New Orleans—Not Disney & Not Williamsburg

A new tourism campaign promotes “The Princess and the Frog’s NOLA.”

As I sit and wrestle with the issues that swirl beneath the working title of the book I’m writing—“Marching With Saints: The Fight for New Orleans Jazz Culture Since the Flood, and What It Means for America”—I’m forced to reflect on fears many of us shared in 2005 about the future for New Orleans, and to consider the ironic manifestations of these worries.

I recall feeling uneasy about the title and subtitle that Salon placed atop an October 2005 essay of mine—“America’s New Jazz Museum! (No Poor Black People Allowed): Jazz musicians warn against the Disneyfication of New Orleans.”
Yet eventually I warmed to such sensationalism; there were truths in there.
The idea of a Disneyfied New Orleans was a common theme then and now. In the December 2007 issue of The Journal of American History, an essay by J. Mark Souther (whose excellent book, “New Orleans on Parade,” I’m working my way through a second time) considered the matter in great depth. Here’s how he opened:

The idea of a “Disneyfied” New Orleans is not new. Walt Disney, referring to the city’s Bourbon and Royal streets, once remarked, “Where else can you find iniquity and antiquity so close together?” Sharing the assessment of the local author Harnett Kane that the French Quarter, or Vieux Carré, “means New Orleans to the outside world,” Disney added New Orleans Square, a cleaner, shinier replica of the city’s most noted district, to his southern California theme park in 1966. New Orleans leaders, developers, and preservationists, meanwhile, were producing an urban space that, if not as controlled as its Disneyland counterpart, nevertheless invited comparisons.

Souther ended by sounding this warning:

…. Such continued attention to the tourist hub, along with discussion of a “reduced footprint” for the city, conveniently salvages the Disneyfied facade seen by tourists, while writing off the hidden areas where tourism’s laborers lived and its culture thrived. Indeed, Katrina’s flooding consumed the 80 percent of New Orleans that tourists rarely saw, including the notorious Lower Ninth Ward and part of Tremé. Perhaps the countless tourists, trying to make sense of a national tragedy in their own way by straying from the well-worn paths scripted by promoters, may compel New Orleans leaders to recast their city in ways that educate, enlighten, and encourage reform. If not, New Orleans, with its French Quarter ever at the forefront, may well recapture its pre-Katrina reputation as a “Creole Disneyland.”

A post from Sarah Chase titled “The Disneyfication of New Orleans is an Actual Thing” at the NOLA Curbed site made mention of Souther’s essay, as well as the “DizneyLandrieu” brochure that was, as she put it, “the throw of Krewe du Vieux this year” during Mardi Gras season. (That brochure bore the subtitle, “Mitchey Mayor’s Gentrified Kingdom,” the implication being that this was something less than the “happiest place on earth” for locals and lovers of all things New Orleans.)
Chase’s real point was to alert us to some unwelcome irony: “….But for New Orleans to actually use a Disney character to tout tourism? Oh, it’s happening.”
The New Orleans Times-Picayune described “a new collaboration with the Walt Disney Company using the character Tiana from the film ‘The Princess and the Frog’ to pitch the city as a family destination…. The campaign presents family attractions as recommended by Tiana, giving people a view of “The Princess and the Frog’s NOLA.”
“So where does this Tiana chick like to go?” Chase asked. “Jackson Square, Cafe du Monde, the zoo, Audubon Park, City Park, the Steamboat Natchez, St. Louis Cathedral, and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District.”
The animated Disney film “The Princess and the Frog” did introduce theatergoers to a trumpet-playing alligator named Louis, whose horn was actually played by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, thus acknowledging meaningful New Orleans musical tradition. Still, the whole idea of this promotion seems tone deaf to the fears and hopes of anyone steeped in that sort of music and what it stands for and reflects.
I recall standing at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Alex Rawls, then-editor of the local music monthly Offbeat and who now blogs at My Spilt Milk. Rawls told me:

“The Disneyfication of New Orleans that people talked about after Katrina was supposed to be quick and dramatic. But the danger is not like that. If you take your hands off the wheel and let business interests rule, that sort of thing happens more gradually, almost without people noticing.”

Which brings me to a piece by Joah Spearman for Huffington Post titled “Will New Orleans Reach Its Potential?”Not that I take terribly seriously either Spearman—who apparently thinks that Brooklyn, where I live, is a city, and not a borough of New York City—or Huffington Post, who lack the editing that would catch such an error, and would more generally redirect the misguided and self-indulgent energies that lead to pieces like this one.
Spearman asks: “Will New Orleans see past the way things have been to reach its potential?”
He goes on:

The government wrote its checks, but over the last nine years, gentrification – in the Bywater neighborhood, for example — has acted as a venture capitalist, and the city itself is the product in need of additional resources to reach its full potential. A debate is quietly taking place about what that potential is and who benefits most from reaching it. I use the term “potential” here because the table — with all of its previous assumptions and tensions — needed to be cleared following Hurricane Katrina. Some may fear the city is losing its soul, but a city needs a body and mind, too, and that takes work…”

For anyone who remembers House Speaker Dennis Hastert in 2005, questioning the logic of rebuilding New Orleans, and saying, “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed”; for those of us who’ve watched closely in the years since as public housing projects were razed and as much of MidCity has given way to medical-center development; for those involved in protests and city-council debates over noise ordinances and other policies at odds with indigenous culture, well, the “table clearing” so glibly suggested here sounds something like fighting words or at least sends our spines a chill.
Spearman doesn’t claim to consider New Orleans from a point of deep research—“I spent some time there last week,” he writes—and yet his outlook reflects a deeply present danger to a city in which time-honored traditions might deserve to be honored because they essentially hold up whatever table Spearman and others wish to clear.
Spearman calls New Orleans “…a city with so much potential that I’d honestly consider moving there because of the surging community of millennials, creatives, and transplants who view themselves as agents of change.” He celebrates “This investor, going by the name of gentrification,” and explains: “The problem is that there’s a lot of history and resistance to change delaying the dividend payments to these new investors in the city.”
This last bit brings to my mind many things, including the following, which clarinetist and Xavier University professor Michael White said to me in 2006: “There’s a feeling among many that some of our older cultural institutions, like parades and jazz funerals, are in the way of progress and don’t fit in the new vision of New Orleans.”
Spearman is excited by the rapid change in the Bywater neighborhood, and by retail outlets like Exodus Goods, a women’s boutique, which “has brought Brooklyn style to New Orleans.”
Maybe the danger isn’t that New Orleans is going to become Disney. Maybe the greater fear is that the animated Princess will lure tourists to something more Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, not far from where I live, which has become something of theme park for hipsters and realtors and the cast of “Girls.”
After all, “Girls” seems to have scored more viewers than David Simon’s “Treme.” Yet Simon’s show was the one that focused on second-line parades and lots of live music and actual neighborhoods—on the sounds and sights and ways of being that drew those “millenials and creatives” to New Orleans in the first place.
Image: © 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

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