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The New New Orleans, Part 2: Lance Vargas 

Algiers resident and an artist in Jackson Square

click to enlarge Lance Vargas is an artist who sells his work at Jackson Square.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Lance Vargas is an artist who sells his work at Jackson Square.

Algiers resident and an artist in Jackson Square

  "I lived here from summer to summer in 1997-1998 and moved a second time in April 2004. I'd visit a lot when I was a kid. My parents brought me here. I was drawing little fleurs-de-lis on all my school notebooks. I loved it so much.

  "After the flood [from the levee failures in 2005], there was no real choice as to whether it was going to change. A significant event that affects you, affects a city — socially, politically, environmentally — you're not going to be able to go back to your previous self.

  "It was unstoppable that everything wasn't going to go back to normal after a significant portion of your citizenship has been displaced. The only question after that is how that was going to be. How close to the previous incarnation or character of the city was going to be preserved. As far as whether that's good or bad, I have to back away from that interpretation. I view things in abstract terms almost all the time. Good and bad are hard terms for one person to pin down, particularly when it involves something as distinct as the city of New Orleans, or the culture of New Orleans or the politics of New Orleans. If in the end we get some good Netherlands-style flood protection and some awareness to the environmental issues facing the city and the region, then that will certainly be something good that happened — a concrete good thing that happened.

  "Culturally, to me, it leans toward the bad. You're going to move out 100,000 people, or 150,000 people, or however many people, who never returned, and replace them with a bunch of people who clearly have a love for the city and a passion for the city but don't have a hugely accurate knowledge of the history of it, and with a little bit of attitude about that — probably brought on by locals here who probably have a little bit of an attitude about their knowledge of that.

  "Maybe in the end there will be a vibrant city with great education and low crime that also still preserves the culture and identity. A lot of people I talk to, and this made the most sense to me, say because there's a certain tolerance for, I don't know, tomfoolery or getting away with a bit more here, within that tolerance is where the vibrancy and everything people truly love about New Orleans, that's where that exists. It's mutually exclusive. You take away one, you most definitely will lose the other. Then you get people freaking out about go-cups and music ordinances and whatnot. By all means, go for it. It's beautiful.

  "What's mostly bothersome is the taking of traditions and monetizing them, selling them to groups or to visitors, individual tourists, as novelty. Every time you see a second line that don't swing going down Decatur Street, the soul dies a little bit more. At least mine does. ... Here's this amazing thing that indeed has soul to it, to honor it by maybe moving your hips a little bit. Then it expands from there to voodoo, Mardi Gras Indians, street performers, musicians, food, all that stuff.

  "There's this desperate search for authenticity in an environment that was not even remotely prepared to provide that. You are a first-time visitor to New Orleans, and you are looking, during this Thursday through Sunday stay, for an authentic experience. The expectation of that is a bit asinine. I've lived here 10 years. I can name probably all of my authentic experiences. You can't buy them. You can't seek them out. I had a few, but the universe decides when they show up. Everything about New Orleans to tourists is so 'mysterious' or perceivably mysterious, that they seek out this thing and any huckster will sell it to them.

  "They'll set it up for you. The best part about those is that they're safe. Like a swamp tour or alligator tour, there's that sense that, 'Oh my god, it's right there, he could eat me!' But you know he's not. It's like a ride. It's like Pirates of the Caribbean. There's a sense of it, but you know, barring something astronomically weird happening, you're going to be all right. Maybe that's not a change. It's probably always been here. But with more tourist dollars coming in and the focus being on tourists, that's all ramping up a bit and you're going to get a more watered-down version of authentic experiences that weren't authentic in the first place." — As told to Alex Woodward


You can read all the stories on "The New New Orleans" at www.bestofneworleans.com/newnola and discuss it on Twitter using the hashtag #newnola.

And if you'd like to tell your story, contact us at response@gambitweekly.com. We'll definitely do a Part 3.

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