Letter to the editor: Root of gentrification is decline of New Orleans’ middle class

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By Alfred Bostick

The recent Uptown Messenger article “Good neighbors: Freret’s revival has largely avoided the issues that often accompany gentrification” is an intelligent and well considered fine piece of writing on a complicated subject. It is much appreciated. I also would have liked to have seen some treatment of the larger economic change that has hit the traditional middle-class quite devastatingly, not only here, but nationally and world-wide. I know it sounds like an extraneous issue to raise and examine in such a tightly focused urban neighborhood discussion, but it seems to me to play a pivotal role.

When I was a kid, we lived in a large house of many apartments that one of my grandmothers owned on Jackson Avenue between Magazine and Constance. She also lived there in her own apartment; an uncle, aunt, and cousins occupied another; and three more were rented out. My other grandmother rented a house on Freret Street, right in the middle of the area discussed in the article. Hence, I have a pretty sound historical grounding in the working-class neighborhoods of uptown New Orleans, and today live on Rousseau Street.

My father and uncle returned from service at the close of World War II in 1946. They both got good, unionized, blue collar jobs at Industrial Electric Co., right up Magazine Street, where there now stands a Walgreens drugstore. Industrial Electric was a very vibrant and diversified company. It rewound and serviced electric motors, and repaired a range of other equipment on sea-going ships, which came to New Orleans as a regular port-of-call. Industrial also was a neon sign erection concern, and put up many of the roof-top signage structures still lining Canal Street. That company employed a large number of well-paid craft workers in addition to electricians, such as machinists, painters, and sign makers. It is long gone now, and so are all of those riverfront related jobs.

Also mostly gone are thousands of other well-paid and skilled, unionized, riverfront related jobs. Machine shops like Praeger, Dixie, and Buck-Krieghs, as well as electric motor shops, like Atlas, are either no more or feint echoes of their clamorous hey-days.

Disappeared, too, are most of those unskilled but well-paid, unionized, hard-laboring longshoremen, and their support Clerks and Checkers Union workers. This work created a black middle-class in New Orleans. Without it, the potent rise of the Seventh Ward political power base, which produced two mayors and many other powerful black political leaders, would never have happened. At the close of the 1960s there were more than 7,000 longshoremen working the New Orleans riverfront, last number I saw had it at 700. This work also once allowed Aaron Neville to survive for decades waiting on the music business to do right by him, and the smartest, most decent attorney I’ve ever known to work his way through Tulane Law School.

The reasons for the dramatic economic shift alluded to above are completely beyond any decision making we have ever undertaken or could have ever undertaken on a local level. World trade-pattern shifts (including allowing foreign ship registry, staffing and servicing) and automation account for almost all of it. I point to it only to expose what I believe to be at the root of working-class endangerment and viability in the modern urban community.

The only chance of avoiding the massive displacement of working-class people long-term is a profound change in the dominant economic reality of this city. I have some hope that the significant new investment in the medical and research areas might at least serve to dislodge us from this dead-stop, dead-end and abusive, wedded relationship to tourism and other mindless frivolity. But I also think the nay-saying skeptics on this hope have at least as much chance of being proven out as I do.

Failing that, no matter how well intended the players may be, unless there is a wholesale reworking of the terms of employment for the drudges enlisted in staffing the hospitality and retail sectors of economic activity, gentrification and displacement will remain not only a possibility, but an inevitability. We simply cannot support a large middle-class by serving each other lunch and drinks, and selling T-shirts.

Alfred Bostick is a resident of New Orleans.

16 thoughts on “Letter to the editor: Root of gentrification is decline of New Orleans’ middle class

  1. There is no prospect of the massive displacement of working class people as there are no working class people doing the work of the jobs that you note no longer exist. The port could expand enormously, and we shall never have 7000 longshoremen again. I’m not sure those would still be regarded as good jobs anyway. My father was a union metal worker, and we were something below middle class. My parents certainly didn’t aspire to live in a chopped up apartment on Jackson Avenue and would not have thought of that as middle class life. The uneducated blue collar worker is now a romanticized figure that doesn’t really reflect the lives they lived. The economy has certainly changed such that tough blue collar work has disappeared because of automation and outsourcing, but I am not sure that is what we want going forward anyway.

