this essay by Jules Bentley was originally written at the request of the excellent & rightly beloved slingshot collective in california. unfortunately, it missed the deadline for publication. So here it is, while it’s still at least even a tiny bit timely…
by Jules Bentley
from the forthcoming 2nd issue of the Raging Pelican
Lately people have been dying horribly here in New Orleans. Actually, that’s a lie; it’s not recent. We’ve been the U.S. #1 for homicide per capita years running, and the only North American city in Foreign Policy magazine’s list of the world’s murder capitals. But there must be something different happening just now, because why else would the Slingshot collective out in California write and ask about all the “intense shit” going down in New Orleans?
Why? Because in December some white kids died. I could say it differently, but differently would be less honest. Apparently the 165+ black folks killed in New Orleans in 2010– several by cops– and the six Latin Americans who were murdered just in the two-week period between Dec 7 & 21st aren’t on Slingshot’s radar. Those horrors are every bit as vivid and real, absence of tribute blogs notwithstanding, but that’s not to say they in any way reduce the horrors that have happened to white people.
Suddenly this fall there were a shitload of out-of-town punx in the St. Roch neighborhood, a neighborhood so notoriously, phantasmagorically dangerous that some cabbies won’t visit it, a neighborhood where I’ve had more friends robbed at gunpoint than in the rest of the city combined. St. Roch is close to a rail yard, so it’s often the first piece of New Orleans trainhoppers see, but this year the kids didn’t just visit the punk bar that’s been there for ages and filter out to the rest of town. This year they’ve squatted St. Roch in numbers way beyond anything anyone can remember, and some (very objectionably) have been panhandling there. It’s very upsetting to a lot of New Orleanians that anyone would come to one of the poorest cities of America, into one of its poorer neighborhoods, and ask the locals for money. It’s apparently so upsetting that when a horrible St. Roch squat fire killed eight human beings, a lot of my friends expressed anger and disgust towards the dead rather than sympathy. “Fuck those fucking kids,” said people who should know better, many of whom were born and raised here but some who were themselves those kids, and not so long ago.
How did things come to this?
Meanwhile, a wave of hysteria erupted over a reported series of shootings, rapes, kidnappings, robberies, and home invasions, hysteria over crime perceived as targeting young white people in and near St. Roch. The victims weren’t necessarily travelers, punks, young or white, but rumor metastasized; panic hovered close, its wings fanning mistrust. Some of the more alarmist of us smelled a race war brewing… and some of us cleaned and loaded our guns. When a black sixteen-year-old kid confessed under NOPD interrogation to having committed almost all the crimes single-handedly, supposedly radical whites celebrated and wished him jailhouse rape, crowing in triumph over this teenager being tried as an adult. Those who have spent enough time here to know something about the NOPD & those who are prison abolitionists looked on in disgust at this celebrating Facebook lynch mob.
How did things come to this?
For centuries, New Orleans has been a town people visit to have a good time. People come here to behave in ways they don’t feel comfortable behaving in the places they’re from, doing things they wouldn’t do back home, whether that means dancing unselfconsciously, smoking cigarettes and eating unhealthy food, getting silly drunk, shouting and singing loudly at night, peeing in public, hiring a sex worker, sleeping outdoors, slapping a waitress’ ass, vocally advocating insurrection, taking over a house with no regard for the neighbors, or affecting a tough new don’t-give-a-fuck persona that wouldn’t wash back where everybody knows you from high school.
People come here to cut loose. They bring expectations with them, expectations which often occlude the actuality. People visit New Orleans looking for a boozy, offbeat Disneyland, a creative playground, a backdrop for their fantasies. Sometimes people come with good intentions and feel they should be greeted as liberators. Sometimes they come without good intentions but nevertheless feel themselves exempt from the mind-blowing material disparities present in this, a city where children and adults are losing teeth to malnutrition, a place where dark skin is still shorthand for poverty.
