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Identity: State of Mind or State of Place?

• December 08, 2013 • 3:53 PM

Ferries connecting New Orleans with Algiers and Gretna. (PHOTO: INFROGMATION/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The ongoing debates about gentrification boil down to nothing more than one big turf war.

A young couple, both 3rd generation Vermonters living on the right side of the Connecticut River, celebrate their first born in a hospital on the wrong side of the river in New Hampshire. The prodigal son excels in school and as a young man, runs a successful insurance company in Montpelier, Vermont’s state capital. He would serve in the state house and senate for almost three decades. At the ripe old age of 95, he passed on in White River Junction (on the right side of the river), not too far from where he spent his childhood. He merited a front page obituary in the Times Argus. The headline read, “New Hampshire Man Dies at 95.”

That’s an old joke in Vermont, or Maine. I would guess that many states have a similar version. It is a timeless debate about who belongs to a community. Geographer Richard Campanella hems and haws about claiming a New Orleans identity:

Is being a New Orleanian predicated purely on residency, or is it enhanced and strengthened by having been born here? Does someone with deep local roots have greater claim to “New Orleanian” than someone with shallow or transplanted roots? Is having attended high school here the nativity litmus test? Do pre-Katrina transplants speak with more authority than post-Katrina brain-gainers? And how do we handle the spatial and temporal gradations of both residency and nativity: does a transplanted resident of many years have more or less standing than a returned native who’s been away for many years? Distance-wise, what’s close enough (Kenner? Covington? Thibodaux?) or too far to count as “here”? Time-wise, what’s a sufficiently early point of arrival (1700s? 1850s? 1980s?), and what’s too recent? My ears are open to all sides of this public discussion, but I suspect — indeed I hope — the jury will forever be out. The true answer probably lies more in the eternal debate than in any one strident, absolutist response.

The pedantic debate wouldn’t matter save for migration. The concern over gentrification more often than not boils down to who has a more legitimate claim to call a neighborhood home. Again, Campanella with the pedantic considerations informing the concern about gentrification in New Orleans:

Looking to the past helps address this question. New Orleans two centuries ago underwent a transformation so draconian that today’s changes practically evaporate in comparison. Starting a few years after the Louisiana Purchase, migrants from the Northeast and Upper South poured in by the thousands. On their heels came immigrants from Ireland, greater Germany, France, Haiti and dozens of other nations, who arrived in numbers larger than any other Southern city and oftentimes second only to New York. By 1850, more than two out of every four New Orleanians had been born outside the United States, and nearly three out of every four had been born outside New Orleans.

As the city’s population doubled roughly every 15 years, its culture roiled and diversified tumultuously. The city’s primary language shifted from French to English, and its dominant race went from black to white. Its Spanish-influenced Roman civil code became mixed with English common law. Its chief religion increasingly shared the spiritual stage with other sects and creeds. Its West Indian-style architecture became Americanized with center hallways and Classical façades introduced from Europe via the Northeast. Its night scene adopted the “concert saloon,” a variation of the English music hall imported from New York that would later evolve into vaudeville venues and burlesque nightclubs. Its festivity, in the form of Mardi Gras, transformed from decentralized street mayhem, to organized krewes with scheduled parades. Its view of race veered away from the old Caribbean model that included an intermediary caste of free people of color, in favor of the American “one drop” rule. Even Louisiana’s surveying system changed, from French long-lots measured in arpents to American rectangular sections measured in acres.

Like today, every change was met with consternation and resistance. Creoles — that is, native New Orleanians — viewed the newcomers as brash and threatening to their once-tight grip on local politics, economics and culture. The newcomers, for their part, adopted some local ways but otherwise made no apologies for installing their own “superior” way of life. Acrimony mounted, getting so bad by the 1830s that New Orleans underwent a sort of metropolitan divorce, trifurcating into rival municipalities delineated largely along lines of ethnicity and nativity. Talk about heavy-handed conflict resolution: Imagine New Orleans today breaking into three cities, with downtown transplants pitted against Uptown bluebloods and Gentilly Creoles, each with its own council, laws and police!

Academic or fourth-generation Vermonter, geographers have heard it all before about outsiders. The ruckus over gentrification is nothing new. Turf war. Yawn.

And that’s all gentrification is, a turf war. The concern over globalization? Turf war. NAFTA got you down? Turf war. Brain drain? Turf war. However, what makes gentrification worth discussing is that it is a class turf war. Then again, when isn’t a turf war about class?

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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