Whether New Orleans properly takes care of its musicians and other artists is a never-ending saga — but one that may finally be showing some improvement, according to a panel discussion held at Tulane University June 6.
The panel was titled "Does Progress Destroy Culture?" and that question can only be answered "yes" in literal fashion when a bulldozer knocks down a historic building, said Tulane University geography professor Richard Campanella. But in New Orleans, the debate often takes a broader meaning in the tension between the city's residents and its performers — in the case of music venues, food trucks, parades and many other forms of expression.
But while proponents of the culture usually decry the interference as the end of their ability to exist, what happens instead is they transform; decreasing profits and standards on Bourbon Street, for instance, led to the creation of an alternative scene on lower Decatur Street, and its success led to the growth of Frenchmen Street, spreading now down St. Claude Avenue. That balancing act between the rights of residents and the rights of performers is exactly how civics is supposed to work, Campanella said, and results in a movement he deemed a "dynamic equilibrium" — akin to how a bicycle remains upright by moving forward — which only falls down when it comes to a stop.
"Progress does not mark the end of history nor the destruction of culture, but rather, the next chapter of both," Campanella concluded.
Journalist Katy Reckdahl described those unending neighborhood-versus-club fights as tiresome but said Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration has done a better job connecting performers and residents before the fight gets out of hand. Mardi Gras Indians no longer clash with the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), and NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas even defended the second-line groups after the Mother's Day shootings.
"Some of these battles have gotten better, but I still see people discussing how to protect it," Reckdahl said afterward. "Maybe we care more about culture than we ever have."
Musical patriarch Ellis Marsalis, 78, took an even broader view: musicians who formerly could be seen only in person, he said, can now be watched on TV (or, presumably, the Internet). The fall of segregation — in everything from Jim Crow laws to Mardi Gras krewes — represents clear progress as well, Marsalis said.
Hotelier Michael Valentino said that the hospitality industry — sometimes caricatured as the Disney-fying enemy of culture — actually has a stake in preserving New Orleans culture, because that's what it sells to tourists.
Ultimately, musician Shamarr Allen said, if the city can protect its culture and traditions, it may be culture that saves the city. When he was growing up in the 9th Ward, he remembers one day asking his parents for $20 for a school field trip. They didn't have it, and neither did his grandparents. Allen went outside to pout.
The neighborhood drug dealer walked by and asked what was wrong. Allen explained. The dealer handed him a $100 bill.
"That situation to me makes him my role model — you understand?" Allen said. "And that happens every day."
But Allen went on to study music in the city's public schools under the mentorship of Brice Miller, the Mahogany Brass Band leader whose music has taken him to Carnegie Hall and who was present in the Tulane audience. Miller'became a different kind of role model, Allen said —one that ultimately saved Allen's life.
"Everybody don't have that," Allen concluded, focusing his attention on Miller, "and I just want to say thank you."
— This story was produced in partnership with Uptown Messenger. To watch a complete video of the forum, go to www.uptownmessenger.com.