Thursday, March 13, 2014

Buy some (cool) dirt

Ray Nagin 2006:
He said that billions of dollars will be invested into the rebuilding effort and urged the audience to "buy some dirt in New Orleans."

"New Orleans is getting ready to be the biggest job site in the world," he said.

While touting the positives of the city, Nagin also said the wait continues for delivery of money the government has approved for homeowners. He acknowledged the biggest issue still facing the city is inadequate housing.
It's worth remembering that even at a point less than one year after the flood even Ray Nagin understood that the federal recovery investment in New Orleans was going to set off a boom.  (Something like a boom, anyway.) [Update 3/14: This was the part of the post where I had intended to make an "Exlpoding Pie" reference but forgot to put the link in.  Sorry.  Happy Pi Day]

We spend a lot of time and ink and virtual ink praising the Hollywood buzz and tourism driven real estate bubble we're experiencing and calling that "recovery."  But that's all just booster babble obscuring the federal investment that has been the real driver here.

Every major project in town you see hailed as a "sign of recovery" whether it's the Mid-City hospital complex, the Loyola Streetcar, the "five new libraries" (actually five old libraries rebuilt but whatever),  the "revitalized" Main Streets, the Circle Food Store, or even the new Whole Foods on Broad,  all of that stuff is happening thanks to federal grant funds mostly tied directly to disaster recovery.

It might be advantageous to some to go around proclaiming this is all the work of "entrepreneurs" and movie magicians, but really those are just stories about the yuppies who have followed the money here.  And in the process, these folks have done some funny things to the housing market.

Richard Campanella says, in so many words here, that recently arrived trendies have bid up the cost of living according to a "coolness map."  Well.. maybe. The further Campanella ventures out into the world of punditry he gets himself into more and more trouble giving some pet concepts and lazy generalizations the imprimatur of academic legitimacy.

For example, this recent article on Bourbon Street (a preview of his new book) makes a number of simplistic assumptions about who is or is not an "authenticity seeker."
Not everyone plays the authenticity game. Many working-class natives of metro New Orleans, particularly African Americans, have all the authenticity they need, and tend to view Bourbon Street as harmless, naughty fun. Middle-class folks throughout the region enjoy it for what it is and shrug off its faults. It’s the cultural elite and their aspirants who obsess about authenticity, going so far as to segregate nearly all aspects of city life into an authentic/inauthentic dualism. They would universally agree, for example, that the Seventh Ward, St. Claude Avenue, the bounce scene, second-line parades, Mardi Gras Indians, and anything to do with Creoles all sparkle with realness. And with equal unanimity they renounce the upper Quarter, the French Market, Indian-owned T-shirt shops, and anything related to Bourbon Street. To be sure, most are willing to concede a few spots of Good Bourbon amid ten blocks of Bad Bourbon. Even the most rabid haters revere Galatoire’s, say nice things about Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, maintain a polite neutrality regarding the St. Ann queer space, and enjoy Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, whose candlelit interior wins over just about everyone. But these exceptions only prove the rule — and progressives rule that Bourbon Street is phony, period.
I want to agree with this paragraph. It mostly rings true.  But it is also too neat. Worse, it appears to assume that only the "cultural elite" are capable of introspection.. however navel-gazey it may be in this case.  I know Campanella probably does not mean to imply this but one reads this article and finds the need to say that aversion to phoniness is neither an upper class privilege nor any sort of character flaw.  Pretentiousness, on the other hand, is.  Campanella seems to conflate these.  

I don't want to get bogged down in this Bourbon Street stuff.  I agree with Campanella's aim to defend it as an "unpretentious" place. But it's possible to be both annoyed by and fascinated with a thing at the same time. As someone who has spent far more time on Bourbon Street than on its truly more pretentious alternatives (Frenchmen, St. Claude) I can both say that Bourbon Street is awful and that I'd rather go there than most places.

