Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Staying "us"

Like the ongoing gentrification angst, tourism in New Orleans can inspire endlessly distracting arguments around the idea of an imagined "us" or the question of what is most essentially "New Orleanian."

That's sort of what Alex Rawls is thinking about here while pondering an announcement that 9.28 million tourists visited New Orleans last year.  (I suppose this means "they" outnumber "us" by a factor of about 25.) 
I’m also aware that New Orleanians have been anxious about the impact of tourism since the dawn of a tourism industry, and we’ve managed to stay “us” despite the growth of tourism for more than a century. I believe we’ll continue to find ways to assert an essential New Orleans-ness, even in the face of further tourism, but we need more discussion about the desirability and manageability of further growth in New Orleans tourism, and the degree to which it is the economic engine to which civic leaders have hitched our collective wagons. The belief that growth is automatically good needs to be questioned. Is an endlessly growing French Quarter Festival a good thing, for example? Is an ever-expanding influx of tourists a cause for celebration, or do we need to think more carefully about the impact of further increases in tourism? 

That notion of managing to stay "us" is tricky. "Us" is a fluid identity, constantly changing not only over time but across neighborhoods and demographic segments.  I get that there are certain baskets of styles and mores we tend to think of as "Naturally N'awlins" or whatever by general consensus.  But even the compositions of those baskets are highly varied and subjective. 

Then there's the basket we make specifically for sale to visitors. It's the one with the most easily accessible and simple cliches which may or may not be the most "authentic."  But since the tourist basket is recognized by 9 million consumers.. and because it's where all the money is, it gains a weight of legitimacy all its own.
William Khan, who grew up in Metairie, went to Jesuit High School and now lives in the French Quarter, said he believes that T-shirt and souvenir shops are easy to vilify and turn into caricatures because so many of the owners are immigrants and cater largely to a lower-income clientele.

The older generation that first opened these shops are largely reserved, quiet and don't believe in making trouble, he said. But his generation, which grew up in the United States, is technologically savvy and not shy about taking a vocal stand.

"After 30 years in business I'm making the case that we're part of the French Quarter," William Khan said. "I'm no longer apologizing for what we sell. We're actually part of the community and it's time to integrate us and accept us. I'm not going to be defensive anymore. We've been part of the community for three decades."
 And "us" is redefined yet again.

We're pretty good at fretting and arguing in New Orleans over the elusive One True Meaning of "us."  This self-obsession may, in-fact, be the common denominator that defines "us." That's fine. There's plenty of time and room to play that game forever if we want.

But there are other more important questions to ask about tourism than these existential dilemmas. What are the material effects of tourism on the city's permanent population?  How does it affect our quality of life? The price of our housing? Our public infrastructureWho shares in its "economic impact"?  Are its tax revenues directed to our areas of greatest need?

It's fine to worry about how the tourism industry adds to or subtracts from the cultural meaning of "us" but while we're doing that we should also ask whether the industry serves us.  Or do we serve it?

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