Who Will Determine the Future of Post-Pandemic New Orleans?
We’re 18 months deep into an ongoing pandemic and at the peak of the fourth wave, which is hitting Louisiana harder than almost anywhere else in the world. We just lost the fall festival season, and most supplemental assistance—including enhanced unemployment—has stopped. Early in the summer, it felt like the end was in sight; now the timeline is more unclear than ever. It’s tough. Yet, there are new rays of hope—by the time this column is published, 75% of adult New Orleanians should have had at least one dose of the vaccine, mandatory mask and vaccine requirements at many businesses are starting to push the caseload down, and there have been fewer business closures than expected. It is beginning to feel like we are at a crossroads as a city. As we chart a path forward, we can rely on the voices and systems that had positions of prominence pre-pandemic and regress, likely replicating and worsening existing inequities; or we can seize on this opportunity, follow the lead of the community, and create a stronger and more equitable city. The former is easy—without pushback, those that have held positions of influence will easily retain them. Forcing change will be difficult and will have to be led by those with far fewer resources—but who also have the most at stake.
The core of the struggle for a post-pandemic vision for New Orleans is about power. A radical realignment of the city’s priorities or a true push for equity in wealth distribution and access to political decision making are a threat to those who had positions of influence prior to the shutdowns in March 2020. In particular, you see this with the tourism industry, which has spent the past year and a half desperately lobbying to maintain the status quo. Last October, New Orleans & Company worked with Assessor Erroll Williams to significantly cut property taxes for businesses impacted by the pandemic, an action that disproportionately assisted large multinational hotels and other chain businesses and left residents paying a greater percentage of the city’s tax burden; the Louisiana Restaurant Association helped successfully lobby for the early end of enhanced unemployment benefits; and the Convention Center is moving ahead with their half-billion-dollar hotel redevelopment. They have no vision for a stronger, more sustainable, and more equitable tourism industry; instead they would rather just hunker down and wait out the pandemic, then proceed just as before—with the same people in charge. Legacy neighborhood organizations, generally wealthier and whiter than the population of the city as a whole, also have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, as it allows them to retain a level of control over how neighborhoods develop and how public space is used. Currently, this is manifesting most prominently in battles over affordable housing developments and outdoor music venues, where a familiar cadre of organizations center the concerns of wealth and whiteness over sensible, needed developments and policy reform. Those with power want to keep it, and though they will cast themselves as heroes working for “the good of the city,” it’s clear that many are really working simply for their own benefit.
Meanwhile, it has been the groups most impacted by the pandemic—including service industry workers, musicians, venue owners and other cultural community members, small community organizations, and grassroots nonprofits—that have been leading the way towards a more inclusive, equitable support system and recovery process. Almost immediately after the March 2020 shutdowns, mutual aid groups started to form to create a community-centric safety net. Several organizations, including the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, the Krewe of Red Beans, and Culture Aid NOLA launched food distribution programs. Other nonprofits—including Ashé Cultural Arts Center, Junebug Productions, Antenna, and MaCCNO—launched self-funded grant programs for COVID-19 assistance. Small business owners, musicians, and neighborhood residents created safe outdoor performance spaces in vacant lots, on front porches, even the banks of Bayou St. John, and the Krewe of House Floats launched a new Mardi Gras tradition. Most recently, musicians, venues, and performers—in a movement started by DJ Soul Sister—led the way in instituting vaccine/negative test mandates to attend shows, a decision that helped pave the way for a citywide mandate. With its back against the wall, the community has come together to work in its own best interest, but in doing so has also demonstrated tremendous leadership and a potential new path forward for the city that prioritizes local needs over outside investment.
The push for a more equitable city through community leadership will not be easy—particularly because we are still dealing with the immediate and ongoing health and economic impacts from COVID-19’s Delta variant, which often creates a necessary focus on just getting by day-to-day. It’s hard to think strategically when you are worrying about next month’s rent or next week’s groceries. Even though it is an added burden, we need to present a vision of a more just and equitable New Orleans, because rest assured, the individuals and organizations who have a vested interest in the status quo have already been using their time and influence to keep wages down, to keep music off the streets, and to keep agents of change out of positions of power. For those of us who are fortunate enough to have the capacity, we need to keep organizing and pushing forward necessary policies and reform initiatives, while we also help maintain the community safety net. It’s a tall order, but a necessary one—the pandemic has made clear how deeply precarious and unacceptable conditions were for so many. We can’t allow anyone to take us backwards.
The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) is a broad-based coalition and registered 501c3 non-profit corporation that collaborates with, organizes, and empowers the New Orleans music and cultural community to preserve and nurture the city’s culture, to translate community vision into policy change, and to create positive economic impact.
This space is provided to MaCCNO as a community service and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or editorial policies of ANTIGRAVITY.