If the Super Bowl was meant to mark the beginning of the “post-recovery” era for New Orleans, Brian Boyle’s account of the 100 days leading up to the event can help us better understand what the transition period looked like. New Orleans Boom and Blackout: One Hundred Days in America’s Coolest Hotspot is a contemporary history lesson detailing the dramatic changes to city infrastructure carried out in preparation for the nation’s largest annual sporting event. Hardly a book about football, the author’s examination of New Orleans as a cultural destination in flux separates itself from other texts on the subject by having a keen awareness of the people who keep the wheels greased and in motion: taxi drivers and pedicabbers, bartenders and cooks, brass bands and DJs. I recently sat down with the author for a discussion on tourism, politics, and, of course, the new New Orleans.
The present New Orleans epoch is often referred to as the “new New Orleans.” As you point out in your book, this isn’t the first time this term could be applied to the city.
Brian Boyles: Right now is certainly a unique rendering of the new New Orleans, but I think we’ve seen the new New Orleans before. [Mayor deLesseps “Chep”] Morrison in the 1950s and The Cotton Expo in 1984 offered a new New Orleans. You could even argue that Ray Nagin’s first election was symbolic of a new New Orleans. I think the city’s tradition of reinventing itself references a certain insecurity New Orleans has always had with its place in America. The city’s economic future has always been tied to mercurial products, whether it was cotton, sugar, or petroleum. I really want to look at this current epoch and the way it’s been conjured at various points and why. I’m interested in what the lag between New Orleans and Houston or other American cities was and why we felt the need to catch up and model ourselves after those other places. The new New Orleans we see today is interesting because in some ways it very much is trying to mimic things that have happened in other American cities; but it also rests on these ideas of authenticity, resilience, and recovery, as well as a culture that is ostensibly unique to New Orleans. The new New Orleans is framed around a satisfaction with what we have to offer. Simply by labeling it “new” and an economic driver is itself unique compared with what we were doing before. We weren’t telling people “jazz is a reason to move to New Orleans” in 1950 or 1984.
Can you mark the point at which tourism became the city ’s largest industry ?
In a way, tourism is almost as old as the city itself. But the 1980s is when the oil industry went bust. There were demographic changes, both from white flight and the absence of federal funding. It was up to the people remaining here to figure a way out, and tourism became the best option, having the umbrella of the World’s Fair to go under. That’s probably when Jazz Fest really began to gain a national profile. At that point, in the 1980s, New Orleans—along with other cities throughout the country—was facing the onslaught of a crack epidemic and the elimination of funding to cities by Reagan. Tourism seemed like the easiest route to take because there weren’t any of the capital projects or public services that were helping to float the boat in the 1970s along with oil. I don’t think there’s a line where you can necessarily say “this is where it starts.” But I think the ’84 World’s Fair is a good place to start if we want to talk about the conditions that set precedence for the New Orleans we’re talking about now. It’s now considered kind of a campy thing, but if you look at how it was done and the characters that were involved, you can learn a lot about tourism and business in New Orleans over the last 30 years.
This references an idea you talk about in the book, this notion of “New Orleans as product.” I’m interested to hear what you think are some of the more distinct gains and losses produced from turning culture into business.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with doing that. Unfortunately, like other businesses in New Orleans and Louisiana, it’s not run for equitable distribution of the wealth that it generates. The gain is that more people are appreciating this culture. The loss may come from not taking this opportunity of renewed interest in this culture to figure out ways to support the people who actually make it. It coincides rather tragically with the elimination of public housing and a rise in the cost of living in this city. There’s more of a drive towards tourism and the building of an economy that is dependent on it, but the conditions for the people who actually make up the culture are worse. That’s our loss.
Do you think the current state of the housing market is an indicator of the direction we’re moving ?
I don’t pretend to know enough about what’s going on with this housing market, and I don’t talk to a lot of people who do. That’s the scary thing. Some people know how much people are making. Some people are making quite a bit. But as to why this is happening, other than the idea that people want to live here, I don’t really get it. Everything else that we’ve talked about in regards to economic insecurity and crime—not to mention wetland loss—all of this seems very fragile to me. I know nothing about real estate, but I think that you want stability when you invest. Otherwise, you’re just profiteering. And maybe that’s what’s going on, which wouldn’t be unique to this point in New Orleans history.
