The ebb and flow of the city’s population post-Katrina has sparked a lot of conversation in the eight years since the hurricane. And while early talk centered on all the people we lost because of the storm, the discussion lately has been more about those we have gained – and what impact they are having on a city obsessed with its culture and traditions.
It’s by no means a new conversation.
“There’s definitely a lot of talk about people moving in. And the question of how they are impacting the soul of the city is worth talking about,” says Brian Boyles, director of public relations and programs at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. “But New Orleans has always wrestled with this. It’s a place people come to in waves that define the city.”
Boyles is among those who believe that looking back helps us move forward. To that end, LEH, in partnership with Louisiana Cultural Vistas columnist and Tulane professor Richard Campanella, is taking a close look at population influxes of the past, to see what we might learn from them.
“Arrivals” will take place over three Wednesdays this month and next at the Louisiana Humanities Center. Each session will dissect a particular time in the city’s history when newcomers arriving in droves helped shape its culture — and future.
Why did they come? Who was here when they arrived? Why did they stay? How did they change the city?
Such questions resonate in 21st century New Orleans, given the recent arrival of so many newcomers, from construction crews to young professionals, health care workers to Latin Americans. These population shifts have led to heated discussions about gentrification, economics, entrepreneurship, identity.
“Factual, scholarly insight into what has happened before helps us draw parallels with the past,” says Boyles. “It helps start respectful conversations about our roles in these changes.”
“Arrivals” begins with a look at the city’s first century, which saw a turbulent infusion of French and Spanish settlers, upstart Americans, Haitians fleeing the revolution there, Africans imported as slaves. Panelists include Dr. Raphael Cassimere of UNO, Dr. Emily Clark of Tulane, and Larry Powell, author of The Accidental City.
“When the Americans arrive, there’s certainly a parallel” to contemporary times, says Boyles. “The culture that had been building for a hundred years – a very entrenched culture — was faced with Americanization. That’s when you really see conflict.”
The second installment of “Arrivals” will examine population changes after the Civil War – “another period when New Orleans, having taken this big hit, was trying to rebuild itself,” says Boyles. Campanella joins Dr. Laura Kelley on the panel, with LEH executive director Michael Sartisky moderating.
The final session examines the post-Katrina period, in a discussion led by Boyles. It, too, will focus on past as prelude.
“The back story is informative,” Boyles says. “When we look back, it’s easier to say, ‘These forces made these things happen.’ In the present, that’s harder to do. We don’t see the why of things. We’re all making decisions, and if you know the history, it helps the process.”
Partly, it’s a matter of looking at the details, rather than the big picture.
“Any time we look a little deeper, we find a lot. As Campanella says, if you dig a hole in the French Quarter, you can see down below all the things that kept the neighborhood moving. We do that kind of excavation of history. When you look at the specifics, you get the bigger picture.
“You can better understand whatever larger historical shift is going on by looking at the minutiae. Like, when does a newcomer to New Orleans really feel he belongs? The first time his car gets stolen? The first time the utility bill comes and he can’t make sense of it? It’s like the Frenchman who came to New Orleans before and said, ‘Wow, that yellow fever, you don’t know what that’s like.’ ”
And that’s what lies at the core of much of this conversation: the fundamental question of when “they” become “us.” One local constant through the centuries has been New Orleans’ very uniqueness and ability to assimilate its immigrants into the culture.
As Boyles points out, there’s no Little Italy hanging around; those kinds of ethnic neighborhoods don’t last here.
“It’s in the DNA of this city to be a place of mixing, of ebb and flow. Homogeneity is not what we do here.”
A three-part series examining previous population influxes in New Orleans, to provide historical context for ongoing debates about the city’s changing face and residential makeup.
Louisiana Humanities Center, 938 Lafayette St.
— 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16: Colonial Louisiana and the Louisiana Purchase
–6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, Post Civil War and Early 20th Century New Orleans
–6 p.m. Nov. 13, The Post-Katrina Period
The series is free and open to the public.