One of the reasons people find it easier to ignore New Orleans in favor of their fantasy of New Orleans is that much of New Orleans is not obvious to the casual eye, nor even available. Many of the city’s problems and almost all of its rewards are simply not accessible to a visitor, outrageous as that may be to someone conditioned by life in the era of Google. New Orleans hasn’t been indexed. She isn’t searchable; there is no app for her.
All cities have lives beneath their surfaces, but New Orleans is more ancient, more occult, and more deeply layered. Among newcomers’ frustrations is often a sense of being trapped ‘outside,’ outside of shared histories and unflyered shows, stuck on the surface while the city’s ‘real life’ bubbles away beneath. New Orleans is indeed comprised of innumerable groups and communities that exist in relative secrecy, cultivated or de facto. Some groups are highly formalized– underground carnival krewes, tribes of Mardi Gras Indians– most are informal but still as closed.
Some newcomers remain cheerfully unaware of the layers. To them, their (also) newly-arrived friends and an only recently trendy neighborhood are what New Orleans is. To them, the culture of New Orleans is whatever musical subgenre’s being written up in national media, and the heart of the city is whatever fun new social spot their pals just showed them. Many newcomers bring their own groups and networks, settling into a transitory, ready-made milieu of those who dress similarly. They develop their own ‘scenes,’ pick new favorite bars and claim, Columbus-like, new neighborhoods.
Of course, people also come here for purposes more profound than partying. The city’s indescribable experiential intensity has an addictive quality; once you’re hooked, nowhere else will scratch the itch. This is what compels visitors to stay here and build community here, and it tugs at those who’ve left. It’s a scary, not entirely benevolent magic. Part of the magic is that New Orleans still has culture– multiple cultures– created outside the context of capitalism, traditions that exist outside of efficiency, cost-effectiveness and “common sense.” As the port at the mouth of the Mississippi, New Orleans was instrumental to the expansion of American capitalism into the American west, but New Orleans herself has always stood a little apart and outside that. Her heredity is old-world Catholic, Caribbean, African. In a nutshell, in contrast to the rest of the country, we ducked the bloody Protestants.
These are all ingredients in New Orleans’ irreproducible majesty and mysticism, her vibe of otherness and exoticism, the different way our air tastes. It’s not incompatible with being Party City USA… in fact, the dynamic of compatibility is key. The celebration of Mardi Gras is a perfect example: while many know New Orleans Mardi Gras simply as a day of titties and beer, a single evening of brewery-sponsored bacchanalia under the watchful eye of mounted police, Mardi Gras as experienced off Bourbon St. is a day of community and togetherness (as well as Dionysian excess). It’s a day when no banks are open and no schools are in session, when the government offices close, when the entire city shuts down while everyone does what she wants to. New Orleanians fill the streets and mingle celebratorily with friends, neighborhood and strangers. It’s an orgiastic orgasm concluding a long– sometimes frustratingly long– carnival season of parades and lesser parties.
Mardi Gras would be impossible in the malls and toll roads of commodified space; it would be impossible if people were still trying to go about their business. Mardi Gras is a sense of joy that can’t be bought, a profound if exhausting tribal experience. It is a free interchange of generous delight, a flowering of uncategorizable love.
But the amateur bingers vomiting on Bourbon St. are not incompatible with or antithetical to the courtyard parties or the rarified soirees only blocks away; the almost unbearable grandeur of the Indians (they burn your eyes like the sun) is not more Mardi Gras than the elaborately costumed revelers packing the Marigny or the largely uncostumed families barbecuing in uptown backyards or beneath the overpass on the Zulu parade route. Following a Skull & Bones gang door-to-door is just as Mardi Gras as riding a float in Rex and attending a masked ball, just as Mardi Gras as getting piss-the-bed drunk, fighting your boyfriend and passing out at 3pm.