I wonder what happens when all the people who move to New Orleans and buy houses on a whim realize they’re still going to be drinking their water from the Mississippi.
This goes back to the relationship between New Orleans and the rest of America. You know, maybe this is the best that they can get. There were probably guys like us sitting in Austin when things started developing, saying “this is crazy.” But it wasn’t. That’s what I keep thinking. Maybe somebody knows something I don’t know, even though the history of boom and bust is robust and everything is sinking. But maybe the inflation will just never go down.
I don’t see how that’s possible.
I don’t know. I’ve never studied the real estate market in Bermuda or Aruba, but maybe we should. That might be more of the direction we’re heading in.
Getting back to Boom and Blackout, you wrote that Landrieu “evoked the dream of all citizens” but that “his backdrops were private investments” that serve tourists. How do you think the Mayor’s focus on tourists and private business has reshaped the city?
In a lot of ways, tourism is the easiest thing for our mayor to jump on to. It’s an advertisement for the city itself and, as long as he’s the mayor, it’s an advertisement for him. The efforts towards the regulation of music and the effort to pitch streetcar extensions as a way to attract more people and produce economic development are ways that we will see his legacy left behind as a pro-tourist mayor. I think the way that 2018 is being positioned is of the same sentiment. It’s an advertisement for the city, it’s an advertisement for him. It’ll be the end of his term. It’s actually the perfect package and it’s already created a deadline to work towards.
In what ways do you think the Mayor’s narrative of recovery differs from your own?
I don’t think anyone’s come up with a really good narrative of this recovery. As a politician, the Mayor necessarily has to isolate certain events and people and point to them as turning points. Certainly, his own election is positioned as a moment when the city came together and got over its racial differences, which had been heightened in the five years before his election. Certainly, he likes to talk about the opening of the Hyatt, the streetcar line, and the Super Bowl as these points when the recovery took another step. I can’t imagine that anyone working in City Hall thinks that those individual things were the recovery, but I do think that the narrative is that they reflect efforts of good government, private investment, and interracial harmony as the way that the recovery happened. How this actually played out, if we all asked ourselves how we felt about it, I’m not sure.
From the Mayor’s perspective, the storyline is that the Super Bowl marks the beginning of the “post-recovery period.”
Here’s the interesting thing about the new New Orleans and the Mayor’s narrative during the Super Bowl—on the Monday of Super Bowl week, he didn’t just say that the recovery has happened; he said that this recovery is a model for the rest of America. That is a difference in the way that past mayors have talked about the city. Even Chep Morrison in the 1950s was projecting joining with the global economy, not leading it or being an example for it. Morrison had aspirations, but he also knew certain things had to be built to achieve them. What was interesting about the Mayor’s narrative vis-a-vis the Super Bowl and the recovery was that it was almost as if these things had all been accomplished. It was the gap between that kind of statement and everything I’d witnessed in the one hundred days leading up to the Super Bowl that I thought was interesting. That gap, more than anything, is the new New Orleans I’m talking about, a place of conflicts and contradictions with strong resemblances to other points in the city’s history.
How do you think this intersection of politics and tourism affects the average New Orleanian?
To understand the politics of New Orleans, you have to understand its relationship with the state of Louisiana. So much of the tourism is affected when it comes to how much money it generates and the amount of money that’s reinvested in the industry itself. If you look at the hotel tax, you realize that the city itself gets very little money.
And this happened with the Super Bowl, right? The special events business and private sector made huge profits while the city actually made very little.
The city itself, as the Mayor said, made about $500,000.
How did that happen?
