The author of "New Orleans Boom and Blackout: One Hundred Days in America's Coolest Hotspot" talks about tourism, the Super Bowl, Landrieu and the "new New Orleans."
In New Orleans Boom and Blackout: One Hundred Days in America's Coolest Hotspot, Brian Boyles uses the 2013 Super Bowl as a sample of "the new New Orleans" in action. Throughout, he presents city leaders working to use the occasion to show New Orleans not as a city in recovery but a city that recovered. In chapter after chapter, the tension that keeps cropping up is between the age-old civic can-do boosterism, the desire to genuinely create a sustainable economy, and the working people whose lives and careers are touched if not actually impacted by the decisions are made above them. Often it seems like the "new New Orleans," as Boyles refers to it, is a desire that keeps being thwarted for prosiac reasons by the old New Orleans it tries to change.
Tuesday night at 6 p.m., Boyles will have a book signing party at Handsome Willy's, where he regularly DJs. He will have copies of New Orleans Boom and Blackout to sign and sell, and DJs will be on hand to spin vinyl. For samples of the book, see this excerpt on the tourism plan here, and on Tom Benson's history with the New Orleans Saints here.
Recently, Boyles (a contributor to My Spilt Milk) and I sat down for lunch and to talk about the issues raised by the book.
What got you interested in pursuing the economics of culture?
I think it comes from a feeling that the actual thing that is being sold is a precious resource that we all are invested in, and that they should get a premium for what it is. We talk about New Orleans culture, whether it's music or food, and it seemed to me like the margin for the makers it is pretty low. The margin for the person that hustles it seems to be rather high at time, and it may fall in the hands of a small number of people rather than being distributed all the way around.
I think after Katrina and when I started to do work at the humanities center [Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities], I was really interested in how musicians were getting by. How the hell were they getting by and trying to reconnect a divide I perceived? I can remember going to Kermit [Ruffins’] birthday party at the House of Blues in '07, and I noticed there was no party at all. it was people who could afford a ticket to the House of Blues and it was Kermit onstage very much going through the motions. I thought it was a dangerous thing, that the culture could be walled off from the people that gave birth to it by the people that liked it and could actually afford it. I don't know if I was right about that, but it did fuel me to our first sketches on brass bands, which I continue to think are probably the most interesting studies as far as an economy and a role in the city.
Then the “cultural economy” fascinated me when Mitch [Landrieu] was Lieutenant-Governor and once he became mayor. This idea that we were going to quantify things, report on them, support them and make everyone have a more stable income on it. That's viable, but I didn't think the way that's been handled since before the election in 2010 has been quite the open conversation we need to have about it.
But I like to know how things work, even if it's not music. I like to know how waitresses make a living and how truck drivers make a living. I come from a blue collar background so those things are fascinating to me.
In the 1990s, Doug MacCash and I made a documentary, Artists Make Big Money, about the financial realities of contemporary art, and one thing Thomas Mann said stayed with me. He argued that many artists go into art to get away from the business world, when in reality they needed to do business better than anyone else because people know they need plumbers, doctors, clothes, and food. I always wonder if that isn’t the case for a lot of musicians as well, that they get into music to avoid the business world.
I think that maybe in the last 10 years—and this isn't a New Orleans's specific thing—you could get into those things to make money and that's the rise of art and music schools that train you to do that. It's the idea that if there's no necessary, automatic, use value that you could see in something, it falls into a luxury good model or this nebulous art place. People pretend that there's not a clear way to put a value on it. Maybe there is, maybe there isn't, but there is certainly no scale. The amount of people that have gotten involved now thinking there is money to be made has complicated it more and diluted the amount of money that can be made, irrespective of the great devastation the digital world has done to a lot of those things.
What drove the book? Was it a desire to look at the relationship between culture and economy, or did the Super Bowl provide an irresistible event that begged for some understanding?
I think that what motivated me the most was the feeling like with a lot of current events in the city, we don't get enough time or opportunity to put enough historical perspective on them.