It's a shame Campanella has this tendency to make his valuable work so difficult to trust at times.  When he's good, he's very very good.  This paragraph, for instance, is very very true.. but ends up making me cringe despite myself.
Contrast this with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the annual springtime fete that attracts hundreds of thousands of people to the Fairgrounds in Gentilly. Jazz Fest takes great pride in its musical acts and regional foods, arts and exhibits; cultural cognoscenti love it devoutly, and criticize it only when it fails to live up to its own authenticity-reverent ideals. Among the unwritten rules of self-respecting festgoers are no beads, no Bourbon T-shirts and no Bourbon antics; Jazz Fest sees itself as a cultural refuge from all that phoniness. Yet Jazz Fest was invented by a man from Massachusetts as part of a worldwide megafestival circuit — essentially a local franchise of a global chain. Meticulously choreographed and carefully policed, it is managed out of New York, coordinated by crack professionals, “presented by Shell” (a phrase now officially appended to the event’s name), increasingly dependent on global superstar acts, subsidized by an on-site Acura showroom, and funded by Big Oil — not to mention an entrance fee that has risen 400 percent in 10 years, to 50 dollars per person, more than the median daily take-home pay in New Orleans. Trained staffers screen the acts, taste-test the foods of every concessionaire, and inspect the merchandise of all vendors before passing authentic/inauthentic judgment. The motifs of the event are all professionally designed to affect a funky juke-joint atmosphere — bottle caps nailed to rough-hewn clapboards, folk-style na├»ve art, helter-skelter multicolored lettering, that sort of thing. Jazz Fest is the epitome of invented, planned, centralized cultural control that leaves nothing to chance and covers its tracks with the trappings and aesthetics of authenticity. An existential philosopher would have to be particularly generous to describe Jazz Fest as authentic, and equally parsimonious to dismiss Bourbon Street as phony. Yet that is precisely what most Bourbon-hating culture lovers do.
It's that "most Bourbon-hating culture lovers" assumption that brings the cringe back. Those terms are too loose and poorly defined. We kinda get what he's talking about. And it's fine for some rube like me to say stuff like that on my dumb personal blog.  But when you write that in a pseudo-academic setting like the magazine this article appears in, you're giving some stereotypes too much weight.

The same is true of Campanella's  "Coolness Map." There's a lot about it that rings true.  But he runs into trouble, as anyone might, not only trying to define "cool" (My God he even relies on fucking Malcolm Gladwell to do this) but also attempting to quantify and spacially represent what can only be considered highly subjective sorta-data.
Coolness constantly needs to be ahead of the mainstream, and if the mainstream catches up, coolness goes elsewhere. "The act of discovering what's cool," observed Malcolm Gladwell in an influential 1997 article entitled "The Coolhunt," "is what causes cool to move on." As it does, coolness often produces new cultural innovations and explores increasingly edgy terrain. Coolness thus becomes geographical: it occupies certain spaces, disdains others, and seeks new ones when uncoolness approaches.
It's difficult to overstate how terrible this is. It is the exact equivalent of crediting the FEMA stimulated recovery of New Orleans to American Horror Story and the guys who made that pee pee finder phone app.  It's not "coolness" that drives a neighborhood's value.  It's these more tangible factors which Campanella himself names.
True, these neighborhoods boast other advantages. They have history, architecture, walkability, high topographic elevation and favorable flood zones, not to mention proximity to resources and employment. But they had these advantages years ago, yet few came a-bidding.
Except the people did come a-bidding.   It's just that you only notice the a-bidding heating up when there's a lot of money a-floating around town.  This happens in starts and stops. Here is GNOCDC's description of gentrification in the Irish Channel during the late 1990s.
In 1990, 1 in 4 Irish Channel houses was vacant. By the late 1990s, things were turning around in the neighborhood. Ms. Husing points out that change has been happening with incredible speed. “The houses that weren’t torn down are being purchased and renovated. And the people who own section 8 rentals are doing renovations for higher-paying tenants. My neighbors, little old Black ladies, are saying ‘Used to be I couldn’t give my house away. I can’t believe how much it’s worth now!’”
And that was during a marginal period of relative non-decline for New Orleans. Right now, again, thanks to the massive federal investment in rebuilding,  the market is more superheated than we've gotten used to than at any time since the oil bust of the early 80s. Take a look at this 1977 documentary by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker about the rush to renovate and flip Irish Channel properties.  Pretty familiar stuff, right?