There is no better or more correct way to celebrate. There is no definitive way, and the different ways are not in mock-Darwinist competition to determine a sole survivor. In an America driven by “innovation” and a determinist notion of progress, where time, technology and life move “forward,” everything the newest and next, New Orleans remains a place of seasonal cycles and blown deadlines, a place where tradition is cherished and embellished, re-embroiderered more elaborately each year.
That’s Mardi Gras, a single day in a year packed with occasions. In fact, an average weekday in New Orleans is more fun than the biggest party of the year anywhere else.
Many in St. Roch and elsewhere downtown are “tourist punx” who come to enjoy themselves, the same as any conventioneer would. They come to New Orleans for the same reasons people across all social classes have for centuries: because she is exciting, because she is beautiful, and because they feel her ‘wildness’ permits them to cut loose.
Some people visit here determined to use their leisure for a good cause. “Activists,” church groups, and idealistic travelers pooping digested revolutionary ideologies all seek to contribute aid to New Orleans. They bring ideas and approaches tested elsewhere, eager to improve our city during the weeks or perhaps even months they will reside here.
Those who visit to party and those who visit to “do good” have something important in common: in fact they have everything in common. They are visitors. They are visitors to a dangerous city whose poor are not content to be passive, a dangerous city of extreme inequities where intentions count for nothing, and a city of dangerous difficulties which even the locals surmount only by sharing resources and relying on longstanding personal relationships.
One aspect of the incalculable damage done to New Orleans by the flood and subsequent diaspora five years ago was the shattering of New Orleans’ community and neighborhood networks. These vital alliances of extended family and neighbor and cousin from the next block over were how many poor New Orleanians got by. When your cousin from the next block got a little windfall, you found out about it, and everyone shared. These networks are not exclusive to New Orleanians, nor exclusive to our city’s poor; they can be seen in old-line carnival krewes, whose members find each others’ children good jobs in a city where there are hardly any. All these extended tribes exist in contrast to the limits of the atomized, alienated “nuclear families” promulgated as the building block of American society the last 5 decades or so.
The death & diaspora caused by the Army Corps of Engineers’ criminally shitty levees back in ’05 flung New Orleanians to the wind; many still have not returned and are in fact unlikely ever to. Thus, houses still stand empty in neighborhoods that politicians and police don’t care about. Buildings stand empty, and people looking for ways to live outside of the system of private property, who are attracted by all New Orleans has to offer, move in and squat.
Many of these wanderers come from dysfunctional backgrounds: you can tell because they don’t greet you on the street. Their life experiences or the defective acculturation they were subjected to in the dystopic anomie of millennial America have made them afraid. They affect aloofness as a defense mechanism, but it comes across here as a snub and an ugly, pointed insult. They don’t greet their neighbors, they don’t introduce themselves, they don’t say hello to strangers and aren’t willing to pause and pass the time. There are some bad visitors who make noise late at night in working-class neighborhoods, who graffiti poor peoples’ houses and piss on others’ lawns; they feel that because only poor people live there, they can do what they like. Small nicks deepen into bloody social rifts.
Visitors come knowing very little of New Orleans, as all who come to New Orleans do, because here only direct experience can inform. Sometimes visitors trust the wrong people and are violently exploited, whether because they’re naive or because they wilfully ignore just how poor and desperate New Orleans’ poor really are. These visitors literally know no better, but whose job is it to educate them? They struggle to survive because they are not hooked into community, because they don’t have the support networks necessary to survival, but how can they participate in these networks when they don’t live here, when they’re only passing through?
The flipside to New Orleans not being an industrialized, efficient modern city is that New Orleans still operates under the plantation model. Just as the subtle complexity of New Orleans life conceals beauty, it also conceals hardship and horror. This is a city that has exploited black people to death from the date of its inception. Now in 2011, slavery is alive and well thanks to the “justice” system, providing the prison labor that underwrites our tourist economy and swaths of our regional agriculture.
