Boosterism is back. It actually showed up in a big way after Katrina. It was quite understandable as as a proposition at that time. The desperation of the situation allowed for people to dictate unchecked about the need to sell New Orleans to the world in order to get funding for development. Everything about the situation was in need of serious help and whatever music could do was a great thing. Many musicians from the city were involved in the effort and were on tours to help with such a promotion. They were, of course, particular musicians that were moving that very targeted, romanticized, picture of what New Orleans is in the collective imagination. This was historically the way New Orleans got into tourism in the first place- painting pictures and promoting the images- and, in fact, that huge city industry was, in fact, at risk. Hotels, Mardi Gras, Voodoo shops, Bourbon Street…the whole picture needed to be saved because it does, after all, bring a ton of money to the city and provide a livelihood for a good deal of the population. The city relies on it for survival.
The comeback is well underway and music no doubt contributed. Most big American publications have shown it to be so with articles and features, and there is no doubt about visible development action everywhere in the city. And that word, ‘development’, seems to be everywhere in articles and on peoples’ lips, with both negative and positive tinges. A casual stroll through the Marigny and Bywater will show how much is going on. Developers, and politicians in favor, are themselves quite visible through websites and meetings so most people have some inkling of who the involved players are. Boards and commissions have a sneaky way of containing a lot of the same members around this city, so the major players’ names are showing up frequently.
There have been many results. As New Orleans neighborhoods develop, outsiders – coming from a relatively depressed America – are moving in. These newcomers are drawn to an old city of myths on the Mississippi with a low cost of living and a government that’s willing to bend over backwards to support new, glitzy businesses. New Orleans is, after all, a great place to live. Especially if you like food, music, and being able to spend unmorally checked amounts of time in endless conversation with your neighbors (-a very civilized occupation, I might add!) Most locals, like the populations of most modern port cities are beyond many narrow prejudices about insider and outsider—although that ugly specter (and some far uglier vestigial specters of the past) sometimes appears a little faster in such rapidly changing times.
In with this, comes the more recent language of gentrification and, that is a significant term to be thinking about in relation to music since neighborhood property values tend to rise by riding on the lifestyles of artists, musicians, and craft people in general that have been seeking affordable living while they (do what the business world high and mighty’s think is their sole province) invest- in developing their artwork. New Orleans can boast a huge history of top tier artists struggling but surviving. The city is still teeming with them. There is always new stuff going on. But there’s an old story afoot: property values rising and those poorer artists get priced out of their neighborhoods. In the current art climate of the United States (and New Orleans is really not an exception) most of those folk stay pretty poor. It’s not the case for all artists and musicians. There is a lucky option for some- it is possible to put development on hold, don what duds are needed and go to where the wallets are walking to get at that money- if you are interested in or trained, to play in those styles. If not it’s a little harder to get things going- for a number of reasons that we’ll come to shortly. But, if you are willing to engage in a bit of unbridled modern boosterism and provide some tourist friendly art in the entertainment zones things can go somewhat better for you these days than it was going for a while.
This, however, can pose some real paradoxes in art and music development. Especially where it has become a little more sustainable to blow off ‘developing’ any art and, rather get art to add to, and be in service to, the greater property development of neighborhoods and the image of the marketed-for-tourism New Orleans. Since the city has clearly defined entertainment districts, it’s easy for the tourism industry’s propaganda to point visitors toward these districts when they seek that that prized item in the New Orleans cultural bag — music! They might even be looking for that hallowed authentic kind- New Orleans Music. The brochures and concierge services have told them where to find it and the clubs in those areas are permitted and setup to procure the entertainment image of the city.
New Orleans is very geared toward the cultural tourist and all research shows that investing in cultural tourism is a lucrative proposition. The National Assembly of State Art Agencies website says “Cultural tourism is an important way to celebrate, preserve and promote a state's unique heritage, increase opportunities for artists, promote public arts participation and boost economic development.” New Orleans and Louisiana have been invested for so long in selling cultural tourism that both the problems and the rewards of the industry are likely to become evident much sooner than in other cities. All research indicates that the tourist seeking cultural authenticity has more money and is willing to shell out more for it. That’s not such a bad thing in and of itself. In a way it is a blessing, people who are seeking the real aesthetic contributions of a region and are interested in strongly embedded local people and what they produce- just to soak it in, contemplate it, be somehow edified by the addition of variety to their lives and, furthermore, pay for it!
The rewards can be rapid. A place, or pockets of a place, initially impoverished and unclearly defined undergoes a self-conscious folk awakening and realizes that it has habits, heritage, and idiosyncracies that may be attractive to someone known as cultural tourist. Sometimes a location or group of people is identified by an external, objective folklorist and sold on the idea of cultural tourism as a system of preserving a, now clearly identified, unique way of life.
The payoffs of cultural and heritage tourism can be very hefty. So much so, that a large chunk of this city’s money is yearly budgeted to invest in it. A casual walk through many of the busier neighborhoods in New Orleans will reveal to any stroller how many businesses are trying to point their prow as deep into the radius of attention of that curious cultural tourist as possible. Revenues from taxes, permits, tickets and all the rest of it contribute to that section of