Does organizing New Orleans' music culture make it more tourist-friendly?

mitch landrieu photo
Mayor Mitch Landrieu

[Updated] With all due respect to my friend Larry Blumenfeld, he buried the lede in “Laws That Are Out of Tune,” a commentary he wrote for The Wall Street Journal. He raises important concerns about the byproducts of gentrification when he writes:

In any city, gentrification raises questions: What happens when those who build upon cultural cachet don’t want that culture next door? But even long-standing residents of the city’s historic neighborhoods have had a sometimes uneasy coexistence with the city’s largely organic culture, and their legitimate quality-of-life expectations (noise, crowds, and such) beg for clear and enforceable rules. Yet in New Orleans such concerns are underscored by an exceptional truth—a functional jazz culture that is, for many, elemental to daily life and social cohesion.

The costs of gentrification are high and sadly ironic, but the news in his piece came late in the story when he writes:

During a news conference at last year’s Jazz & Heritage Festival, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told me, “there is a way to organize culture without killing it.”

The Landrieu quote makes explicit City Hall’s desires. It has invested heavily in furthering tourism as the economic engine of New Orleans, and music is central to that. The Boston Consulting Group’s 2010 plan commissioned by Landrieu while he was Lieutenant-Governor found music instrumental as a tourism draw but cautioned against tying New Orleans’ identity specifically to blues and jazz, both of which are drivers for older tourists. Instead, it advises courting younger visitors—college students and those more likely to spontaneously come to town, spend money, go home, and repeat the process a few times a year.

It’s easy to pooh-pooh that focus on youth, but Steve Earle was a young man in Houston when that was exactly how he spent many weekends in his late teens and early 20s. "The bars closed at 2, and there was a 25 percent chance you’d go from there to New Orleans,” he said in 2010. While working at Eglin Air Force Base near Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, Hunter S. Thompson made similar runs as a young man in the '50s, as have millions since.

Landrieu’s desire to “organize” it makes sense. Anyone who moved to town, saw a start time for a club date in the paper, went and had to hang around for 45 minutes or more for the show to start knows how frustrating New Orleans’ casual approach to time—and almost everything—can be. It’s easy to see the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance as a way of putting music in specific places so that tourists know where to go to find it and can feel comfortable going there—a genuine issue right now considering the anxiety about crime in New Orleans.

A better question to ask is whether an organized New Orleans music community is really what tourists want. Part of the promise of New Orleans is that you can turn a corner and walk into a second line, find Mardi Gras Indians, or step into a neighborhood bar and happen upon a brass band. The music is only part of the magic; its improbability is also important. One of the saddest features of this year’s Saints season in the Superdome—along with the defense and the interceptions and the lacklustre play—was the woeful attempt at an on-the-field second line during halftime, one without a band or the ability to join. All that was left was Saintsations walking in a line. New Orleans’ music culture invites people to participate, and the more rigorously it’s forced into a structure that’s like the structures music inhabits in other cities, the less room there is for the kind of spontaneity that offers visitors a unique experience.

Organized events are easier to market and sell, and there’s a reason why magic is called magic. It doesn’t always happen, and many people leave the city after only hearing music in the places they expected to find it. But the promise of magic has the same allure as the promise of winning the lottery but with better odds. For now, anyhow.

Updated January 28, 2015

The photo in the story has been updated.