City Dispatch: New Orleans

City Dispatch: New Orleans

The business of culture in New Orleans.

New Orleans, Louisiana is significantly older than the United States. It has belonged to Spain, France and Great Britain. In the mid-19th century, New Orleans was the third largest economy in North America and widely referred to as the ‘Jewel of the South’.

Built as a stopping-off point between Europe and Africa, its wealth has always been tied to its port, warehousing and commerce – though until abolition this meant the slave trade, where now it refers largely to coffee and petroleum products. The city remains the fourth largest port in the USA but the subtropical location that made it useful to the slave trade renders it a difficult place to live, as its early inhabitants discovered to their cost. Until the discovery that mosquitos spread Yellow Fever, the city suffered great loss of life each summer. Subsequent damage has been caused by hurricanes that have battered the gulf coast with increasing force over the generations. Even when these evils do not strike, summer – which lasts roughly from May to November – can be difficult to bear. The 40C heat is accompanied by high humidity, intense lunchtime downpours and evening thunderstorms of considerable violence.




Simeon Hunter

While the geography means the city was well connected at a time when most goods were transported over water, the same situation has rendered it isolated in subsequent years. Creating a fixed road route over the 70 mile-wide lake which separates the city from the rest of North America – and the 300 miles of swamp that follows – defeated engineers until the 1970s.

Political imperialism, physical fragility and relative isolation, together with a very large African American population and an Irish-Italian community significant enough to ensure that the city is noticeably Catholic (as well as importantly Jewish) have each helped forge a widely diverse, passionately defended and deeply idiosyncratic culture. The city’s overarching poverty resides within an urban fabric of great physical beauty and an architecture redolent of a history which has also included great wealth.

"Where the arts in the UK have for some time now been funded largely, if indirectly, through government, in New Orleans culture is an affair rooted in patronage and civic pride."

The city continues to reinvent itself and – although it still wears a justifiable reputation for its breathtakingly unhealthy cuisine and its astonishingly high crime rate – post-Katrina, it has been discovered as a destination for gourmets, musicians, artists and culture of all kinds. It is an ironic truth that the difficulties which have beset the city have also served to protect its most valuable asset; its culture. Because of the disparity of income between the Deep South and the North East, New Yorker’s find that quite modest levels of investment can yield astonishing growth in a location where time and talent are thirsty for ground-level support.

Where the arts in the UK have for some time now been funded largely, if indirectly, through government, in New Orleans culture is an affair rooted in patronage and civic pride. Foundations support thriving institutions such as the Contemporary Arts Centre, that has no core funding, but it is the development of the underground art scene in what has come to be known as the St Claude Arts District that offers a particularly interesting model for development in other post-industrial cities.

Relatively inexpensive high-quality space – for homes, studios and display – are key to art making. The Faubourg Marigny and Bywater (until recently) provided inexpensive neighbourhoods where artists lived side-by side with workers from the hospitality and service industries that flourish in the nearby French Quarter. Commercial storefronts which had fallen vacant between this neighbourhood and the poorer 8th ward to the north have been taken over by artist collectives, who have in turn organised themselves to promote their work through regular openings (every second Saturday of the month), carefully timed to avoid conflict with the ‘official’ gallery scene in the more formal commercial galleries in the ‘arts district’, which run their openings on the first Saturday of the month.

In Liverpool it seems that ‘culture industries’ are understood through a far narrower framework of small business in the more commercial fields, following a national mantra about the value of design and digital start-ups. New Orleans’ more laissez-faire politics have produced an alternative model – one in which culture and its producers have used their creative power on a collectivised and not-for-profit basis and in so doing have transformed a whole area of the city from a police no-go zone into a desirable neighbourhood, which attracts other more traditional business start-ups. High-end chef-led, restaurants, cafes and stores have sprung up, where quality and freshness are ruthlessly independent and so hip it hurts. Bars, which attract artists and musicians, also employ artists and musicians. These hardworking alternative types may in turn be found working with independent record labels at the neighbourhood recording studios which make such good use of a disused furniture warehouse or shopping at the new co-operative organic grocery store, which works hard to supply local produce at fair prices.

The impact on the city’s economy may be indirect but it is significant. This once-avoided area is now a tourist destination and has succeeded in attracting attention from wealthier uptown citizens and out of town art-worlders alike. Property has been repaired and the stoops and porches of brightly coloured houses are increasingly populated with people who have a real interest in the success of a wider project. As one local puts it: “you can hardly move down there without tripping over some hipster and their manual typewriter sitting on their stoop looking at the world over a glass of bourbon or an impossibly strong cup of coffee”.

It may be all rather romantic but it is also very contemporary. This is the opposite of corporate America. Corporate America tried working in Louisiana in the 1970s and withdrew when it realised that people thought two hours was a suitable break for lunch; that most people were not very interested in rushing anywhere without a cocktail and that they wouldn’t come back to work on days when it rained heavily – which would be most days in summer. It is not corporate – but it IS a place where things can get done, where ideas have more power than paperwork and where traditional thinking is challenged through innovation as genuine as it is nonchalant.

New Orleans is about the same size as Liverpool. It has a shared history in shipping and slavery. It has suffered loss and continues to experience both poverty and isolation. It has not benefited from the very careful regeneration plans that have helped Liverpool become a really great place to live. Its transport is a disaster. Its roads a running joke. But it has something to teach us about the value of things which are not conceived through some formal notion of ‘enterprise’, but which generate a climate for new business organically enough that those businesses are rooted in real markets and have the strength of conviction to support them through challenging times.

Simeon Hunter is a freelance writer and designer who has taught art history and visual culture at five universities and published extensively on contemporary visual and cultural production for academic journals, the art press, exhibition catalogues and ‘zines. He has lived and worked in London, Liverpool, Cambridge, New Orleans and Boulder, Colorado.

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