Well, the things that generate a lot of cash, like people staying in hotels, goes to the state. It’s been that way. Look at the Superdome or the Convention Center. Both are state projects. For the average New Orleanian, most of us in one way or another intersect directly with the tourism business. You make what you make, but the tax revenue generated that might go to cops or paving streets goes up to Baton Rouge. When it comes back, it’s not always sufficient. I think what’s been difficult for the Mayor and for the new New Orleans is the dysfunction in state government over the last eight years because of the governor. What’s going on in New Orleans culture and tourism is affecting all of south Louisiana. Lafayette is benefiting from it. Baton Rouge is benefiting from it. If we’re not getting the money back, we can’t continue to do it. This is where it comes back to the cost of living situation. The Mayor wants to generate more tax revenue, but there’s a cap on what he can actually do because he has to give so much of it to the state. That’s a difficult position to be in. It’s another kind of structural obstacle that he faces when it comes to governing the city and actually coming through on the promises of the new New Orleans and the creation of a robust, efficient city.
Are these conditions sustainable? Will these conditions work out in the long run? If not, what then?
They’ll work out. Of course, there’s the dream of it working out in a way that would benefit the large majority of the city. There’s also the idea of becoming more of an island-like economy with a wonderful golden goose in the middle operated by people who have to live on the fringe. My feeling is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, but that probably is the way things are moving right now. Does that mean the city’s going to collapse and end? Absolutely not. New Orleans has a great capacity for struggle, unfair deals, and spectacles.
You wrote about how if the Quarter was for tourists, then the corner of Loyola and Canal showed visitors a part of the city unconcerned with their presence. It made me wonder how genuine the average tourist’s experience of the city actually is.
I think the tourism experience has become much more of a controlled one. There’s been an effort by the industry to control its operations, which isn’t an unwise thing to do. The times when tourists actually have authentic interactions with the city are the accidents, the times they get off the beaten path and aren’t just following an app. I always thought shift changes, the after work bars, musicians having a smoke break—these were where the true stories come out. For the most part, these experiences aren’t permeable by tourists. At the same time, the tourists should know more about those things in order to appreciate all this more, but also because those relationships are important. This is the land of call and response, where the lines between audience and performer are very blurred and sweaty. When you consider that you don’t have to walk but two steps away from the golden goose to find trouble, to find the realities of New Orleans, that’s the ledge between what we call the new New Orleans and what’s been persistent here, which is in many ways a mercurial, dangerous place. Now I think more people are finding ways to control that experience, both the people that visit and the people that live here. You could move here now and basically eat and shop in the same way that you would in Austin, Portland, or Pittsburgh, but the sort of intangible and accidental emergencies, whether they’re evacuations or robberies, are never that far away. They can happen to pretty much anybody. And again, this goes back to the idea of contradiction. We’re now able to offer a fully luxurious American experience, whether you’re visiting or deciding to live here, and yet nothing is impenetrable. I don’t think New Orleans is impenetrable in the way Manhattan is, where you basically never have to touch the ground. I think that everybody still has to rub elbows at some point. That kind of commonality and inescapable low-level conflict between the dream and the reality actually makes New Orleans what it is.
Something I see happening is the blurring of the borders and the expansion of tourism outside of conventional locales. I think that’s in large part due to an initiative pushed by the tourism industry, like in GoNOLA YouTube videos of some fedora-wearing asshole barhopping in the Bywater.
My friend Alex Rawls made the point that tourists don’t come here for us, they come here for our way of life. They want to have the time that we have. That’s what’s different between us and Orlando or Las Vegas, where there’s actually a central location, a narrative and a track. Tourists go to Orlando for the magic of Disney or to Las Vegas because “what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.” People come to New Orleans and they want to go to that bar and wear a fedora with you. That’s why we get uptight about it. How can our way of life be a product? It’s alright if I serve you dinner in the French Quarter or the Garden District, but now you’re coming into my neighborhood because of your insatiable appetite for who we are. And you can take that as a compliment—
Or a threat.
Or a threat. You know, I’ve always felt like Treme was a turning point. There were Mardi Gras Indians on cable television. The mystery that was always there, the thing that for almost a century only New Orleanians cared to know about or understand, was now basically explained to cable viewers. So when I was in Panama, in like 2011, the bartender asked me what I thought about Mardi Gras Indians and the Treme show. This isn’t a judgment on the show or David Simon; rather this is just to say that having the facts be out there in that way, so openly, makes us a fundamentally different culture. It was always isolated; it was always mysterious. You needed to know codes to get to places. With the digital world and the post-Katrina interest in this culture, a lot of things are known that weren’t known before. You can’t work as an extra on that show and then complain because fedora dude is coming into your bar. It’s part of the same thing.