I wanted to capture the operations of the Super Bowl and came to feel like this was an opportunity to take a slice, or take one butterfly out of a swarm and say Alright, what is this little period? How can I understand it? both on its terms and on the larger contours of the last eight, 10 years, and understand something about it and see some of the connections that are there that maybe aren't obvious when we're arguing on social media about kale as hard as we are about shootings on Bourbon Street. Maybe they are connected, but in our rush to find reaction to them and to generally defend New Orleans, no matter what our core values are, I think we lose that opportunity to look at those things in a more analytic way that might actually help us talk about it better.
The Super Bowl did serve as a real deadline. They had to get the streetcar done in time; it was already six months late. They had to get it done. They had to get the French Quarter done when really they had projects all over the city they were working on from the same pot of money. It made those things happen in some sense, though I wanted to get behind the Super Bowl and say How sloppy is this? How did they come about it in the first place and like if this deadline wasn't here? Would it happen at all? What's the process? And what's the process of reform?
There are structures that have been inherited and battered before the storm, and it's great that we have an opportunity to do big things for something like the Super Bowl, but I think like as we saw in that period, especially in the last year or so, those things are not sustainable on their own. And how they translate into making those structures more secure is still an open-ended mystery. It has a lot to do with the structure of that kind of business.
In the book, you talk a lot about the “new New Orleans” in quotation marks. By the time you were done, did you believe we’re in a new New Orleans?
It's arguable that things are changing. They've changed greatly. And I'm not one to say No it's the same ol' New Orleans. It is a very very hard thing to define, and it is employed for a variety of different reasons. I did though find certain touchstones,
I think that you can say the “new New Orleans” means exciting events, a new, different economy. The confidence that we've turned a corner. That we took advantage of this blank slate and reinvented ourselves. I also found that that term had been used before.
I wondered about that, just as I wondered if some of what we call “new” is only new to us, and if many of the things we’re seeing and chalking up to a “new New Orleans” are things that are happening nationally that are finally getting to us.
A lot of it is stuff that has happened to other cities in the last five to 10 years. It's not new in any sense.
I think that we've always had the approach that we've always been 10 years behind, and we need to catch up. The idea was that we're going to catch up to Houston, we're going to catch up to Atlanta. I thought it was interesting reading about the Battle of New Orleans because that battle was seen as proof that we really did belong. That feeling of not fitting in America, has been a part of us forever, and that's part of the war. It's like downtown is now catching up to a place like Austin or a place like Seattle. We're competitive on those levels. But the reason we're competitive is because the old New Orleans stuff is selectively chosen as the good part of the brand. We're a magnet because of this way of life that isn't actually like America, and yet our end goal seems to be more American in our ideas about success and economics and leisure. That's a weird paradox.
And maybe not, I think that's part of the new thing now, but structural things have hurt this idea of the new New Orleans before. [Former Mayor] Chep Morrison ran into desegregation and didn't do a thing about it. 1984 World's Fair ran into the ’84 Olympics. I don't necessarily think this is going to run into something, but it s good to have some sense that there are limitations, and longer views you can take to keep this thing sustained. I'm not rooting against it, but we just can't talk it into being, and that seems like what the new New Orleans is sometimes. We show a list from Forbes.com or open a hotel and pronounce a recovery is over; the Renaissance at hand. Change is definitely here, but it's a weird one. Because unlike those other new New Orleans, it's not a silver bullet. It’s like a pronouncement, an image. It's very American 2015. I think, ironically, that's the most American thing we do.
Do you feel like you treated Landrieu fairly in the book?
Yes I do. I'm very conscious that I don't have enough historical prospective to start passing judgment on him, and I am writing history. I was, unfortunately, not granted an interview with him and that's a gap in the book.
I think there aren't many mayors of poor American cities who also have to deal with 10 million people coming, and that's the contradiction he finds himself in. He finds himself in an aggressive pose in bringing more people and more business here in a very tight squeeze when it comes to having to pay for infrastructure to make all that possible. And I don't think that's Mitch Landrieu's fault. It's not unhealthy for him to want to bring all these folks here. The job is to prioritize how those infrastructure changes can be affordable and service the great majority of people. To me the only job, technically, is to raise tax revenue and protect public safety. There are also questions of how affordable of a city do you want to make it. And politically, that's what I thought he was about. I think that some of the language that's in the book might seem prejudicial because the language around the recovery and where we stand right now seems to be so outsized when put next to the challenges.
