One of the things I’m looking forward to in the New Year is some movement in the right direction when it comes to cultural policy in New Orleans.
Here’s how my piece in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal on the subject began:
Last year in New Orleans, the calls and responses of a storied musical tradition were often drowned out by back-and-forth arguments over ordinances. At stake are a number of things, not least a culture that the city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau website correctly claims “bubbles up from the streets.”
and here’s how I concluded:
New Orleans loves to relive its past. Yet simply because its culture has long occupied embattled space doesn’t mean that must forever be the case. Despite sometimes-heated rhetoric, those advocating for enlightened policies have begun speaking less like combatants than like willing partners, or as activists completing a mission. Jordan Hirsch, who formerly headed the nonprofit Sweet Home New Orleans, now works with a nascent organization billed as a “cultural continuity conservancy.” “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.”
During a news conference at last year’s Jazz & Heritage Festival, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told me, “there is a way to organize culture without killing it.”
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.
Of the comments and replies, the most interesting one thus far came from New Orleans-based music critic Alex Rawls (who I quoted in my piece), at his excellent blog. I especially liked this part:
…. Part of the promise of New Orleans is that you can turn a corner and walk into a second line, find Mardi Gras Indians, or step into a neighborhood bar and happen upon a brass band. The music is only part of the magic; its improbability is also important. One of the saddest features of this year’s Saints season in the Superdome—along with the defense and the interceptions and the lacklustre play—was the woeful attempt at an on-the-field second line during halftime, one without a band or the ability to join. All that was left was Saintsations walking in a line. New Orleans’ music culture invites people to participate, and the more rigorously it’s forced into a structure that’s like the structures music inhabits in other cities, the less room there is for the kind of spontaneity that offers visitors a unique experience.
Organized events are easier to market and sell, and there’s a reason why magic is called magic. It doesn’t always happen, and many people leave the city after only hearing music in the places they expected to find it. But the promise of magic has the same allure as the promise of winning the lottery but with better odds. For now, anyhow.