One hundred thirty-nine years ago, New Orleans hosted the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition. Though it was plagued with financial problems and attendance was low (much like the World’s Fair held a century later), it was the first exposition of its kind to prominently feature transportation and tourism as themes, and New Orleans was center stage, arguably the first time the city and its culture were advertised as a product on a large scale. Guidebooks, cookbooks, and storybooks were created and marketed alongside the exhibits. New Orleans was presented as exotic and accessible—and for sale.
Of course, this exposition was being held in the post-Reconstruction era, when a once-again ascendant white, racist power structure was rapidly rolling back gains made by the Black population after Emancipation and solidifying white supremacist policies and power structures. While the exposition included a “Colored Department” ostensibly to “display the progress made by the negroes since emancipation;” in fact, according to Kevin Fox Gotham’s Authentic New Orleans, it was created to instead “project an image of white supremacy while delegitimizing the cultural creations of blacks.” Rather than a celebration of Black culture and achievement, it was part racist propaganda and part exploitation, all wrapped up as a piece of the New Orleans experience and being sold for the profit of others.
In late July, it was reported by Stephanie Riegel for nola.com that Barry Kern, CEO and President of Kern Studios and Mardi Gras World, and Joe Jaeger, developer of some of the largest blighted properties in the city, including Plaza Tower (which he also owns) and the Bywater Naval Base—were working together to develop the “City of the Dead” attraction in a building that was formerly a part of the Iberville Housing Development, the last of New Orleans’ large public housing complexes to be razed or redeveloped, now repurposed into a mixed income development dubbed “Bienville Basin.” According to Riegel’s article, “Kern said [the attraction] would be a bit of death meets Disney” and would “focus on aspects of death and burial in New Orleans that visitors find fascinating: historic cemeteries with above-ground tombs, jazz funerals with second-line parades and a bit of Voodoo lore.” Kern is also quoted as saying, “people don’t understand the raised tombs and why we have a second-line at a funeral and we thought we could explain it in a way better than anyone else that will be interactive and fun.”
Notably, in addition to being on the site of the former Iberville development, which itself was built on top of the infamous Storyville District, the property footprint is adjacent to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and still contains actual human remains. This proximity is, of course, a major factor in the development of the project, as a part of the attraction’s self-guided tour will be creating for visitors ”the sensation that they are in a crypt.” While state law prohibits new construction on historic burial grounds, the preservation of historic buildings is allowed. Kern and Jaeger have already received a 99-year lease from the Housing Authority of New Orleans, which controls the site, and received the necessary permits from City Hall to begin construction (according to Riegel’s article). Upon completion, private events and visits by conventioneers will be encouraged.
The $10 million “City of the Dead” is just one of a cavalcade of tourism-centered projects in various stages of development, including the recently completed renovations to the Audubon Aquarium and Insectarium ($41 million); the proposed expansion of the riverfront park ($30 million); a redevelopment of Spanish Plaza ($7+ million); and the Convention Center’s River District, which is a collection of developments—including housing—that totals roughly $1 billion. While not the most expensive project, it is MaCCNO’s opinion that Kern and Jaeger’s is certainly the most exploitative. Two of the city’s wealthiest white men, having decided and declared that they can explain some of New Orleans’ most sacred and spiritual Black cultural traditions “in a way better than anyone else,” have also chosen a location that is not just part of a former public housing development that was controversially dismantled, but is likely literally on top of the bones of generations that have come before. Though it’s being developed nearly 140 years later, this City of the Dead may as well still be a part of the 19th century Cotton Exhibition, misinterpreting and selling Black culture for the profit of others.
Online public reaction to the Kern and Jaeger proposal has been swift and profoundly negative—but it seems like the attraction was never intended for residents of New Orleans, so it remains to be seen if public sentiment will have any impact. Still, questions need to be asked. How, with such a need for affordable housing, were the partners able to get a 99-year lease from HANO for a tourist attraction? Who made the approvals, and why? Do Kern and Jaeger have any development partners already working on the project? Public record requests may be needed to provide some additional answers. It is certain, though, that the “City of the Dead” will serve as a clear litmus test when we see who shows up to express public support for the attraction. Some things are more sacred than the ability of the already wealthy to make another dollar.
If you are interested to learn more about the role race has played in the development of the tourism industry in New Orleans, we recommend:
Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy by Kevin Fox Gotham
Desire and Disaster in New Orleans: Tourism, Race, and Historical Memory by Lynnell L. Thomas
New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City by J. Mark Souther
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.