  2. Nice job Mr. Bostick.
    My wife and I moved here 20 years ago- with our first of several apartments at Jefferson and Willow and we now live and work from a building we designed and built 3 years ago at 5110 Freret.
    http://www.glassartists.org/Gal37447_BrottWorks_New_Studio.asp
    We have seen the best, the ugly, and the worst of times, but know what you wrote above is true, and the best has yet to come if we attack issues head on with solutions.
    My take- is more Jane Jacobs thinking- that go’s from the bottom up, instead of top down- i.e.- to empower individuals to change and improve to their homes, neighborhoods, and lives from the smallest details on up.
    As JJ said (not quoted directly- but close) – each neighborhood is different, so tried and proven solutions that worked in someone else neighborhood, may not work in yours-
    Listen to your neighbors, engage them, and do what’s best for them and them alone- Be wary of so called “experts” and planned help as they often represent outside interests and even if they are well intended- they can and often do more harm than good.
    That said to me, we can’t magically grow a middle class- lets recruit it. Starting with changes to RD-2 and other residential zoning that is drastically more permissive in allowing someone to open and operate a commercial business.
    Want to live and work from home?
    Move (or return) to NOLA and buy and renovate one of our thousands of blighted and abandoned homes, move in, open your (? fill in the blank) business, and never commute again.
    All would have dumb 30 years ago, but is perfect for today’s digital culture and way grow a middle class.

    Another solution I want is fiscal literacy taught and advocacy/help given to long term residents who soon will struggle with increases in property tax and City Services.
    Like it or not, the rules were written by real estate developers, for real estate developers-
    Look here for an example-
    https://uptownmessenger.com/2012/07/uptown-university-area-slated-for-tax-free-art-sales-historic-renovation-tax-credits/
    and
    http://www.wwltv.com/news/Cultural-district-slated-for-University-area-to-bring-tax-credits-for-renovations-161683305.html
    Why is it we pay for these, but can’t or wont help others who without the knowledge or ability to take advantage?
    If the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the middle class won’t return…
    Sorry for the ramble…

    Best from 5110 Freret,
    Andy Brott

    • Andy,

      >>Starting with changes to RD-2 and other residential zoning that is drastically more permissive in allowing someone to open and operate a commercial business.<<

      This. A thousand times, this. If we would allow businesses that don't create significant externalities to operate in residential districts, it would be a great boon for entrepreneurs. As things are, you can technically keep a home office if it's a tiny part of the property (this is what I do) but you're extremely limited generally in operating a business in a residential area, even if the building was designed to house offices or retail.

      • Mr. C-
        Spot on- I know it will work.
        Why?
        Because many highly educated folks would gladly trade what they have, for what we live. Now if only they could…
        Example-
        Post-K 2005/6: our Freret Street Studio is in ruins. We re-locate temporally into what today is Midway Pizza. Folks are here from everywhere to help- some from here and moved away, some have visited before, and others?. What I hear over and over is- “came to help, love this place, but can’t earn enough to stay, let alone raise kids”.
        Fast forward to 2013 where the accepted dress code to a “virtual meetings” is a bathrobe…
        Lets turn our “brain drain” into a Brain gain, starting with the friends and family who know “what it means to miss New Orleans. CHANGE RD2 – MAKE IT EASY AND LEGAL WORK FROM HOME!!!!!

        Best from Freret,
        Andy Brott

      • And they snuck in a lot of “land use” CHANGES with the “Master Plan with force of law” which will dictate zoning changes counter to what long-time property owners had when they purchased and invested in their properties. It happened to me. And when I protested at one of the planning meetings BEFORE the adoption of the changes, a sneaky “Neighborhood activist” kept following me around the meeting, saying “Oh but you don’t understand, this isn’t ZONING, this is just a land use plan (which is still counter to how the land had been “used” and zoned for 50 years, with no apparent problems), like I was too stupid to know that it is just phase one of “their” plan to rezone m y property and another 6 blocks of commercial zoning. After the fact, when I complained to the professional “planners” (who I had alerted about the incorrect map designation BEFORE the plan was adopted) they told me that they HAD corrected the map, but the politically-connected neighborhood “activist” had exerted pressure and it was re-listed as residential. So this, is how bogus zoning is being implemented – by the “few,” who think “they know best,” and now the injured parties (me and my neighbors) have to spend a lot of time and money to correct it. But make no mistake, we will do it, just like we have had to spend a lot of time in the past to fight these people who have been trying to down-zone our property for over 30 years… three times, to be exact. We won then, and we’ll win now. It’s just a real shame that property owners have to spend their efforts with this kind of bulls**t. It just takes time away from actually running our businesses and creating sales tax revenues for the city coffers

