Category 3 Gentrification: On New Orleans's Population Trends and the Hostility of Internet Commenters

Emory University
Published April 17, 2013
Christopher Lirette
Emory University
Katie Gillett. The Post-Grad Hipster's Guide to Inhabitable U.S. Cities. 2011.
The dual attraction of New Orleans. From Katie Gillett, The Post-Grad Hipster's Guide to Inhabitable U.S. Cities, 2011.

Since I left New Orleans for good in 2007, I hear more and more stories of twenty- and thirty-somethings of my demographic—and by my demographic, I mean hipsters with MFAs in creative writing—moving there. Apparently, this is a trend, so says Richard Campanella, a geographer with Tulane's architecture program, in "Gentrification and its Discontents: Notes from New Orleans." In this article, he ties this migration southward to so-called "revitalization" movements that displace generally poor and African American residents. He posits a four-phase cycle, each phase representing a different influx of people into a particular neighborhood, each phase a wave carrying with it progressively more intense collateral gentrification. According to Campanella, this is the process of New Orleans gentrification: first, gutterpunks squat in poor neighborhoods near "historic" or touristy areas; second come hipsters; third, the cultural capital accrued by young artist types attracts bourgeois bohemians; and finally, the rich arrive.

While I find this model to be convincing, it is also reductive. There's a too-neat linearity at play—one that elides both institutional forces that lure writers and artisanal bread makers into poor and working-class neighborhoods and other neighborhood life-cycles that somehow remain in a not-quite-attractive-enough limbo. For instance, even as Campanella uses the Bywater as an example of NOLA-gentrification par excellence, he ignores the relocation of New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) to a twenty-three million dollar campus in 2000, paid for by the state of Louisiana.1 Nevertheless, the streamlined process Campanella enumerates seems to be a fair representation of NOLA gentrification. It was just before Hurricane Katrina that the neighborhood around NOCCA began to be seen as a hip option—at least in my experience.

Which is to say that Campanella's analysis is compelling to me because I did live in New Orleans, knew the gutterpunks and proto-hipsters who dropped out of Tulane's English program to colonize blighted houses in the Bywater, washed dishes in their bathtub, never showering, barely wearing shoes. I still have strong familial ties to greater NOLA thanks to my wife, whose family is scattered throughout the city and its suburbs. Professor Campanella uses fleeting biographical details in his essay, adding to his geographical, statistical, and historical evidence the heavy authority of being an "insider." My question here is what role experiential knowledge has in making arguments about a space, whether we take for granted that extensive time living and working and loving and playing in a place gives us a special sort of access to some "truth," whether we can (or should) escape our emotional attachments to (or severed from) a place.

Take the comments on Campanella's essay. The earliest, posted by local writer Mark Folse, links to a blog post he wrote in 2005 prophesying the coming of a sterile, museum culture post-Katrina. Another comment, whose author notes he moved from Brooklyn to live in the Bywater after Katrina—more or less proving Campanella's schema—claims that "Bywater is more like Fort Greene and NOTHING like Williamsburg,"2 referring to Campanella's glib reference to people apparently comparing Bywater to the Brooklyn neighborhood. This commenter criticizes Campanella's characterization (using statistics) of the Bywater as taking a turn toward a white majority, using this bit of evidence: "I see whites, blacks, Vietnamese, Hispanics, and every other color on my street every day. We live in a community of many cultures, not a white gated one."

Richard Campanella, Post-Katrina gentrification hot spots, New Orleans, 2012. From Campanella's Bienville's Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans, 2008.
Richard Campanella, Post-Katrina gentrification hot spots, New Orleans, 2012. From Campanella's Bienville's Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans, 2008.

The most interesting comment is by a person named 12ward, who levies against Campanella charges of outsidership, ignorance of the local, poor research skills, and lack of comparative perspective. One way to say this is that Campanella's account doesn't match 12ward's own experience of New Orleans. 12ward says, "This sounds like a guy who got here yesterday and lacks even the most basic 2005–2008 city infrastructure/operation knowledge." 12ward asks, "I know you claim to live here . . . but have you actually talked to ANYONE here?" The rest of his 1,584 word comment/counter-essay contains lists of dates, events, and brief personal and speculative narratives that attempt to amass a wealth of local (and professional?) credibility with which 12ward might be able to challenge Campanella's political position and analysis of population trends. In the course of this jeremiad, we learn that 12ward has worked as a public school teacher, has been homeless, moved to New Orleans for his vegetarian wife (who loves it there!), housed FEMA workers for free in October 2005, lives Uptown, and considers himself well versed in history.