Of course Campanella knows all of this.  He's made a career studying and writing about the cultural geography of these neighborhoods. Where he goes wrong is his assertion that these cycles of revitalization and decline follow upon notions of perceived  "coolness" rather than the other way around.  "Coolness" is a marketing gimmick imposed after the fact by planning consultants and the real estate sales interests they typically work for. Campanella more or less describes this but it isn't clear that he grasps the point.
Jefferson Parish authorities hired a consultant from Manhattan to advise them on how to revive the district. His advice: "create a 'cluster of cool'" in the heart of Fat City, "where you can really make it look and feel different."

Managers are trying a similar strategy for the cool-challenged French Market. They've been running "Hip Scene, Historic Setting" ads in cool magazines like Offbeat, recruiting earthy craft vendors to counter the beads-and-T-shirts stigma, and piping in the very cool sounds of WWOZ into the flea market like intravenous nourishment for the ailing.

Here and elsewhere, coolness has become an urban planning strategy, and planners today wield its trappings the way their predecessors once plied golf courses and gated subdivisions. "Real" cool, meanwhile, has a mind of its own.
These slogans are not what is transforming hitherto affordable urban neighborhoods into the exclusive yuppie enclaves they're becoming.  These are just the shallow rationalizations presented in order to congratulate the yuppies for buying in.  After all, once you've sliced your building into 210 square foot "micro-mini-studios" you're not gonna get anyone to pay $600 a month for one without some flattery.
For $600 per month (utilities are included), renters get 210-square-feet of space, the luxury of a private bathroom, a kitchenette, a "private bar," which we're pretty sure is micro-dwelling code for "counter," plus internet and cable access. The ceilings are 12-feet, and good thing since it's a loft bed set-up. There are several mentions of these "quirky and luxurious, private and cooperative" rentals being "green-oriented," so take that for what it's worth.
Sure, tell them they're being "green-oriented" or something.  That sounds like it's got some coolness involved.

Meanwhile, though, look at all the free land they can't give away!
State Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, has an idea for speeding up the pace of recovery in the Lower 9th Ward: sell off some of the hundreds of government-owned properties in the sparsely populated neighborhood for $100 a pop.

He is planning to propose two bills to that effect during this year’s legislative session, one of which would tweak the Louisiana constitution in order to allow this to happen. Under existing state law, the city cannot simply give property away to individuals for less than fair market value. Bishop’s changes would allow New Orleans to donate the properties for a nominal fee.
Folks are paying three dollars per square foot to rent little boxes over in Mid City.  Maybe if someone could get some more affordable areas "back into commerce" we'd have an easier time of it, right? 
In a memorable exchange last year with James Gray, who represents the neighborhood on the City Council, Hebert warned that unloading properties all at once and below market value might destabilize the broader housing market. Since the redevelopment authority will go ahead with an auction only when there is enough interest from potential buyers, most of its lots in the hardest-hit section of the 9th Ward remain dormant.
Oh well, OK, then. Can't go around destabilizing the insane bubble we've got going, I guess.

The only thing left to do is see about generating some interest from potential buyers.  According to Campanella's thesis, all we'd have to do is "create a 'cluster of cool'" over in the Ninth Ward.  If he's right about this, I'm guessing a couple food truck rallies and an art market should do the trick. 


HStreetLandlord said...

Excellent piece, especially the part about federal dollars being the real driver of economic growth. Hilarious to hear Jindal try to take credit when he hates federal spending.

Michael Patrick Welch said...

He sounds like Marge Simpson with all his talk of coolness.