On That Kale Thing

The New York Times, New Orleans and the search for authenticity. 

Mr. Ebert said he worries his adopted home will be pegged as “Brooklyn south” and become overrun by bright-eyed strivers looking for a new source of authenticity to co-opt.

So writes Lizzy Goodman, in a New York Times piece about the alleged New Orleans renaissance. The piece is about the transplant experience, and I get that, though quoting a newcomer’s distate for other arrivistes seems a questionable choice at best.

Of late, it seems our not-so-fair city has made quite a few media appearances. When the writer Brett Martin moved here, New Orleans restaurants and merchants began showing up in Condé Nast publications—my personal favorite was the photo of the R Bar, a Marigny dive that used to have its own in-house coke dealer, in a glossy GQ spread on the country’s best watering holes.

These pieces don’t make me angry because I’m particularly attached to New Orleans culture (I’m not) or because I grew up here (I didn’t, though I’ve lived here for ten years). They aren’t inaccurate: we’re getting farm-to-table restaurants and hipster boutiques and craft cocktail bars in spades. Unfortunately for Mr. Ebert, the “Brooklyn South” thing is well on its way, vegan muffins, kale and all.

But “Experiencing New Orleans, with Fresh Eyes and Ears” and its ilk still grate on my nerves, and I think I’ve figured out why. It’s their incompleteness. They’re about a very specific New Orleans experience; one of a mostly-white creative class with disposable income, who drink and brunch and “revitalize” the Bywater. They paint a picture of a rapidly-gentrifying city, a new and artisanally-based version of the grown-up playground the city has marketed itself as for years.

Some things were left out:

Anecdotally, about half of my friends and acquaintances have been robbed at gunpoint, carjacked, or simply assaulted, including a college classmate who was beaten with a hammer on his way home from a neighborhood bar. We have the third-highest murder rate per capita in the nation. (Here’s one afternoon’s worth of shootings in the city. It was a Monday.) In Orleans Parish, 27% of residents live below the poverty level (compared to 15% nationally.) Almost 400,000 people in Louisiana depend on food stamps, including, until recently, myself. Despite all the talk of the “Silicon Bayou,” New Orleans still employs more people in low-paid service and hospitality jobs than almost any other industry. Conventionally, one does not send their children to public school here, if one hopes for said children to have a future. Our elected officials are consistently convicted of bribery and fraud.

I guess I’m just over the advertising campaigns, the media attention and reinvention of a city that doesn’t work. In the selling of New Orleans as a hot spot for duck-fat fry food trucks and middle- to upper-class creative types, our faults and failures are neatly omitted—and that doesn’t auger much hope for the arrivants’ attention to the city’s problems.

And to Mr. Ebert: if you’re so concerned about preserving New Orleans’ purported “authenticity,” I suggest you quit giving interviews to the New York Times. It’s self-defeating, and you look like a fool.