  3. What is happening on Freret Street does not seem to be gentrification but simply the return of business to a neighborhood business district. The neighborhood housing patterns are not changing significantly.

    But be that as it may, the middle class fled New Orleans decades ago, not so much because of a lack of jobs but as a result of the destruction of the public school system. A vibrant middle class can not exist without public education. But a return of any functional people is a good thing for the city, as it can not exist when only a small portion of the population pays taxes and a large portion is largely subsidized by those that do.

  4. Alfred, you are correct but your last two paragraphs regarding the moving of “the working class” is both correct but slightly short sighted and I think doesn’t match the current or recent economic conditions of many neighborhoods. You don’t entirely explain working class but if going by the “longshoreman” model that type of income is long gone. Many of the areas being gentrified fell WELL BELOW the incomes of unionized workers long ago and are considered functionally poor to extreme lower middle class by the national standard. I submit to you that the wholesale socioeconomic drain in the 50’s 60’s 70’s left an average income/ standard of living in these areas comparatively poor based average and that lasted so long that the people down here forgot what middle-class really was. It lasted a couple of generations at least. New Orleans has lived in a lower valued bubble essentially unaware of other markets . I and others believe New Orleans was long overdue for a major renaissance and has until recently been long overlooked during major economic upturns. The current tide in the city is something that has happened all over the country in the most interesting cities well before this and New Orleans has until now been left in the dust. That is not to say everyone will love it. There are some that would argue that the culture will be lost and that “their” areas are being ruined by outsiders. Some of this is also very short sighted as people often don’t understand that the neighborhoods that they grew up in or moved to were almost all built built first and lived in by the types of people that are now moving back in and are sometimes labeled as evil gentrifiers. Few realistic observers would argue that however quaint and culturally significant New Orleans was and is, it was sliding into a city that was headed for a painful death. It was unsupportable with its size, age of infrastructure, crime, corruption, expensive sports teams loss of ALL revenue. Here’s the news; there will always be a middle class in New Orleans, just as there is in Charleston, New York and other areas that have been moved into heavily by upper middle class and the like. Even though people think that these cities are vastly different they all share a real-estate similarity in that they are all major shipping ports and cut off by water essentially shrinking the areas most desirable. In our city of course that desirable area is going to be the historic districts or “sliver by the river” Esplanade Ridge etc.. It is true that the old industries that built these areas are/have changed and are often disappearing but there is no wishing them back just like there is no wishing back the Lower East Side of New York was still the old Bowery with small electric shops and still run by Italians. Greenwich Village is not a poor mans seaport area, (its not even a gay area anymore as it was in the 70’s) . Charleston’s Ansonborough and Westside are no longer tough roughneck dock areas. There is more vacant land in New Orleans than either of these other cities (both of which I have lived in for more than a decade each) so at least here there is still lots of room comparatively . As in all successful cities the working class ebbs and flows and will settle in areas that are now thought to be beneath them. Central City, Holy Cross, and eventually outer Algiers, Gretna, etc. etc. I would remind all that the Irish Channel and Bywater and even the Lower Garden District were considered well below what was considered desirable as little as a decade or more ago and for many years prior. At one time these areas were quite respectable themselves in a working mans/family way and in the case of the LGD shipping magnates and wealthy of the highest order way.. but they and much of old New Orleans fell on terribly hard times. Those hard times are what allowed you to live in “a large house of many apartments” on Jackson Avenue. Most of those large houses were built as single homes for upper middle class and even upper class so what you considered normal was considered the neighborhood’s failure to those that paid for those houses. So now after many many decades the pendulum swings the other way. This time in a big way. Such are the cycles. People need to understand that much of the area being worried or complained about re gentrification was built by people that were close to the same socioeconomic that are “moving back in” a union dock worker salary is comparable to a man who may run a pizza joint. I certainly know bar tenders that make an excellent living and have just bought in the Channel. The young tech guys are not all millionaires , some just make a decent living and movie people alike, carpenters, sets, costumes, etc. These are much of what is driving prices in the historic districts. Some of the people are new landlords which a TON of the Channel, Marigny, Bywater was built as rental spec. I will say that whatever is driving this current movement be it tourism, tech, hospital, film, love of food, life, music …naysaying people in general need to get over their fears and get on this proverbial Streetcar. These newcomers are largely here to work, spend , live and thankfully have a good time. Stop wishing it wasn’t here or was different because it’s arrived and there is ZERO you can do about it because its been this way since there were cities. Without it this city would be fully lost as there was nothing to sustain it any longer. I am not from here but my wife is and now my 20 month daughter is. My wife grew up in the French Quarter in the 70’s. She sometimes laments that it is no longer a neighborhood. Before her childhood there…. not so long ago… it was a slum, and before that it was rows of Mansions. As Bob Dylan so aptly puts it– The times, they are a changin’.

