I have developed quite a lengthy list of ‘favorites’ during my three years living in New Orleans– favorite restaurants, favorite bars, favorite boutiques. These small, local businesses have made a big impact on my time in the city. Sitting in the sun during the hour-long wait at Bearcat Cafe, splitting a bottle of wine with friends at Bacchanal, or strolling down Magazine Street to browse through the new arrivals at my favorite shops, were weekly occurrences.
Life in New Orleans almost appears to have shot back in time to the months following Hurricane Katrina due to the new ‘normal’ during the coronavirus pandemic. Bars and restaurants have been forced to shutter their doors under Governor John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order.
As I sit in my childhood bedroom in Chicago, I am reminded of what I left behind as I tune in to New Orleans Mayor LaToya Catrell address a city that will undoubtedly be affected by this invisible enemy. I am overwhelmed with adanfreud* and helplessness. Bars and restaurants are forced to lay off many of their workers as the thousands of tourists that were expected to visit in the coming months are no longer guaranteed (6). New Orleans’ has been strained several times before as it is a city that relies so heavily on outsiders coming in.
These outsiders filter into New Orleans throughout the year but hit peak numbers during the spring (6). However, before Jazz Fest and a St. Patrick’s day parade, there was shipping and energy (8). New Orleans went through a surge of economic booms in the 1980s that were driven by the oil and gas industry (8). The influence of these industries is still apparent throughout the city. Tourism, oil, and shipping are the three major components of the local economy of New Orleans (8). These three industries are dependent on outsiders looking in, as a quote from “Present-Day New Orleans” notes they are “highly subject to swings in the national and international economy” (8).
Many people, experts and New Orleans locals alike, have problems with the high number of tourists that come into the city. In 2019 there were a total of 323 arrests made during Mardi Gras weekend (9). The piles of beads that lie on the streets of the French Quarter tell a story of the people who have come and gone within a week. The influx of visitors to the city means an increase in consumerism, with some claiming that “tourism improves urban aesthetic, enhances leisure facilities for residents and democratises travel” (5). On the other hand, tourism has resulted in gentrification and the loss of affordable housing in downtown New Orleans, as well as the perpetuation of low wage jobs to cater to these outsiders (5).
The pros and cons of New Orleans tourism can be debated for days. The fact of the matter is that tourism sustains a large number of people’s incomes and encourages the consumption of food, drink, souvenirs, transportation, and lodging (5). The positive effects of tourism only happen when tourists are active in the city. What happens when these outsiders stop coming in? New Orleans has seen this before– during Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 Recession. Here it comes again as the rise in coronavirus patients almost halt travel entirely. Pictures of empty streets and boarded up restaurants have shocked me. In the past few weeks statewide unemployment claims have surged to 71,000 new claims a week (6). An article by The Guardian quoted a grocery-store owner Burnell Cotlon saying, “Musicians, hotel and restaurant workers, people who used to have 40 hours work a day, now have nothing” (6).
It is difficult to imagine New Orleans without the constant influx of tourism, and it’s unrealistic to expect the city to not depend on this source of income. It may be possible for New Orleans to diversify their economy. Take Amazon, for example— one of the largest companies in the world to date (1). Amazon has staying power, and it’s not just because of their ability to cater to customers’ needs of instant gratification. Amazon has been able to keep up with the times and is “an ever-changing ecosystem of products and services, each one a sizable bet on the future” (1).
Amazon is not simply an online retail store. They are a tech and hardware company through products like the Amazon Alexa or Amazon Fire Stick. They became a grocer with the $13 billion acquisition of Whole Foods (1). They offer streaming and web services, as well as several other less successful adventures like smartphones and custom merchandise (1). What makes Amazon’s diversified portfolio so impressive is not the amount of money it brings in per year. In 2019, Amazon’s net sales were $280.52 billion– up 20.8% in Q4 (7). An article published on Digital Commerce 360 describes how Amazon’s ecommerce business contributed $141,25 billion in 2019, and their physical stores (Whole Foods, Amazon Go) generated $17.19 billion in revenue (7). It is that this diversity almost guarantees that there will be money coming in for years. Amazon first became a publicly traded company in 1997 with its original stock price set at $18 per share. In September 2018, the price per share hit a record of $2,050 when it became the second public US company to hit a $1 trillion market cap (3). At the time of this article, Amazon has closed out the markets at $2,307.68 per share (3). These investment trends unveil the faith and the money that backs Amazon. These ventures allow Amazon to weather the storm and ensures the company is able to keep up with evolving trends in consumerism.
It is not practical for New Orleans to suddenly focus on manufacturing technology or becoming the next Silicon Valley,but the city can take a page from Amazon’s playbook in an effort to change with the times. By shifting the focus away from tourism and more towards sectors like agriculture, food processing, or engineering-intensive manufacturing, the city could see a dramatic shift in economic stability. An important distinction between these industries and the ones that currently occupy New Orleans’ economy currently is that they are less dependent on goods coming in, and more focused on goods going out. They are focused on needs rather than wants. By leaning on several different industries for economic stimulation rather than one (or three) industries, the city would be more prepared when one sector becomes less liquid.
I am not a business student, much less an economist. I hesitate to make suggestions on how New Orleans would go about diversifying its economy. I struggle to find confidence in my knowledge about this matter, even after extensive research. Michael Foucault comments on authorship with the quote, “a text apparently points to [a] figure who is outside and precedes it” (4). The goal of this article is to point out the fault lines in New Orleans’ economy. My responsibility to the place I have called home for four years now lies in donations, but I yearn for the day that I can return to do more.
*adanfreud: feeling of responsibility for the hardships of a collective