Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Cultural economy

This is a review of a new book called Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End  It describes how cultural cues and shifts are used as a means of wresting power away from a neighborhood's long-term residents and toward newer, wealthier arrivals. In New Orleans, we often worry that grumbling over the seeming cosmetic effects of gentrification, (i.e. hipster hating) obscures the more substantive story of economic displacement.  This study argues that the two are really one and the same.
Good Neighbors brings together culture and politics to show how such tastes can lead to political power for gentrifiers, creating a wedge with which they penetrate neighborhood organizations and assume authority over others. The process of forming a neighborhood elite in Boston’s South End happened, according to Tissot, not always through the often-colorful world of the city’s democratic politics but through voluntary associations that, despite being private, wielded considerable power—interior design or park conservation is not just a hobby. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of how groups use cultural capital for social advancement, Parisian sociologist Tissot shows how wealthier newcomers used city boards and nonprofits to mold Boston’s South End in their own image and to actively exclude those who lived there before them from decision-making and positions of power.
Of particular import for New Orleans are the way this dynamic plays out through the "Historic Preservation" movement. 
Historic preservation of Boston’s uniquely large stock of old homes is the key to the book’s cultural argument. In a series of lively accounts of home renovation, Tissot shows how neighborhood boards concerned with scrupulous Victorian “authenticity” for rehabbed houses often alienated community members through conversations littered with arcane architectural terms. That exclusionary discourse, Tissot argues, became the norm across many kinds of organizations and historic preservation itself became the paramount neighborhood issue. Not only did poorer long-term residents have less of a stake in this conversation—because they were less frequently homeowners—but the importance of properly restoring lintels and Doric columns often failed to move those among them living paycheck to paycheck. Tissot makes clear that this new community concern was not just an innocent refocus, based on gentrifiers’ group interests, but a deliberate ordering of what culture matters at the expense of less “worthy” subjects like rent control and subsidized preschool.

It's okay, though. Because those neighborhoods are now "revitalized" in the care of a better class of people who can truly appreciate them, right?  Think about that the next time the city comes around with a proposal to slap yet another "Historic District" designation on your neighborhood.

The next time is right now, by the way.
A committee studying the idea of making parts of Uptown New Orleans and Carrollton a local historic district will hold its second public meeting at 6 p.m. Monday (Oct 19) at 8539 Willow St.

The Uptown/Carrollton Historic District Study Committee is one of two panels recently appointed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to consider expanding the jurisdiction of the city’s Historic District Landmarks Commission to additional areas. The HDLC already reviews changes to the exterior of properties in 14 historic neighborhoods.

The other committee is studying the Mid-City/Parkview area.
Sorry I don't see any information about how that public meeting went yet. But it looks like plans are proceeding apace. This is part of a larger study aimed at pretty much just putting historic districts everywhere if possible. 

Meanwhile, on a more positive note,  it looks like someone is at least trying to get the city to pay attention to the cost burdens of code enforcement or HDLC requirements on low income homeowners.
A city fund and tax millage New Orleans voters approved in 1991 to improve neighborhood housing and combat blight will be more directly applied to that mission starting in 2017. The City Council voted unanimously Thursday (Oct. 15) to update the Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund (NHIF) ordinance, adding more specificity to how its resources are spent.

Money from the fund has traditionally been used to pay for code enforcement, supporting city inspectors and attorney costs in addressing blighted structures around the city. The change the council made Thursday dedicates the fund to actual home improvements and affordable housing efforts. It would help owners pay to correct potential code violations, rather than fining them.

Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell authored the amendments to the NHIF ordinance.

"By updating the ordinance, we have two tremendous opportunities. First, we can begin to follow the law and use money as intended by voters ..." she said. "Second, we can use this opportunity to tie badly needed resources to affordable housing and special needs housing that are right now being identified in the (New Orleans Consolidated) Housing Plan.
This looks like they're talking about a 2 or 3 million dollar pot of money; not an  insignificant amount for its purpose if spent wisely. But, in the larger context, it just treats one symptom of the larger problem of  economic and cultural displacement.

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