Do you think the pushback against outsiders is a sort of NIMBYism or do you think it’s something greater than that?
Well, I think in order to exist here you have to try pretty hard, in all ways. When people get to do it very easily, because they have an app and they’re only here for a couple of days, it’s more than “not in my backyard,” it’s more about people doing something and learning something that people actually had to ask somebody for or risk their life to understand.
How much do you think the new New Orleans depends on the success of University Medical Center?
If we really do attract a large number of people who are willing to pay more money to live in apartments than you would pay to live in a shotgun, that’s a whole different breed of New Orleanians that we haven’t really had before. If the thousands of units get filled up by those type of people, it’ll be a totally different city. Also, are there enough people to cover all these bases within one medical complex in a country full of medical complexes? And will people want to come get their treatment in a city that gets evacuated or that has boil alerts and power outages? The big economic question is will any big company really want to relocate to this precarious place? Big companies don’t think about the next three years. They think about the next 30 or 40 years, and no one seems to have anything good to say about the future 30 or 40 years from now.
Not even real estate agents.
I can’t imagine what they say.
I think what makes Boom and Blackout an important piece of writing is that so many people are asking, “How’s New Orleans doing ?” A lot of the people providing explanations don’t actually know, and even fewer are willing to tell the truth about it. The book helps to show that there isn’t really any easy answer to that question.
I don’t think we’re sitting here today because we want the rest of the country to know our truths. It’s more about trying to figure out where this is going to lead to.
And maybe this just speaks to the nagging truth that the new New Orleans is intensely nuanced.
Yeah. And I think the new New Orleans is defined by its contradictions, and having those contradictions makes it a little less new than it might imagine itself to be.
Are you glad the Super Bowl happened? Any key takeaways from it?
When people ask what that Super Bowl’s legacy is, I think of the blackout. There’s a Super Bowl every year somewhere in the country. Most of it’s unmemorable. But that moment itself— that blackout— was unforgettable. Someone went on Twitter, which at the time set a record for the highest amount of tweets for a live sporting event, and said something like “now all those folks know what it’s like to sit in the Superdome in the dark.” For all the media stories that happened leading up to that game, about recovery and music and government, there still wasn’t a lot of that voice of the person who was stuck in the Superdome. There’s still not a memorial to all those people in the Superdome, which all those fans would have to pass by. So there was this possibility that everyone would come, the tragedy would be there but it would be resolved, and the experience of the average person that goes to the Super Bowl—which is not an average person, it’s a very wealthy person—would be that this is a wonderful city, that it was back, and the things that had happened were resolved. It is a wonderful city; the things that happened are not resolved. The fact that 70,000 people from out of town actually got a glimpse of what that must have been like, that’s a great lasting impression. That’s something that makes me feel glad that the Super Bowl happened. Although I’m sorry if the reputation of the city was injured by the blackout, I think that experience being given by the city to its visitors is something you couldn’t make up.
Brian Boyle’s New Orleans Boom and Blackout is the Young Leadership Council’s 2015 selection for “One Book One New Orleans.” A number of events centered around the book are scheduled throughout the city in September and October:
Wednesday, September 9: Kickoff: Lights Out Party, 5:30 p.m. at Handsome Willy’s
Wednesday, September 16: Making It in the Quarter: A Conversation with New Orleans Service Workers, 6 p.m. at Chris Owens Club
Wednesday, September 23: Lil Wayne and America’s Idea of New Orleans, 6 p.m. at Dillard University
Saturday, October 3: Frontier of Progress: A Live History of Loyola Avenue, 6 p.m. at Saratoga Building
Wednesday, October 14: Benefit Party: Louisiana Books 2 Prisoners, 5:30 p.m., NOLA Til Ya Die
Wednesday, October 21: From the Voices of Adult Learners: Film Debut, 6 p.m. Cafe Istanbul
Wednesday, October 28: Finale: From the Mouthpiece on Back: Panel and Performance by TBC Brass Band, 6:30 p.m., Celebration Hall
For more information and to purchase the book, visit nolaboomandblackout.com