The recent deaths of Chef Leah Chase and Mac Rebennack aka Dr. John, who I called Our Mac, have New Orleanians pondering the future of our culture. Social Media is agog with “whither New Orleans” thoughts as well as the occasional prayer for deliverance from the tourist hordes.
While the grief over the loss of these two giants is genuine, much of the handwringing is overwrought. The threat to New Orleans culture comes more from gentrification and economic issues than from deaths in the older generation. Dr. John was 77, and Chef Chase was 96; they’re irreplaceable, but nobody lives forever.
Before dusting off my crystal ball about the future, a few words in honor of the dearly departed. Both Dr. John and Chef Chase were more than just great at what they did, they were folk heroes.
Here’s what I said about Our Mac in my tribute to him at First Draft:
“Our Mac spoke his own language. It’s often described as “hipster patois” but I’m not fond of the term. It made him sound like a man-bun wearing Bywater dweller who was always looking for the next trend to hop on. Mac was a trend-setter, not a trend-hopper. My favorite Dr. John-ism was on the subject of Katrina and the Federal Flood, he said that we were “traumaticalized.” Yeah, you right, Mac.
The music is what mattered most to Mac. He had wide-ranging musical tastes and was open to new players and styles even in his Seventies. Be it funk, blues, jazz, rock, R&B, or standards, Mac translated the music and Dr. John-ized it. His gruff, husky, and heavily New Orleans accented voice was instantly recognizable even in jingles or Disney tunes. Eclectic thy name was Dr. John.”
While I’m quoting myself, here’s an excerpt from my tribute to Chef Leah Chase:
“A reminder: feeding an integrated group such as the freedom riders was against the law in the Jim Crow Era. Chef Leah did it anyway. After her death, Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry wrote a piece about Chef Leah’s role in the Civil Rights movement. She didn’t scare easily, not even when a bomb was thrown at her Orleans Avenue restaurant.
As she aged, Chef Leah was the smiling, welcoming face of this Treme institution but she never stopped cooking. In recent years, she was a sort of secular saint in our community; something most would find burdensome, but she wore it lightly.”
A word about language: I hate the term “culture-bearer” as it sounds pompous, pretentious. and a passel of other P words. I also dislike “icon” or “iconic.” Perhaps it comes from growing up Greek Orthodox, a faith in which icons are religious artifacts to be worshipped. As a writer, I’m a satirist, which makes me an iconoclast. If I see an icon, I want to smash it.
Yet that’s not my reaction to our local heroes. Dr. John and Chef Leah should be loved, respected, and admired, not worshipped. They were unpretentious people; let’s keep them that way after they’ve departed this mortal coil.
Back to the future, only without the DeLorean. While the deaths of two talented individuals, even ones as brilliant as Dr. John and Chef Chase, cannot kill off our idiosyncratic culture, economic factors threaten to do so.
The spread of short-term-rentals (STRs) across the city has dramatically reduced the affordable housing stock, which is vital to the continuation of our local culture. The most important New Orleans musicians have come from either working-class or poor families. The plague of STRs makes it harder for local artists to make it. Many of our earlier local musical heroes such as Louis Armstrong and Danny Barker were obliged to leave town because of racism and limited opportunities to make a living if they stayed. By the 1980’s the tide began to turn, and more local musicians were able to make a living operating out of New Orleans: the Neville Brothers, Kermit Ruffins, and the Radiators, to name a few.
The worm began to turn after Katrina and the Federal Flood. This time the culprit was the rising cost of living, which caused many economic boats to sink as opposed to rise. Call it the unintended consequences of the recovery. The good news is that there are still many talented young musicians in New Orleans from Tank and the Bangas to the Soul Rebels to Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes to Trombone Shorty. There’s also a flourishing hip-hop scene whose appeal eludes me, but, of course, they’re part of the culture too.
My friend Chef James Cullen made an excellent point about this on Twitter:
FYI: James attended the Dr. John second line and Chef Chase’s funeral. He took some marvelous picture of both. Click here, y’all.
One of the most interesting recent pieces about the future of New Orleans culture was written by Advocate food writer Ian McNulty. He reminds us that we’ve lost a series of greats in addition to Our Mac and Chef Leah: Ella Brennan, Allen Toussaint, Chef Paul Prudhomme, Pete Fountain, and Fats Domino. One of McNulty’s paragraphs has become an instant classic:
“Nostalgia and best wishes are not enough to keep a culture vital and fecund. It takes participation and curiosity and decisions about where we devote our time and money.”
In McNulty’s own area, things are as fecund as hell. To paraphrase Dutch Morial’s campaign slogan, chefs such as Susan Spicer, Michael Gulotta, and Nina Compton are keeping the drive alive. The local food scene is strong even if there are too many restaurants; some of which are too pricey for locals, which is worrisome.
The paucity of affordable housing also bites the restaurant industry in the ass: Their employees need a place to live. We’re all in the same boat, we must figure out how to row in the same direction. Unfortunately, there are outside interests who are eager to “disrupt” our culture with house flipping and STRs. I’m hesitant to call them carpetbaggers, but if the shoe fits, stop kicking us with it. The scalawags, led by the artist formerly known as the “Trashanova,” Sidney Torres, are even worse.
Never trust a dude with a man-bun.
My current cultural pet peeve is the whole “Let’s rename Lee Circle so and so circle” call and response that pops up on social media after the death of each local luminary. It’s become a macabre parlor game that allegedly honors the dead but strikes me as creepy and disrespectful.
Many of the same people who demanded that it become Toussaint Circle, after Allen’s death in 2015, now want it to be Leah Circle. As much as I love puns, I have reservations about that. I’m inclined to think that any monument to Chef Chase should be in her beloved Treme neighborhood.
Besides, there’s already a monument to Chef Leah: It’s called Dookie Chase’s, and it can be found at the corner of Orleans and North Miro.
I think that the state of New Orleans culture is surprisingly strong, but it’s threatened by the same forces that are menacing other great cities. Barcelona and San Francisco are confronting the same issues of gentrification coupled with too much tourism. We must decide whether we want our focus to be on using New Orleans culture as tourist bait or whether we should let it grow organically in a way that pleases locals as we have done for most of our history.
New Orleanians are tired of everything being done for tourists. We need to return to the notion that, while we’re willing to share our culture with the world, it’s ours to share. Enjoy it, then go home.
The last word goes to Dr. John with a classic New Orleans funeral dirge: