To love New Orleans is to love its culture.
To love New Orleans culture—to experience it, explore it, study it, dive in and swim in it, as I have done for more than decade; or, more importantly, to live it, as so many of the musicians, culture-bearers and born-and-bred natives I’ve written about do—is to wonder about its place in its city.
Often, it’s to shake your head, sigh, and sometimes cry out in disgust or anger.
To demand understanding and respect.
To pine for reasonable solutions and compassionate support.
To take action.
If you’ve been reading me, you know that I’ve been questioning, urging and challenging the powers that be in New Orleans for quite some time about the curious and damaging tensions between this storied city and the culture that is at the heart of its story—I’ve been demanding that they rethink and reform the city’s cultural policy (or its lack thereof).
In this 2010 piece for Truthdig, not long after Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor, I asked:
Why not revisit the full scope of cultural policy that is at odds with New Orleans’ true identity? Why not open the door to a more sensible approach to zoning, and why not give a place at the policy table to musicians and culture-bearers so prominently featured in the tourism ads?
In this 2015 Wall Street Journal essay, I placed such concerns in the context of a swiftly gentrifying city whose culture now faced new threats:
This year, the New Orleans City Council has the chance to craft policies that nurture culture and remove it from the cross hairs of controversy. If it can’t strike the right balance, that next brass band may not find its audience on a streetcorner. And that city like no other may start to sound and feel a bit more like every place else.
And in that piece, I quoted Jordan Hirsch, who formerly headed the nonprofit Sweet Home New Orleans:
“Where we were once focused on simply getting musicians home,” he said, “the job now is to create equitable policies that assure a sustainable cultural community.”
These days another nonprofit organization, The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO), has led the charge in terms of building awareness about the context for New Orleans culture, and in mobilizing both culture-bearers and culture lovers around issues that matter most. MACCNO was born of informal 2012 lunchtime meetings at a club owned by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. Early on, the group helped spark protest when an urgent call to action was needed.
I’ve written about MaCCNO many times in many contexts (here’s a blog piece about the group’s second anniversary).
More recently, MaCCNO has grown into a vital source of information and an infrastructure for the kind of enlightened change New Orleans culture demands. Here’s what Ethan Ellestad, MaCCNO’s executive director, told me recently in an email:
Nearing our 4th Anniversary, we are finally in a time where we can begin to proactively work for new, culture friendly policies, rather than simply push back against harmful ordinances or music-averse neighborhood organizations. However, as the pace of change in New Orleans continues to accelerate, we are now working on how to address larger, systemic problems that affect the cultural community—such as the need for affordable housing or reliable public transit—while still continuing our work to support neighborhood music venues, and protect the rights of street performers.
Today, I received an email from MaCCNO about a planned update to the city’s Master Plan— a comprehensive guide for the development of the City adopted in 2010,
“Shockingly and shamefully, there is no chapter dedicated to the City’s culture,” the email explained. “Indeed, it is hardly mentioned throughout this document.”
(For the full letter, go here.)
As the letter explains: “We have a chance to correct this oversight, and we encourage all members of the cultural community to offer text amendments to the document, which are being accepted until July 29th (you can download the application here). MaCCNO will also be submitting proposed amendments, which we will post on our website. In the fall, the City Planning Commission will be holding hearings on these amendments, and the City Council will vote on final passage in the Spring.
I’m going to propose an amendment or two. And I hope to be at some of those Fall hearings. I’ll be writing more about these issues soon. (One good way to keep up is clarinetist Evan Christopher‘s indispensable column, “MAC-Notes” at the Nolavie.com website. (Here‘s Christopher’s dissection of the city’s claims regarding tourism dollars.)
While I’m on that subject, I’m happy to note that MACCNO has begun to attract the funding and support it so richly deserves. The organization is looking to hire an Experienced Organizer/Community Engagement Professional. If you’re that person, or you know someone who might be, go here.