New Orleans is changing. Whether we believe it or not the racial lines have shifted, the class and income lines are slowly changing and the future of New Orleans is at stake! Hurricane Katrina has left a significant mark on the face of this glorious city. To some while horrible and destructive, it brought opportunity and purpose, and while to others it brought death and tribulation. New Orleans is seeing changes on every front. Improving conditions in America’s urban neighborhoods requires a deeper understanding of the complex dynamics that divide residents along racial, ethnic and class lines. So what does the future of New Orleans hold? It certainly looks like many metropolitan areas not only here but across the U.S are coming to look more like the European cities of a century ago. The same way Baron Haussmann’s redesigns (both good and bad) changed the face of Paris in the 1860’s, cities are moving towards a more centered vibrant street life as the center of daily life. Food, shops, and stores are more and more the anchors of these centers. This area seems no different. For the past few decades an unmitigated reversal is taking place, not merely as a type of gentrification but a type of demographic transposition that is slowly reshaping the make-up of the American city. Unfortunately, it will be the people with substantial earning power or ample savings that will be able to remain, while the urban poor will be slowly pushed further and further outside the city lines. As with Paris and many other European cities could the future of American cities be slowly pushing out the poor by way of slowly rising rents, increasing property values and fewer and fewer options for the people that have made the city what it is? While this sounds impossible here in New Orleans, and New Orleans’ natural immunity to so many of the nation’s trends and changes has always protected it from the national progression, is it possible that Hurricane Katrina reconfigured the city and its immunity to a point-of-no return. Is New Orleans starting to see the first signs of these changes masked in the excitement of new shops and product availability? When looking at the census data already available these trends seem possible…even here. (Greater New Orleans Community Data Center: http://www.gnocdc.org/ for neighborhood data profiles, economic changes to southern Louisiana and the changes in population density post Katrina.)
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I had never really been to the Restaurant Row Recovery area other than as a quick drive by on my way towards other parts of the city. As it turns out this area houses so many culturally important destinations that at times I felt like I didn’t know the city at all. So often “we” rarely venture outside of our comfort zones and truly experience what else the city has to offer. I’d never heard much about many of these staples of New Orleans culture that were hidden gems in a sea of traffic and congestion. Yet, it seems like everyone already knew about these places, already understood their significance as a part of daily life. The almost limitless food options have made for a fun research experience.
So what and why should anthropologists care about food? I think it tells us about what we think is important, clearly not all of the options are nutritionally significant nor financially attainable for some but here you have all types of restaurants and people coming together in crowds to enjoy what this area has to offer. For the business owner, does this area attract people that would otherwise go elsewhere? With so many options what type of relationships are present? What, if any community organizations bind them together?
So why do these certain spaces attract people? What is it about the growth of this centrally located area that continues to grow and adapt to the major changes throughout the city? When we consider the disparity on what we spend our money on, we find that food and entertainment has a special place. Sometimes food as entertainment attracts us in ways we never thought of.
Thus far, some of the research teams have already delved into some of the big questions? Like why are these restaurants here? What are the relationships between them? As anthropologists, I think we want to know the hows and why, the histories and social structures behind what makes these restaurants tick but we rarely get to know their back stories. I’ve particularly enjoyed eating in many of these places in the process of initial “research” as a way to understand the clientele, the menus, the employees and even the environment.
It’s been said that we are what we eat and what we eat reflects who we are. To some extent understanding food and our relationship with it, gives us a better understanding of our culture and what it means here in New Orleans. To some, New Orleans cuisine is a masterpiece of culinary craftsmanship full of flavors and combinations otherwise unknown to the world at large… while to others, it is largely just a deep fried over gluttonous mountain of sauces masking the purity and natural flavors of whatever the given dish may be. It seems like our relationship with food is complex and fraught with challenging contradictions, whether you are a local, a tourist or a new transplant to the city. Despite being the wealthiest nation in the world, 45 million Americans will rely on food stamps this month to put food on the table for themselves and their families. Food hardship, or the inability to afford enough food, affects families around the country, particularly those with children and throughout this city. So how does an area full of choices impact not only the surrounding community but the entire city at large? This area has a multitude of interesting selections but it is home to many staples of New Orleans culture that somehow potentially touch us all. Through investigations on the how’s and why’s perhaps we can learn just a little bit more about ourselves and our city in the process.