12ward's hostility3 seems to stem from two places: 1) a misreading of Campanella's "white teapot" map (a map Campanella made to illustrate the racial distribution of New Orleans and where gentrification is currently underway), and 2) a disagreement with the political dimensions of Campanella's argument. 12ward conflates the plotting of white people with the plotting of gentrification hotspots; nowhere does Campanella argue that all white New Orleans neighborhoods are gentrified, only that gentrification tends to occur near areas that are considered "historic" and are near well-to-do-neighborhoods (which are generally white in NOLA). The second root of 12ward's problem, the political implication of Campanella's reading, is more interesting.

Infrogmation, Photo of the front steps of a Bywater home, 2008.
Infrogmation, Photo of the front steps of a Bywater home, 2008.

Ultimately, 12ward defends the non-native New Orleans creative class, a defense that at once privileges the economic, aesthetic, and cultural tastes of the outsider, the colonizer, the upper class, while also staking a claim—through experience-knowledge and pseudo-scholarly posturing—of ownership of a place. Campanella's argument—that gentrifiers run the risk of both supplanting the working class population and turning the neighborhoods they renovate into sterile neighborhoods-qua-museums—is one that could be extremely insulting if you consider yourself a progressive, civically engaged, culturally aware transplant to NOLA. It undermines the "super native" project of nouveau-New Orleanians. It reminds them that they enjoy living in a place that was once a home of poverty, misery, and rot but is now a well-joindered house full of wifi and Restoration Hardware, that they immerse themselves in a culture and locality they did not grow up in, and that they do these things because they can afford to. On the other hand, Campanella recognizes this even as he appeals to the same logic of biographical locality: after using the birth of his son to illustrate the paucity of babies in New Orleans, he categorizes his family as "category-3 types, I suppose, sans the 'bohemian,'" referring to his four-phase cycle, to himself as a member of the bourgeois-scum class, and echoing the official designation of Hurricane Katrina, a category-3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

Campanella's article becomes a call for New Orleanians of all sorts to have more children and make the city friendlier to families. On all other issues—the injection of liberal and progressive ideology into a more conservative population, the frenetic cultural adoption and reenactment by newcomers, the emphasis on making every enclave of well-educated, arts-oriented, internet-blogging, artisanal-food-making twenty-somethings more like Williamsburg—Campanella remains equivocal. He seems concerned that where once there was life there will soon be empty space bordered by lovely walls. Although it is hard to tell from 12ward's mean, reactionary, and occasionally absurdist4 diatribe, he shares a concern for wanting to preserve the place he lives in as a place of life, a concern that manifests through the use of experience-knowledge as an authority that trumps all other sources of knowledge. 12ward's comment yearns for the reader to share not just the eyes and politics of the interpreter, but his mythos and autobiography as well. This reliance on the personal experience of the writer, the appeal to insider knowledge, the individual interpretation—however well-meaning and progressive—is yet another gentrifying move, one that is both precious and consumptive, sentimental and displacing.

  • 1. This is the number my wife (NOCCA '04) told me when I asked her on Gchat how much the building cost. She calculated this number by remembering how when she would lean on the walls as a student at NOCCA, teachers told her, "Don't lean on the wall: this is a twenty-three million dollar building." I call this method for conducting geographical/infrastructural analysis the "ask a friend" method.
  • 2. This is surely the best evidence that Bywater is in fact Williamsburg: there's nothing more "Williamsburg" than claiming that something you do is more like Fort Greene.
  • 3. 12ward's language is very hostile, using words like "fuckall," "bullshit," and "abortion." 12ward doesn't like hipsters (as he assumes Campanella's point was to attack hipsters), and claims that it isn't hipsters who move into poor neighborhoods, it's "[g]ay men and women. (by and large gay men)." When attacking Campanella's history, 12ward uses the debate tactic "What about x?"—x being a litany of decontextualized dates or event names or neighborhoods—especially in defending gentrifying neighborhoods as racially diverse or in attacking Campanella's sketch of how gentrification has occurred in the past.
  • 4. 12ward muses, "as for the hipsters. do you fear them? This city has the power of temptation in the swamp. It will de-bone and devour a good number of them in so many ways. No matter WHAT you do, and every few years, (think of what I mean) this city will remind you of your safety obsession folly."

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