    We are WORKING to stay here,

    Banks McClintock
    resident of New Orleans

  5. As a company that does a specialized type of service we have tripled our fee’s in part because those who are now in the upper income brackets are for the most part college educated and do not have the wherewithal or ability to sling a hammer or use a screwdriver. They may be well qualified in computers, healthcare, or Law but they could not build a house if their life depended on it. We “Blue Collar” low income middle class are taking our 200k to the bank every year and buying the properties you upper income people are renting from us….sweet indeed………

  6. Maybe the unions had something to do with it? I see that every job mentioned was a “union” job. Taxes in Orleans parish drove out businesses as well. Creative destruction is the natural evolution of manufacturing as well, it’s just a fact of life. American companies are the most competitive and well run in the world, especially manufacturing companies. My company is a manufacturing company that is publically traded and founded in 1871, business has never been better and we mostly manufacture right here in the USA. I love the history of New Orleans and would’ve loved to have seen it, but be glad we have a service economy and a top tourist destination in the world, otherwise you’d be complaining about all the pollution and everything else that comes with manufacturing goods. You live in a great city, enjoy it for what it is today.

    • Exactly. My family’s business left New Orleans in the 1950’s due to UNION demands and relocated to Mississippi, where it has thrived.

    • This is no doubt true, at least in part. Older cities that peaked earlier tended to lose their manufacturing base more quickly because of union demands. It’s not just unions, though — it’s the corruption in government, the excessive land-use restrictions, and the higher taxes and cost of living. There were also certainly major economic factors that would have loomed large either way, but the transition would have been much easier if not for institutional problems.

  7. > “We simply cannot support a large middle-class by serving each other lunch and drinks, and selling T-shirts.”

    Perhaps if you show them what the TOURISM NUMBERS actual mean, it would show that tourism 9 million visitors is 70% less than advertised.

    Louisiana Tourism Forecast 2009-2013
    Page 12, Figure 9.
    http://bit.ly/16PToGe

    From the bar chart on Figure 9:
    1. VFR = VISITING FRIENDS and RELATIVES at around 30-35%
    2. Entertainment and Sightseeing is around 20%
    3. Convention and Conference is around 10%

    Is “VFR” very high cause Louisiana doesn’t have good jobs so these “tourists” left Louisiana and New Orleans? Yes.
    Hence, VFR is probably NOT spending like a Tourist cause they already have what they need.

    COMPARE THIS TO:

    METAIRIE’S LAKESIDE SHOPPING CENTER versus ALL of NOLA TOURISM
    Lakeside Shopping Center has 10 million visitors
    (the $13B mentioned at URL below is still up for discussion and needs more clarification)
    http://bit.ly/YpSUR3

    more discussion here
    http://bit.ly/19mPRBE

    LAST POINT:

    “Visitors” are NOT necessarily “Tourists” that actually spend $100/day. Visitors can be VFR, Visiting Friends and Relatives, big difference.