It's an interesting time to look back just that shortly, two years ago now. Because lots happened in the last two years. And I think after [former Mayor Ray] Nagin, we weren't used to what it was like to have someone do their job. To have someone out in public all the time. To have someone promoting the city relentlessly. To have someone trying to attract business and trying to raise its profile and trying honestly to figure out the finances and raise taxes and do infrastructure. Those things all hurt.
He's a Louisiana politician. It's his birthright to be a cheerleader for the city. I read an interesting thing about him, and one of the things that was important to me was to bring bear on the book. I'm no a scholar, but I have a really good hold on what those mayors did and the idea behind that series [on mayors Boyles did for the LEH] was to build a job description. And in a lot of ways he's eating that job description as he should. I always think it's interesting to look back at Moon Landrieu, not simply because he’s his dad but because he saw a big demographic change coming. Moon Landrieu did a lot to speed that up politically. He was also a huge proponent of tourism. selling the culture, and he was a cheerleader on that side. We can see that when you look at the birth of the superdome.
Mitch is also here as a big change is going on in a reverse. The city is getting more white, wealthier in some places, and again our culture seems to the thing at the forefront of the dialogue. I don't know what that masks or how those two things translate. It's a way to keep us all together—talking about our culture—but what's going on demographically is regardless of that. I don't know if our culture can keep us together when our waiters and snare drum players can't afford to live in Orleans Parish. If that's really what we want, we should be taking other measures. and that should be the deal.
What thoughts did you have about the desirability of a tourism-based economy after putting it under the microscope?
Well, again I'm for economic growth. So, I think tourism is a way for us to bring in money and revenue, and that should never be something we question as a motive honestly. I think that tourism understands the culture that it's advertising better than it used to, and that's a big step. And for that reason, probably more people do benefit in the culture of tourism than they used to.
I think that when you think about the hospitality zone, when you look at the clean zone that was put in for the Super Bowl and when you look at the plans for 2018, you see that tourism is in this funny place of both being a salesperson but also in a way being a community organizer, where they actually have to have residents buy in. I don't know that in Orlando they have to do that. I don't know in Las Vegas they have to do that. Here they have to. And I don't think it's a matter of them not wanting to, but I think that there is more work to be done if we're going to get to the level of other cities. It's hard to argue that—and I think tourism officials have said this—that it trickles down an economy. There are people making money at the top, there are people not making so much at the bottom. That's America. But it seems that if we all worked a little bit more in concert on these things, then that money could be spread around a little bit better. And more than anything, I'd like to say that if we had a big sugar industry here, or if we had IBM here, I wonder if we would be able to get better numbers. Because I don't know if we get that good of numbers when it comes to tourism sometimes. I think the reason I would like to have better numbers is so that we can have these kinds of conversations. I feel that if we all fought to get back from Katrina, then it shouldn't just be some people that are getting to sell that success.
One thing that I don’t think people have processed is the impact of no longer being isolated. For much of the 20th Century, New Orleans was isolated by distance from everything, but now the only places that are truly remote are places that lack Internet connectivity.
You and I and Alison [Fensterstock] talked about how social media really came of age right around the time of the levee failures, and if that had an impact. If that put us on pages of multiple stages we wouldn't have been on. That type of isolation is probably not possible anywhere anymore, but it's really not possible here. We're so made for it, even when I was at Exhibit Be, Wow. There are three million pictures being taken right now and shared. There can't have been a public art instillation with that kind of impact, certainly in New Orleans before. But this year maybe we're just made for that. I shouldn't say “made for,” but we're just ideal for those platforms.
I really wonder what it's like to being on social media living somewhere else. Is it as contentious of the issues of the city, or do people talk about national politics more? Or what band they like that's on TV. They don't have the argument about Jazz Fest that we just had, you know? We have all this content to talk about, about us, all the time. That we all feel we have a right to talk about because we live here and we pay bills. And that's a different experience I would imagine.