Clash between culture and progress is a perennial New Orleans problem, panelists say — but may be getting better (live video)

Print More

Newsflash: “Neighbors and nightclub clash over live music.” It sounds like a headline from any given day’s report from the City Council chambers, but it’s actually a story that’s nearly as old as New Orleans.

Whether New Orleans properly takes care of its musicians and other artists is another never-ending saga — but one that may finally be showing some improvement, according a panel discussion held at Tulane University on Thursday evening.

Transformation, not destruction

Musician Shamarr Allen (left) and Tulane geographer Richard Campanella (right) listen to Ellis Marsalis discuss his views on progress in the New Orleans music industry. (Robert Morris,

The panel was entitled “Does Progress Destroy Culture?” and that lead question can only be answered ‘yes’ in literal fashion when a bulldozer knocks down a historic building, said Tulane geography professor Richard Campanella. But in New Orleans, the debate often takes on a broader meaning in the tension between the city’s residents and its perfomers — in the case of music venues, food trucks, parades and many other forms of expression.

The debate stretches back centuries, Campanella said, including the consolidation of the city’s adult industries into the back of the French Quarter in the late 1800s, the regulation of the Storyville prostitution and music scenes at the turn of the century, the escalating police pressure and ensuing retreat from there to Bourbon Street before World War II, and Jim Garrison’s crackdowns on Bourbon Street in the 1960s. In each case, artists present themselves as doing the work that gives New Orleans its identity, and residents argue that they are merely trying to keep it livable — and city government’s role is usually to try to negotiate between the two, Campanella said.

But while proponents of the culture usually decry the interference as the end of their ability to exist, what happens instead is that they tranform — decreasing profits and standards on Bourbon Street led to the creation of an alternative scene on lower Decatur, and its success led to the growth of Frenchmen Street, spreading now on down St. Claude. That balancing act between the rights of residents and the rights of performers is exactly how civics is supposed to work, Campanella said, and results in a forward movement that he deemed a “dynamic equilibrium,” akin to how a bicycle remains upright by moving forward, and only falls down when it comes to a stop.

“Progress does not mark the end of history nor the destruction of culture, but rather, the next chapter of both,” Campanella concluded.

Getting better?

Moderator Nick Spitzer, hotelier Michael Valentino and journalist Katy Reckdahl share a laugh during the “Does Progress Destroy Culture” forum at Tulane’s Hillel Center. (Robert Morris,

None of the other panelists directly contradicted Campanella’s assertion that progress and culture can be allies, and in fact, despite their varying perspectives, agreed in different ways. Journalist Katy Reckdahl described those unending neighborhood-versus-club fights as tiresome, but said the Landrieu administration has done a better job of connecting performers and residents before the fight gets out of hand. Mardi Gras Indians no longer clash with the NOPD, and the police chief even defended the second-line groups after the Mother’s Day shootings. (Reckdahl wondered, however, if the mostly-white crowds that spill into the streets on St. Patrick’s Day are policed as closely as the mostly-black participants in St. Joseph’s Night.)

“Some of these battles have gotten better, but I still see people discussing how to protect it,” Reckdahl said afterward. “Maybe we care more about culture than we ever have.”

Musician Shamarr Allen said that the influx of new, gentrifying residents means that crime that once passed hardly without notice is now met with outrage — a possible sign of progress. Musical patriarch Ellis Marsalis, now 78 years old, took an even broader view: musicians that could formerly be seen only in person can now be watched on TV (or, presumably, the Internet). The fall of segregation — in everything from Jim Crow laws to Mardi Gras krewes — represents clear progress as well, Marsalis said.

And hotelier Michael Valentino said that the hospitality industry — sometimes caricatured as the Disneyfying enemy of culture — actually has a stake in preserving New Orleans culture, because that’s what it sells to tourists. The growing public conversations about how to do that are actually instructive in helping the city leadership ensure everyone is included, he noted.

One audience member, Jocelyne Ninneman, said that New Orleans seems far better versed in this sort of conversation than her native Detroit, the crumbling home of Motown. Despite the vaunted parallels between the two cities — such as crime rates and population loss — Ninneman said New Orleans is vocal in defense of its traditions, while her hometown seems complacent on the same issues.

“I don’t think New Orleans even realizes the power that it has,” Ninneman said. “People believe in culture so much already that we’re even having these fights.”

Progress through culture
Ultimately, Allen said, if the city can protect its culture and traditions, it may be culture that saves the city.

When he was growing up in the Ninth Ward, he remembers one day asking his parents for $20 for a school field trip. They didn’t have it, and neither did his grandparents, so Allen went outside to pout.

The neighborhood drug dealer walked by, and asked what was wrong. Allen explained, and the dealer handed him a $100 bill.

“That situation to me makes him my role model — you understand? And that happens every day,” Allen said.

But Allen went on to study music in the city’s public schools under the mentorship of Brice Miller, the Mahogany Brass Band leader whose music has taken him to Carnegie Hall and who was present in the Tulane audience Thursday night. Miller, his music and his lifestyle, Allen said, became a different kind of role model who ultimately saved his life.

“Everybody don’t have that,” Allen concluded, focusing his attention on Miller, “and I just want to say thank you.”

To read our live coverage of the forum, see below.

