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.