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How New Orleans Is In Danger of Losing Its Identity

Several ongoing contentious issues are reaching a head as the New Orleans City Council considers two ordinances that residents say could drastically change the culture of the city.
Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP

When Salvatore Geloso, a 27-year-old singer and guitar player walks down New Orleans's Frenchmen Street, he can see his town going one of two ways: it could continue being a city of controlled chaos — with loud bars and street musicians providing the soundscape to a backdrop of ramshackle old, colorful buildings. Or, it could become more of what it increasingly is: calmer, richer, taller, more global, more touristy, and more outward-facing.


"They're trying to tame New Orleans like it's a circus animal," Geloso told VICE News. "Pay us to catch a glimpse of it before we kill it."

But who is New Orleans meant for these days? It's a question that's been debated with intensity since Hurricane Katrina, and the man-made failures that allowed it to do so much damage, destroyed much of the city — inadvertently providing residents, politicians, and corporations with the opportunity to remake it in their own image.

But recently, that debate has come to a head, as the New Orleans City Council considers two ordinances that residents say could drastically change the culture of the city. The first, a revamp of the city's zoning ordinance, could mean six-story luxury condos sprout up along the edges of historic neighborhoods, while hundreds-feet-high hotels rise right next to the city's French Quarter. It could also limit the size of New Orleans' growing micro brewing industry, and increase the amount of stores selling sex toys and other adult material in the French Quarter.

The second — a long-contentious, and for-now-stalled revision to the city's noise ordinance — could force bars, street musicians, or both to limit what, when, and how they play music.

In a city known for its historic architecture and loud music, both ordinances have stirred controversy by getting right to the heart of what makes New Orleans unique, and in doing so have divided residents and neighborhood associations to the point that no one seems to be on the same page: some want more buildings but less noise, some want more music but less street music, some want taller buildings in touristy-areas, but less in residential ones, and some just want a say in all of it. But regardless of what side people come down on, most everyone can agree nothing less than the future of the city is at stake.


"New Orleans has a history of its culture coming from its neighborhoods," said Ethan Ellestad, the coordinator of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO), an organization dedicated to getting musicians' and artists' voices heard in the ongoing debates. "When neighborhoods change, there's always the threat that the culture can change. Of course things evolve. But who gets to say what's too much and what's too fast?"

Most controversial at the moment is the upcoming revision to the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO), the main document that governs what can and can't be built in the city. Almost no one disputes that the decades-old document needs to be updated, but it seems no one thought it'd take this much effort to revise it either.

The City Planning Commission has been working on revising the behemoth document for over four years. During that time, the commission has held countless public meetings to get input from New Orleans residents. But some say the calls for collaboration were all a show, which has led to protests, shouting matches, and walkouts during recent meetings. One group even bought billboard space in the city to protest the CZO's proposed increase to height limits in certain areas.

"We've had meetings and meetings and meetings, and expressed how we want to live in this town, and they've totally disregarded that," said Gretchen Bomboy, a long-time resident of the city's Marigny neighborhood and secretary of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association. "This is a total disregard for the citizens of New Orleans."


Several neighborhood groups are worried the CZO will turn their once-sleepy neighborhoods into French Quarter replicas, overrun with tourists and young, drunk people. That's already started to happen in the Marigny and Bywater, two neighborhoods just outside the French Quarter. The CZO could allow developers to build up to 75-feet high towers along the riverfront there — two stories higher than people are now allowed to — as long as they add something for the public good, such as a pathway connecting the riverfront to neighborhoods.

In some cases, the extra height could bring with it affordable apartments. That's created a somewhat odd alliance between the city's luxury developers and affordable housing advocates. They say the city's going to become more developed anyway, so it might as well come with some public benefits.

"It's private land, it's going to be developed anyway — that ship is already sailing," said Monika Gerhart, the policy director at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. "Sometimes the fear of increased density just sounds like NIMBY-ism [not in my backyard]."

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An image from the Preservation Resource Center in New Orleans of what a block near the French Quarter could look like if the comprehensive zoning ordinance passes. Image via Preservation Resource Center in New Orleans.

But the height provision may not be so contentious if the neighborhoods weren't already overrun with non-natives, part-timers, tourists, and Airbnb-ers — the anti-Airbnb crowd in New Orleans is particularly voracious. Gentrification has been particularly contentious in New Orleans since Katrina, and even more so in certain neighborhoods like Bywater.


The storm displaced 400,000 people from the New Orleans area and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, many of them African American. The crowd that's returned is whiter and richer than before. The black population is down to 60 percent, from 67 percent prior to the storm, and the city's home values have skyrocketed in some areas. Bywater, the neighborhood perhaps most synonymous with gentrification in the city, lost 64 percent of its black population between 2000 and 2010, according to Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella. Locals say it's already hard enough to park, eat, and sleep soundly in their own neighborhood without the increased density.

"It's going to be luxury condos owned by New Yorkers, people in LA, France, and we're already crowded out of our own restaurants and clubs," Bomboy said. "They just changed the map and expect us to swallow this?"

Others are worried that some special zones will allow developers to build hotels much taller than surrounding buildings, in some cases over 200 feet high. According to Patricia Gay, the director of the Preservation Resource Center, the city already has about the same amount of its pre-Katrina hotel rooms back, with more on the way, plus new Airbnb rentals, all while only 75 percent of the permanent population has returned to town.

"We're turning into a tourism city," Gay said. "And if we're pushing people out to do that, we're in trouble."


The dissent surrounding the CZO isn't unanimous, but the furor it has caused seems to be. The same could be said over the perpetually-in-revision noise ordinance, originally passed in 1956, but inconsistently enforced for years. The city's own attorney Sharonda Williams has said the current ordinance is unconstitutional, because it mandates a curfew for playing instruments, but not for other sounds.

The newly revised ordinance could do away with the curfew, something some neighborhood groups oppose. It could also require permits for musicians, though many at MaCCNO think this provision is likely DOA, as permitting street music in New Orleans would be nearly impossible — parades with loud jazz called Second Lines are a weekly feature of most New Orleans neighborhoods. It'll also likely impose stricter limits on the amount of noise coming from the city's bars, clubs, and restaurants.

"If you're in Omaha or whatever, an ordinance that affects live music may be peripheral to the overall functioning of the city," said Matt Sakakeeny, a professor of music at Tulane. "In New Orleans, music isn't an entertaining sideshow, it's a piece of the entire infrastructure of the city."

Whatever the outcome, advocates, residents, musicians, and others say both ordinances will likely piss some people off. It's been years since the City Council announced it'd try to revise the CZO and noise ordinances. Some say it might take another couple of years before New Orleanians are on the same page about what they want the future of their city to look, sound, and feel like.

"It should just be made in a way that everyone can live with," Ellestad said. "I don't know if everyone will be happy. But at least they'll be able to live with it."

Follow Peter Moskowitz on Twitter: @ptrmsk