My mother and I are sitting on the porch of a friend-of-a-friend’s house in the Lower 9th Ward. We’re here because a different friend-of-a-friend asked me to throw together an act for the show he’s hosting. “We really want to have some locals,” he’d said.
I wonder if he’s disappointed; I can count the locals in attendance on one hand. I overhear pieces of conversations about Brooklyn and Portland. Flat vowels tumbling from Midwestern mouths: the accents of the new New Orleans.
My mom is gazing across the street, watching a pair of stylish twentysomethings lock their bikes to a 100-year-old fence. “I don’t think I’ve ever been down in this neighborhood before.”
“Ma,” I say, “What are you talking about? Grandma Vera’s house was right over there.”
My mom’s mother lived two streets over, on Charbonnet. The little blond brick house is gone, swept away by a wall of water. My grandma died in another state, a world away from home. The last time I went to see where her home had been, the lot was a mess of foliage and rubble. Unrecognizable.
Walking back to the car after the show, I pay attention to the license plates on parked cars. Ohio. California. On a station wagon with Rhode Island plates is a single bumper sticker: “New Orleans. Proud To Call It Home.”
New Orleanians don’t generally stray far. According to the last census before Hurricane Katrina, 77 percent of residents were natives. We had the highest percentage of native-born residents of any major U.S. city. Our population is concentrated, and that concentration has allowed us to maintain the city’s unique cultural fabric.
But, with so many of the city’s weavers and preservers scattered after Katrina, New Orleans’ cultural fabric is unraveling. No one has crunched the numbers, but there are hints that New Orleans isn’t as New Orleanian as it used to be. Little demographic bread crumbs lead from effect to cause.
You can see that something’s changing. More than the individual signs – the Whole Foods on Broad, the explosion of restaurants serving organic artisanal everything, the popping-up of pop-up after pop-up – it’s in the atmosphere. When we met someone new, we used to ask what school they’d attended or who their relatives were. Now, the question is more likely to be “Where are you from?” And often, the answer is somewhere that is not here.
There’s a heavy sadness that sneaks up on me in this new New Orleans. The feeling when you look around, like my mom did on that porch, and realize you didn’t recognize your own home.
This anxiety about culture and communal identity – this fear of losing your home even when you are in it – isn’t new. In fact, it’s got a long history.
The Historic New Orleans Collection: For the French who founded the city, the threat wasn’t newcomers; they were the newcomers. Instead, their fear was that they might lose their Frenchness. How long could they live in le sauvage – the wild – before they became sauvage too? A generation later, New Orleanians worried German settlers would erode their Frenchness. Then it was Haitian refugees and a new Spanish government. Next, Anglos and Protestants and the new American government threatened to be the end of la Nouvelle Orleans. White New Orleanians’ resistance to Radical Republicans during Reconstruction was not only rooted in racism, but also xenophobia; carpetbaggers were foreigners bringing the threat of change.
Today it’s easy to ignore those worries. After all, the city’s still here, isn’t it? Well, yes. But it’s English, not French or Spanish, you’ll hear outside the Cabildo. K&B, our homegrown drugstore chain, was bought out by a national brand. They’re growing up on the same corner in Gentilly that I did, but my children won’t know Zuppardo’s, the city’s first self-serve grocery; it didn’t survive the storm. That piece of history – and of my childhood – is gone forever. Or, to put it in more local terms, it ain’t dere no more.
I think those early New Orleanians were right to be afraid. Their fears became reality; the city’s still here, but their cities are gone.
Sometimes I look around and find myself in a New Orleans so new I feel foreign in it, and it’s almost too much to bear. But I find comfort in the earliest New Orleanians’ oldest fear: the fear of becoming savage. Before we were afraid of Americanization or gentrification, we feared this place. The earliest citizens of New Orleans worried that, cut off from the colonial body, they would become part of the swamps they’d settled. They weren’t wrong. Their children weren’t French; they were New Orleanian.
Many of the outsiders who moved here after the storm have settled by now. They’ve fallen in, bought homes, married. Their children will share the city with mine. And it’s sadly sweet to think, 10 or 20 years from now, when the next wave of outsiders comes to make New Orleans new again, those kids, all grown up, will worry about protecting and preserving their city’s culture.
Just like New Orleanians always have.