WWNO’s SpeakEasy: 'The Guardians Of New Orleans Culture'

May 28, 2013

Renee Peck, Brett Will Taylor, Sharon Litwin and Vernel Bagneris at WWNO's SpeakEasy on May 23.
Credit Janet Wilson / WWNO

The third SpeakEasy on May 23 broke new ground and covered familiar territory with its panel of New Orleanians (recent and native) who offered some real talk about the changing face of our beloved Crescent City.

Moderator Sharon Litwin, Notes from New Orleans commentator and co-founder of NolaVie, led a thought-provoking discussion with fellow NolaVie founder and writer Renee Peck, actor Vernal Bagneris, and essayist Brett Will Taylor. After Sharon shared her panelists’ achievements, there was little doubt as to their authority on the night’s issue: is New Orleans susceptible to gentrification with its growing population of newcomers, and how does a city protect itself from the dilution of its culture, even with one so rich as The Big Easy’s?

SpeakEasy is WWNO’s community forum, held on the last Thursday of every month at Chickie Wah Wah, 2828 Canal St. in New Orleans.

Bagneris began by pointing out that New Orleans, while an animated culture that begs to be interacted with, still deserves the reverence of not being manhandled. He recalled a recent second-line jazz funeral where some (likely non-native) participants mistook the celebratory nature as an invitation to invoke the Mardi Gras spirit, complete with beer-can crushing and neon-wig wearing. No, there is nothing like this where you come from, he said. Yes, you can watch. Yes, you can be moved. But, nobody likes when their culture is misrepresented and disrespected, even when the intentions are malice-free. Watch more.

Litwin built on this by commenting that what makes New Orleans culture both seductive and vulnerable at the same time is that it’s free of institutionalization. There is no rule book for the seduced traveler to refer to — leaving the city free to work its magic, but at the same time not entirely capable of controlling what makes it so appealing in the first place. It is an untamable place.    

Taylor admitted he knew not just his role as a newcomer, but his place. “I’m at the kids’ table right now. Maybe in a few decades I can graduate to the adult table, but right now, I know after living here for only three years, I’m a kid. I waited around once before to move up, I can do it again,” he said. Taylor argued that if any place is worth waiting for it’s New Orleans, because it’s actually less of a city and more of “a mistress.” Not a wife, he clarified, as there was no desire to marry the temptress Nola, but she definitely makes for one helluva lover.

While Taylor’s residency in New Orleans may be newborn, the bewitched essayist has still managed to live in his fair share of neighborhoods, most recently calling Tremé his home. He enthusiastically told about the constant activity he gets to witness, like the revolving appearances of musicians who play on his street as they come visiting famed local drummer Shannon Powell. This sort of thing is not reserved for special occasions, but is wonderfully commonplace and extraordinary, and in this city, not a rarity.

Renee Peck, herself a product of southern Louisiana, went on to tell the story of a young Tulane writer whose family came to visit for the first time via the Northeast. Their instinct was concern; they weren’t thrilled with the idea of their young daughter living in a city plagued with a history of violence, courtesy of both its residents and Mother Nature. How can you live here? But, just as they began their laundry list of protests, sitting on the girl’s balcony, a brass band marched by, spontaneously filling the air with music as though in response to her parents’ complaints. How can I not live here?

The girl, as so many before and since, was enchanted by the city. Most transplants could probably tell a similar story: “Once upon a time, New Orleans cast her spell, and then I was a goner.” Connecting it back to how this swell of newcomers can potentially change a city’s cultural landscape, Peck said that this current trend is nothing new for New Orleans. Outsiders have long been drawn here, wanting to be part of it, and perhaps even having designs of “improving” it. She referenced a passing conversation with a Bywater friend who seemed unfazed by the most recent influx of new residents, remembering how many times a restaurateur from San Francisco would set up shop for a couple years before realizing the dough of New Orleans was not one to be kneaded.

But why is New Orleans so impervious to this malleability? What is its secret weapon?

“The humidity,” Vernal quipped with a knowing smile. Everybody laughed, not just because it was amusing, but because it was true. “I mean, all that new construction, those new buildings…. they’ll warp, and shift, and settle, just like all the ones before it, becoming a part of the city, not redefining it,” he said.

Join WWNO for its next SpeakEasy, Thursday, June 27, when we’re joined by Marco Werman, host of PRI’s The World.