The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, a Mardi Gras marching group, will hold their inaugural Ignition Festival this week in a lot that was once the site of a burned down factory — or, as their website says, “in a hidden oasis in New Orleans East.”
The lot is clearly visible from the bridge leading into the East, so it is not “hidden,” at least to residents. But the term “oasis” reveals their perspective. “Oasis” is defined as “a fertile or green area in a desert or wasteland,” or “a situation or place preserved from surrounding unpleasantness.”
A drive through New Orleans East is a scenic journey through overgrown lots, deteriorating buildings, abandoned houses, and deserted strip malls that would be an excellent film set for The Walking Dead. To residents of the area, endless blight is a sore reminder of how ignored the area feels amidst the rest of the city’s “recovery.”
New Orleans East is a large, majority-black section of the city that technically includes several neighborhoods, but those names are almost always disregarded in favor of simply, “the East.” The area was one of the hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and one of the slowest to recover. Ninety percent of the East’s homes were damaged in the storm. Prior to 2005, the area was a stronghold of the black middle class. Since then, property values have fallen. Although new businesses have sprouted up all over the city, the East has far fewer businesses than before the storm. A hospital has only finally opened up this past year. Grocery options are pitiful beyond the new Walmart and endless dollar stores.
I have no negative opinion of the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus and generally feel neutral about music festivals. Had the festival been planned for another location, the announcement wouldn’t even have caught my attention. But I seriously doubt many folks from the East will be attending the pricey, three-day long festival inspired by Burning Man (which is overwhelmingly white).
The Krewe’s website photos include minimal diversity, and their parade route is largely in the Bywater neighborhood, a transplant favorite synonymous with New Orleans gentrification, also known as “the Williamsburg of the South.” The Bywater, prior to the storm, was a working-class neighborhood with more than 6 in 10 residents being African-American. Today, the neighborhood is 56 percent white and earnings have risen 17 percent.
Gentrification came first to areas with minimal flood damage, but as those areas reach capacity, new territory is sought for expansion. A friend and fellow resident of the East calls it “the place that care forgot,” but perhaps the East is now gaining notice from the rest of the city. Our city councilman boasts with glee about a restaurant’s announcement to open up a location in the East and predicts a bright economic future on the horizon.
But I’ll believe that when I see it. I can’t help but wonder what this “bright economic future” entails, exactly.
According to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, “we are making incredible progress, but our work is far from done. We are not just rebuilding the city that we once were, but are creating the city that we always should have been.” Mayor Landrieu praises the new all-charter school district — a result of the private takeover of the public school system during the storm—and the firing of 7,500 predominantly black educators, administrators and paraprofessionals. Public school teachers made up the backbone of the black middle class.
New Orleans’ black population has lost nearly 100,000 members. The city now stands “smaller, whiter, younger and more affluent”.
According to poll results released in August, four out of five white New Orleans residents view the city as mostly recovered; three out of five black residents say it is not. Forty-one percent of white residents say their quality of life has improved since the storm; a third of black residents say it has worsened. Out of 300 American cities, New Orleans has earned second place for highest income inequality, and that inequality falls along racial lines, with black median household income 54 percent lower than that of whites.
“Progress” seems to mean different things to different people.
The president visited the New Orleans neighborhood of Treme during the storm’s 10th-anniversary celebration and congratulated the city on all the remarkable “progress” that has been made over the decade. Treme, one of the oldest black neighborhoods in the nation, has seen its home values triple since 2000. The neighborhood’s white population has doubled and four out of five of those white residents were born out of state.
Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella describes New Orleans gentrification coming in four phases: first the gutter punks, then hipsters followed by bourgeois bohemians and, finally, the bona fide gentry. The festival will likely attract the first two, and I can’t help but view that as ominous. With the kind of inequality the city swims in, this “fertile” lot could the be the start of the East being anything but forgotten, and instead be an “unpleasant” “wasteland” for newcomers to discover and remake.
In the more immediate future, such a music festival will likely result in a higher police presence. I can only imagine a higher police presence to mean unnecessary harassment for black residents attempting to carry out their daily activities and minimal harassment for white festival attendees. Something about the imagined images of festival attendees camping and partying in the East feels painful, like salt rubbed in unhealed wounds.
Mayor Landrieu says that all this planning and progress is being done with eyes on the 300th anniversary of the New Orleans’ founding coming up in 2018. He says, “we’ll make New Orleans the global model for resilience in the 21st century.”
A “bright economic future” might indeed be on the horizon for the East and the rest of the city as we approach the 300th anniversary. The best answer may not come from asking if the future looks bright, but rather asking, “who will stand in the ever-growing bright light and who will become invisible in its darkening shadow?”