’s tons of empty properties for sale along the way in need of rehabilitation.

Cutting through many neighborhoods, Elysian Fields is a commercial corridor to boot. Is New Orleans making plans to increase only downtown density in anticipation of its future as a “shrinking city”? If so, have the residents living north of the “Liveable Claiborne” plan been notified?

Speaking of Claiborne Avenue, Campanella generalizes that gutter-punks and hipsters are characteristically opposed to “improvements” such as the proposed removal of the Claiborne overpass. But for some residents outside the “white teapot” the proposal is a genuine concern. While the long term prospectus of the expanding downtown might benefit from the removal, some in the shadow of the overpass are wary of their place in the city’s future. It doesn’t help that the Congress for New Urbanism’s (co-founded by Andres Duany, author of “Three Cheers for Gentrification”) web page touts the removal as a chance to “free up valuable land,” while at community meetings assuages apprehensions by repeating the importance of existing “living culture.”

At a recent showing of Bury The Hatchet, a documentary film on Mardi Gras Indians, the film series’ moderator was pleased to point out to a predominantly tourist audience the idealism inherent in the proposed removal: although in the 1960s the city overlooked the concerns and opposition of Treme and 7th ward neighbors in erecting the elevated expressway, current Mayor Mitch Landrieu is poised to right the wrongs of history and return the once majestic Avenue to its former glory. The moderator went on to say that mostly everybody supports it. Special guest Big Chief Alfred Doucette disagreed.

They might say they’re bringing back the Avenue, but they’re bringing the dollar for them. Mayor Landrieu might go on TV and say he supports my community and my culture, but he don’t,” said Doucette. Further commenting on the proposed revitalization of Claiborne and its potential expansion as a cultural economy zone, Doucette noted “They’re bringing the Quarters to Rocheblave. The city is making downtown pretty, but what about the rest? The 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th wards? And New Orleans East?”

Which brings us back to the conversation about gentrification in New Orleans that is not happening. Which communities get transformed? Which don’t? What if your neighborhood hasn’t won the cultural cache lottery? What if your cultural products aren’t good enough for market? How can a neighborhood that is not historically and culturally “significant” jockey for reinvestment? And for that matter, how can any neighborhood in New Orleans not be historically and culturally significant?

As the discourse on New Orleans’ gentrification enters the public realm, it is important to understand that the “White Teapot’s” revitalization via the “cultural economy” didn’t “just happen.” Municipal, state and Federal policy, along with tourism marketing agencies, large development corporations, the local and national press and various non-profit foundations are all employed in a campaign to sell the concept of vibrancy in some neighborhoods while plainly neglecting others. The concern for residents, both within, adjacent to and outside of the “White Teapot” and whether or not they have a “right to the city” might only be addressed by a real dialogue that includes real policy. If “How gentrification is evaluated depends a great deal on how it is defined,” a reversal of the narrative that it is “inevitable” might at least be a beginning.

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NOTE ON NEW GEOGRAPHY:

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Lastly, a short note on the website journal that published Campanella’s gentrification article. New Geography is helmed by Joel Kotkin, a self-described Truman Democrat favored in conservative circles as a pro-suburban/anti-New Urbanist critic. He consistently views urban redevelopment as a threat to suburbia, and moreover, to families and the American way of life. Considering that the Smart Growth Bywater chapter lists Campanella on its Advisory Board, it’s at first surprising that New Geography would publish him. Maybe it’s Campanella’s end note in “Gentrification and its Discontents” that falls in line with Kotkin’s ideals. After thoroughly skewering the habits and consumption patterns of the creative class, Campanella notes the decline of families and family oriented amenities in the Bywater, stating

Lack of age diversity and a paucity of “kiddie capital”—good local schools, playmates next door, child-friendly services—are the hobgoblins of gentrification in a historically familial city like New Orleans. Yet their impacts seem to be lost on many gentrifiers.”

And although that statement might sound like a reasonable admonishment to most readers, it’s worth mentioning that it is quite in line with New Geography and Kotkin’s philosophy.

Take a closer look at New Geography. Stories such as “Is The Family Finished?” is just one of many on the site bemoaning that the “creative class” New Urbanism, Smart Growth, and urban living will undermine the American political system. In interviews Kotkin calls density “a form of neo-feudalism.” and “an assault on the aspirations of most families.” As author of “The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future?” he warns “Societal norms, which once almost mandated family formation, have begun to morph. The new norms are reinforced by cultural influences that tend to be concentrated in the very areas — dense urban centres — with the lowest percentages of married people and children.”

Commenting on urban educated couples waiting to have children, Kotkin argues “women making reasonable decisions about their own lives aren’t spending much time considering the age breakdown of voters in future elections or the nation’s fiscal health in 2050.” He praises “America’s open spaces, sprawling suburbs, openness to immigrants, and relatively religious culture” that “helped keep our population young and growing.”

That Campanella cites David Brooks’s definition of Bourgeois Bohemians (Bobos) in stage three of his four phases of gentrification (after noting himself of the third phase, but decidedly not bohemian) is also interesting. Brooks and Kotkin’s New Geography share a pro-family contempt for Bobos; their respective writings cite one another often. Many local readers got a satisfying chuckle out of Campanella’s send up of the tropes and generalizations of the creative class and gentrification, but for New Geography readers, lambasting contemporary urban trends is a sort of battle cry. Look what the urban elites are up to!

Most recently, Kotkin published yet another retort on Richard Florida’s creative class theories. While worthy of criticism, Kotkin’s supposed take-down on vibrancy and the creative class is hardly a fair counterpoint. As much as Florida has generated a massive enterprise selling his ideas on the necessity of vibrant urban cultural centers, Kotkin’s response serves a suburban conservative ideology wary of “urban-centric” policy. Both author’s contributions tend to reduce debate to the “elite city” versus the “real American suburbs.”

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Christine Horn is a resident of the Marigny. Since 2006 she has served as editor-at-large for NOLAFugees Press.