  8. Hello all, this is Alfred Bostick. I appreciate the response this little letter has occasioned. I want you to know above all else that I have not ignored your comments. Rather, they have stirred in me a surprising and quite quickening desire to submit a variety of elaborations on various subjects we probably all see or can see through a sympathetic lens. Nor will I under any circumstances depart your company in any posture at all modestly constrained from serving up straight-out, slap-down, head-on challenges to the all too tired anti-union, feeble and childish right-wing economic fantasies of the Randian strain, which I simply will not ignore or abide. Stay tuned.
    First, allow me to explain my delay. I am not the most technically adept correspondent. Some months ago, I was moved to offer a comment on an article at this site. In order to do so, I chose one of the avenues the system permits, and entered the necessary information: username, password, blah, blah, blah, etc. It worked like a charm. Alas, since then enough time has passed that yours truly no longer has a clue regarding the correct specific answers, under that rubric, to enter in the program template to allow access today.
    Hence, it’s taken time for me to figure out a way to “break into” the game again. I finally decided to use a wholly different email account, which I had created for a “spoof” twitter identity. As you can see, it has apparently worked. I only hope I don’t lose tract of the various gate-keeper magic “saysame” sayings I need to repeat to get in again.
    But for now, this is the perfect place to explain the origin of this so-called “Letter to the Editor,” as well as offer a word of gratitude to Mr. Robert Morris.
    A week or so ago, I was quite taken by the “gentrification” piece Mr. Morris had written centering on the post Katrina Freret Street experience. I wrote my thoughts on his piece, and attempted to enter them on the comment section. Well, as you now know, I found myself at sea with such an undertaking. As I recall, my frustration led me to offer up a complaint into the twitter ether. Mr. Morris generously responded by offering to handle the technical difficulty of posting my comments, if I would email them to him. I did. He then proved himself even more generous by suggesting it be run as a “Letter to the Editor” and thereby enjoy somewhat more prominent exposure to the general readership.
    So, here we are. I look forward to speaking directly to comments regarding the supposed “romanticizing” of New Orleans’s past working class/middle class experience, ( Pro tip: careful where you lay your bet ) but that’s all I have time to say tonight. And am determined to clean up the mess some commenters make of the specific subject of the letter, to wit: what kind of economy will offer a chance for lower, working and middle class people to enjoy a valued, legitimate, stable and aspirational, bought-in and at home life-style?
    Meanwhile, I have other demands pressing on my time. A 4 am morning wake-up for work routine is one. Still, I wanted to acknowledge the responses to the letter, to say a word of thanks to Mr. Morris, and to explain my absence from the field before now. For any who may remain interested, I should be full into it again in a day or two, at the most. Good night.

  9. Just another quick general observation I woke thinking of this morning, and then I promise next time to focus directly on specific comments offered on the letter itself. You may have noticed or already come to suspect that either I am not given to proof-reading at all or else just don’t take sufficient care when I’m in a hurry. Both are true. Worse than that, I am almost always in a hurry.
    I work, and I mean really work, a regular construction job all day, and now am occupied in the evenings and on weekends trying like heck to complete installation of a home generator, before suffering sweltering hurricane power outages again this year. Apart from that, I do enjoy some private life diversions and family time, just like everyone else. So, it is pretty hard to say where engaging in discussions such as this would fit. The answer, of course, is it really doesn’t fit; I have to force it.
    So, if you’re offended encountering remarkably strange passages in which it may appear I’m trying to insult your intelligence by noting that 4am occurs in the morning (as I unfortunately did in my previous remarks), please know that it is not your intelligence I’m offending, but my own. And if this acknowledgement isn’t enough to get you past the likes of that, I would recommend you take your interest to a more polished and less hurried correspondent. For, fair warning, the quite humbling display of my mistake-ridden base humanity will likely always somewhat be in evidence. I know that and you should, too.

  10. Thank you, Mr. Bostick for the kind words for Industrial Electric. My grandfather, Edmond Brignac, Sr. Owned it. He would not only hire folks with only some knowledge of different job positions, but he would also help them and talk to them as if he were a fellow coworker and not a boss.

    Al Brignac, jr.

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