Transformation or Gentrification
Oct 12 2015

Transformation or Gentrification

By: Debbie Lindsey

Within one month, two friends of mine were each given 30-day vacate notices. The French Quarter was Joe’s home for 22 years. Jerry’s tenure as a French Quarter resident was 16 years. Combine the two and you have 38 years’ worth of living in the same neighborhood, spending time, money and voting power. Each had to pack up his life in a matter of weeks; homes had to be reduced to cardboard boxes. Forget the memories and routines—new apartments had to be found and money spent for deposits, utility transfers and moving services, all the while not being able to miss a day from their jobs to accomplish this. Thirty days’ notice.  

Around the corner on Royal Street, the dreaded sign goes up: Dear Customers, After 20 years our business will close due to the loss of our lease. Thank you. And so it begins again: another life, another viable business, another source of income not only for the shop owner but also for her employees and purveyors, the coffee shop they spent money at every morning and the guys who rely on tips at the parking garage. Even the city and state lose out on sales taxes. And now there is one less mom-and-pop shop, one less uniquely New Orleans spot and one less person to wave howdy to and ask, “How ’bout them Saints last night?” And another one bites the dust…

Ten years later and our city is being sucker-punched again. Not everyone feels it yet or even sees it happening. For now, New Orleans is the darling of the prom; her dance card is filling up fast. I swell with pride and then look around to see going-out-of-business signs popping up at an alarming speed. Rents are up, the foot is off the brake and the acceleration has become a joyride for many landlords. After a granite countertop or two, a coat of paint, some oh-so-modern buffed gray metal street numbers screwed in place and a faux-wood privacy fence erected, the rent can triple. Prefer to own? Those starter homes are becoming harder and harder to finance. Gut a Craftsman shotgun double (once viable housing for two families), “open” it up with the damn kitchen slap-dab in the former living room (gleaming with buffed stainless steel appliances and the ever popular granite countertops) and BAM! ya got yourself a $600,000 house for sale. And remember: You don’t own it—the bank and the termites own it, and you. Anyone wanna buy a piece of New Orleans?

When did folks in this town get rich? Last time I checked, no one I know had received a pay raise. Minimum wage did recently increase for our city contracted workers, and for damn good reason, but (after taxes) their rent will take up more than half of that pay. If you can receive subsidized housing, then fine—but you still ain’t livin’ high on the hog.  

Oh, they say that the hospital complex will lure new money and jobs. Jobs for our working (hard-working) poor? Explain this to me, because I don’t see it. Sure, there will be maintenance, kitchen, cleaning and clerical work. And yes, future jobs—even careers—will open up to our young folks going to college or trade school, but for now it looks like the medical corridor will be enticing out-of-town workers. Fine, but where do they live? In your neighborhood. Now, watch the prices soar. Own a home? Sure, your investment will pay off if you flip it before a hurricane or the real estate bubble here starts to lose air.

I used to try to wrap my head around the paradoxical nature of my city; love her in spite of the crime, decay and political malfeasance. I would liken her to a historic gem of architecture; a once magnificent home fallen subject to a slumlord. The only thing is, now they have slapped some siding on her and the slumlords have gained prominence in the power structure. Money certainly talks up a storm—especially after the Storm. Oh, my New Orleans, she’s ripe for the picking.

Ten years ago, after the Debacle, New Orleanians were reminded just how important this weird and wonderful place is, with its powerhouse of music, food and odd ways of life. While never forgetting the deeply rooted problems, we knew that something oddly magical abounds here—sometimes a bit dark and at other times just plain delightful. We who could came back and remade a life here. The promise of a better New Orleans was exciting, and in my view the new folks moving here seemed to be a great fit. For me, the post-Debacle transplants were a welcome sight, what with their newfound passion for our city and their fresh and progressive attitudes. Well, they are still just that—assets to any community—EXCEPT they have unwittingly inflated our rents. And here’s the irony: The very thing that has brought on this infatuation, the compelling reason to uproot and move here, will be uprooted itself.

Yesterday my neighbor received a letter under her door: thirty days to vacate. She has no recourse but to cry and go deeper into debt.

  On October 31, 2005, Boyfriend and I proudly took ownership of one of the first new businesses to open post-Debacle. Ten years later, our letter arrived, then our Thanks for the Memories sign was posted on the door, and on October 31, 2015, our French Quarter doors will close. We must relocate. We will reopen—but not in our Quarter. We already deeply miss our “home” on Toulouse and hope that we’ll be missed in return. And another one bites the dust… 

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