That’s a literal plantation system: guards on horses with guns while black men in chains hoe fields. That’s egregiously bad– and again, not always visible to the visitor– but New Orleanians of color are also exploited for their culture, a culture which is repackaged for sale to visitors. There is plenty of agency involved in this, and the system’s not nearly as simple as black & white– nothing is, here– but New Orleans is nevertheless a modern-day plantation in a number of complicated ways, and a city where your skin and class signifiers determine when you’re allowed to be where, under what circumstances. This mostly means people of color getting harassed and arrested for being in “white neighborhoods,” but it cuts other directions too.
Seeing visitors flaunt the social rules of New Orleans, those deep-running and unspoken understandings, is angering to many New Orleanians, not necessarily for noble reasons. It’s also annoying when people who haven’t lived here, without a demonstrable investment in our future, arrive wanting to effect change. It takes a lifetime to understand New Orleans; how dare someone without a grasp of how she operates take a wrench to her? Go home; fix home. All change in New Orleans needs to come from New Orleanians, or else it’s imperialist and should be violently resisted. Likewise, all “improvements” to New Orleans need to originate with New Orleanians and be for the benefit of New Orleanians, or else they’re just normalization and homogenization… an attempt to impose square pegs on round holes.
So are white people being “targeted” in New Orleans’ black neighborhoods? Is that a special New Orleans thing? Is it maybe a form of resistance to gentrification? Well, people are robbed here constantly. People are killed here all the time. That isn’t cool or commendable but it’s unmistakably part of how New Orleans is, and reflects the low value of individual human life. It reflects desperation, disparity and disobedience. A sudden, unprecedented influx of self-segregating newcomers into a poor neighborhood already traumatized by the flood only means new prey for the neighborhood’s pre-existing predators. It means those who steal for a living don’t have to cross dangerous neighborhood boundaries to find unarmed people with stuff, even if the stuff’s just a mandolin or a laptop.
Efforts to make New Orleans “safer” almost always arise from white people being victimized, and are annoying because they don’t seem to acknowledge how wildly unsafe New Orleans has always been for everyone. The oft-actualized threat of violent death is part of life here. Making New Orleans “safer,” in practice, means one of two things: either so thoroughly, terminally and permanently subjugating my city’s poor that it becomes safe for anyone to walk anywhere at any time shouting drunkenly on their iPhone without someone who has neither an iPhone nor the money to get drunk doing anything about it, or (less likely) addressing the extraordinary hardships and poverty that underlie New Orleans’ impossibly high crime rate. That crime rate is a complex expression of complex problems I would assert no visitor, no matter his or her education or intentions, can do anything about.
Making New Orleans “safer” means making her more “civilized”… and so-called civilization comes at a price. May I suggest visitors stay the fuck out of dangerous neighborhoods? May I suggest visitors understand their role as visitors, and please try to be careful, and have fun in ways that don’t imperil themselves? I hope that’s not too much to ask, or an infringement on your sacrosanct right as an American to do absolutely whatever you want all the time regardless of context, history or surroundings. I’m begging you, please don’t become a statistic. Please don’t be a martyr, please don’t be an excuse for sinister forces with power and wealth to intervene and fuck things up even more. Don’t be a poster child for those in the suburbs who already hate poor New Orleanians and who call for the further destruction of affordable housing. Don’t be a poster child. There’s already enough wrong.
But by all means, please do come visit. Come do what makes you feel good, whether that’s drinking alcohol or working in a community garden or walking around chanting prayers. New Orleans originated every worthwhile musical genre of the 20th century; enjoy some. Dance your angst off. The food here is great too, if tough for vegans. Come visit, and if it seems like all the locals care about is getting your money from you, don’t think about it too hard. If your shit gets stolen– and it will– laugh it off. You can always get more later, somewhere else. Visit New Orleans and scoff at the “rich” “tourists” you see in the French Quarter. As long you keep tipping, no bartender will ever tell you you’re wrong. Visit, and if you spend enough money, New Orleans may limp onwards another little while, thanks to the generosity of visitors such as yourself.