9 thoughts on “Clash between culture and progress is a perennial New Orleans problem, panelists say — but may be getting better (live video)

  1. The question is not whether “Progress Destroys Culture?”
    It’s whether the “Culture is destroying New Orleans?”

    See those Second Line Mardi Gras Indians?

    HOW can these people with the HIGHEST POVERTY have the time to make those costumes and live in the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods?

    It’s Section 8, EBT, Food Stamps….There is no way they can afford to parade even once a year. And they shouldn’t parade on tax payer’s money via EBT, Section 8, etc.

    See those 130,000 who left? Plenty of those who left where Mardi Gras Indians and found out there is more to life than parading or spending all that time making costumes that can’t even support themselves.

    All those 130,000 who left after Hurricane Katrina found that that NEW ORLEANS CULTURE is, overall, nothing to come back to.

    Just goes to show why New Orleans is last place. All they, Louisiana politicians, think is tourist, music, gambling and drinking for the working poor to make them even more poor.

    Population Comparisons:
    New Orleans Metro Area 1.1M,
    San Antonio 2.2M,
    Atlanta 5.4M,
    Houston 6.0M,
    Dallas 6.7M,
    All of Louisiana 4.5M

    All of Louisiana is 18% smaller than the Atlanta, 25% smaller than Houston, 33% smaller than Dallas. Are all those gambling outlets working?

    In other words, the ENTIRE STATE of LOUISIANA is still significantly smaller than its comparison CITIES of Atlanta, Houston and Dallas. Additionally, San Antonio is still bigger than both New Orleans and Baton Rouge combined.

    Latest Numbers Update:
    GNOCDC Economic Synergies across Southeast Louisiana.
    GNOCDC apparently decides to add the Houma metro to the New Orleans Metro and Baton Rouge Metro and gets
    New Orleans, Baton Rouge n Houma is 2.4M.

    If GNOCDC can add Houma Metro Area 2 New Orleans Metro Area and say it’s bigger than San Antonio, why can’t Austin be added, as both Houma and Austin are 1 hour away from New Orleans and San Antonio, respectively?

    Adding Austin, TX Metro, 1.78M, with San Antonio Metro, 2.23M, is 4.0M.

    San Antonio+Austin metros (4.0M) is 67% larger than New Orleans+Baton Rouge+Houma metros (2.4M).

    Talk about statistical manipulation!

    • Well, the Chief of Chiefs, Tootie Montana, was a highly skilled plasterer, and other members of his family were craftsmen as well. Perhaps you should do some research before tying your panties in knots worrying about whether someone figured out a way to buy feathers with food stamps.

      • So are you saying the Chief is an ENABLER?

        If this Chief of Chiefs is a chief and so HIGHLY SKILLED, why are all the Chief’s Indians so UNSKILLED, so POOR, MOST IN JAIL and the LAND the CHIEF LIVES/PARADES IN and AROUND, so CRIME RIDDEN?

    • Well said. GNOCDC, bwaaaahahahha, what can I say?!

      I live outside of Boston, and up until three years ago, had been an annual (at the minimum) visitor to NO for over twenty years. I have friends there, the city’s in my soul – but I vowed I’d not return until the worsening crime issue was resolved. Not for fear for my safety,mind you, I know how to roll there – but as my own little form of protest. Money, meet mouth.

      Now I see and hear (and not just from this source) that my beloved New Orleans isn’t circling the bowl just because of crime and Mitch the Twit’s incompetence, but also because of the newbie NIMBY’s overrunning the place. (I have actually quit reading local media because I find what’s happening there just too painful. Occasionally, though, something inspires a search, and here I am.) And – I never thought I’d live to see the day when I thought Nagin and Riley were preferable to… anything, actually. Oh, but they are, look around.

      Will there ever be a time in my lifetime when New Orleans has a majority of competent leaders???

      I am so glad I knew her when… I hope she bounces back, but she’s on life support now.

  2. Good article, and good coverage last night, too. What some people expected–an angry debate–was a good conversation. I especially value Mr. Marsalis’ remarks about some changes in the music scene and also in the city. And Mr. Allen’s explaining how important mentoring is was right on target, not only for mentoring future musicians, but for mentoring young people. Dr. Campanella’s description of the nature of change is something we see evidence of all around us, if we’d only look at it from that perspective. But . . . I am far more skeptical of the local tourism industry’s activities–marketing the city as what? how? to whom? with whose cooperation and participation? to whose benefit, really? But that’s a whole other Big Topic, and one that I’d like to see Kevin Gotham discussing on a panel. 😉

  3. I think it all comes down to what the definition of “culture” is – which is something that’ll never be agreed upon, as it’s very subjective. Personally, I agree with Allen’s idea of progress through culture. Blight specifically comes to mind, and how local arts & cultural centers have been popping up in formerly blighted neighborhoods.

    This was a great discussion for Tulane to put together (if I were them, I wouldn’t call it a “debate” as it suggests combativeness) and hope it will become a regular, annual discussion.

  4. It brought great hope to see a representative of the tourism industry express understanding that they have a very vested interest in the cultural community. It logically follows that they have a need to see that cultural incubators, such as street music and small venues, remain unmolested. If they really want to protect the goose that lays their $3.9 billion dollar golden eggs, they ought to join forces with the grass roots organizations that have firsthand knowledge of what is going on at the base level.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *