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Bywater faces its future

As New Orleans struggles to balance tourism and residents, the neighborhood is caught in the middle

One morning a couple of years ago, a neighbor called me over from my porch to point out the guy staying in the Airbnb next door: a certain famous actor who’d just appeared in a blockbuster Middle-earth fantasy. I snuck a look, and there he was, smoking in sunglasses and a T-shirt next to our rusty old iron fence. Our neighbor had just googled how much this actor was worth, and wondered aloud why he wasn’t staying up at the W or the Ritz, adding that he’d just been tweeting from the restaurant around the corner about a bathroom art installation. As though on cue, we overheard the actor tell his hosts that he hoped the neighborhood wouldn’t “lose its authenticity.”

Two neighborhoods downriver from the French Quarter, Bywater is close enough to its tourist vortex to be convenient but far enough away to still seem cool and “authentic.” Pre-Katrina, it was an affordable, laid-back mix of black and white, working class and professional, with a fair number of artists. Modest 19th-century shotgun houses and Creole cottages dominated, with larger ones mixed in throughout. I bought my 1850s Creole side hall in 2003 on a New Orleans public school teacher’s salary. Now, with skyrocketing real estate prices, high-end renovations, and a steady stream of neighbors being displaced by spiking property taxes and short-term rentals, Bywater is becoming unrecognizable to many locals. As one longtime neighbor put it, “It’s like we moved to another neighborhood without actually moving.”

Today this is a common enough scenario in cities the world over, and neighborhoods have always shifted identities over time. But along with the return of more affluent people to the suddenly desirable urban core, the transformation of some New Orleans neighborhoods is muddled by an intense tourist economy, a housing crisis, and an unprecedented natural and man-made disaster. After a century of pumping out swampy lowlands to expand, the city was momentarily brought back to its 18th-century footprint, the un-flooded “sliver by the river,” by Katrina. After over a decade of haphazard “laissez-faire” rebuilding across all elevations, we’re seeing more and more development along the Mississippi, the city’s natural high ground. Often, this development is not an addition to the city’s residential inventory but new construction meant for tourists.

The tensions over who gets the high ground, and who gets to decide who gets the high ground, are agitating some historic residential neighborhoods like Bywater.

But what does an “authentic” Bywater even look like? Like many neighborhoods, it’s a messy, evolving communal project, though it does have a particular history, a creative post-industrial identity forged by long-time neighbors and newcomers, businesses and institutions. It’s anchored on one end by railroad tracks and the arts high school where I teach, and on the other end by the street art-wrapped long-vacant naval base along the Industrial Canal. In between you have dollar stores, Mr. Samuel’s timeless St. Claude Tire Shop, contemporary high-end condos, Captain Sal’s seafood, a string of art collectives, and generationally owned bars. On Sundays and holidays it’s enlivened by both traditional African-American second lines and newer walking parades. Bywater is not without its difficulties and tensions, especially around race and class and crime, but after the storm, during the long years of rebuilding, many of us became invested in and protective of it in what some might consider an outsized way.

During our Katrina evacuation, when New Orleans was still wrecked and filled with water and Bywater was closed off by National Guard checkpoints, our family visited intact, thriving cities—Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco. As we drove around, waiting for our own city to open back up, everything we experienced was amplified by what we’d lost. We wanted what those cities had: decent public transportation; walkable, inclusive commercial thoroughfares; acceptable schools; food trucks. If New Orleans was going to come back, we’d have to do better.

We returned to a nearly empty city and an endless public planning process regarding how the citizens wanted it rebuilt. In Bywater, much of it spared flooding, there were acrimonious low-density-versus-high-density arguments among neighbors, eventually resulting in two separate neighborhood associations, one generally in favor of development, and another generally against. Some recalled Bywater’s robust and dynamic early-20th-century high-density days, the lively street culture, generations of families crowding oyster bars, shops on every street corner. In the 1960s, a lot of those families, mostly white, fled crime and integration for the suburbs, and businesses closed. More African Americans moved in, and then people like me, younger white creative types, drawn to the worn corner bars and the affordability, to an old riverfront New Orleans neighborhood that time had left alone to be itself, but that also felt culturally open, spawning a gritty underground music and art scene that valued the neighborhood’s roots and long-time residents.

During that same period, many of the shotgun doubles had been converted to singles, lessening the overall neighborhood population. Some folks had gotten used to their quiet and their parking spaces. But after the storm, I skewed toward more commercial zoning, more density and thoughtful development, incorporating contemporary design into our neighborhood’s older architectural styles, like those other cities we’d visited on our sad, searching post-Katrina road trip. I wanted vitality and change, not to be on the wrong side of progress or aligned with preservationists harboring a fossilized attitude toward the city’s history. Growing up in New Orleans, I’d seen where social and economic stagnation had gotten us. In my pre-Katrina lifetime, the city was pretty isolated, lagging behind in most urban trends but the worst ones, like the midcentury bulldozing of thriving African-American neighborhoods for elevated highways. The world saw it too—our poverty, racism, and civic neglect on endless display during the agonizing Katrina media coverage.

When it came time to rebuild, on a surge of desperate civic optimism fueled by epic loss and the money and attention pouring in, we entertained all manner of pie-in-the-sky ideas. We could harness the Mississippi with giant hydrokinetic turbines and free ourselves from the grid; all those empty lots from disappeared houses could become oases of urban farms; the Dutch came and filled our heads with visions of canals; the mayor proposed replacing our central downtown business thoroughfare with casinos (he’s now in federal prison); and there was even a Trump billboard promising a new tower, the tallest building in the state of Louisiana (it faded and came down after a few years). At home, we joked that we wanted glass monorails operated by robots in chauffeur caps.

But, as Kanye West put it, the internet is our flying cars.

In the 13 years since Katrina, life online has become the great accelerant; trends can quickly become global, connecting and landing in unpredictable ways. When Katrina struck in 2005, Facebook was still a fledgling platform isolated to a few college campuses. No Instagram, no Twitter, and smartphones were still relatively new; most adults I know learned to text for the first time during the evacuation, to conserve bandwidth. Deeply attached to its past, being current was never the city’s forte. Until Katrina smashed the clock and the internet helped reset it.

Some of the most contentious initiatives in Bywater these days are ones that didn’t exist when the post-Katrina rebuilding conversations were first happening. What I anticipated least was the incursion of tourism into our residential neighborhood, facilitated by the internet and Airbnb. In 2008, when Airbnb was first founded, we were only a couple of years into the shaky recovery, and no one was paying it much attention. It was something that our younger, less financially secure friends did, something adventurous and a little shady. But after a few years and national articles featuring the scrappy post-K hipness of the bars and cafes of Bywater, the rolling bags arrived.

Our little shotgun houses and broken-up sidewalks, our subtropical gardens and street-level proximity to Katrina’s tragic backstory, provide an ineffable commodity that that famous actor staying at my neighbors’ couldn’t get at the W. You can’t blame travelers for wanting a deeper experience with the place they’re visiting. But all these tendrils of touristic desire, every tweet, can reach through a neighborhood and break up its residential life. Within a few years of Airbnb’s introduction to the neighborhood, short-term rental speculators were buying whole homes as investments, driving up rent, driving out neighbors, and bringing in the bachelor and bachelorette parties (or as one neighbor calls them, the “bride tribes”). Not only does Airbnb pit neighbor against neighbor, pro-Airbnb and anti-Airbnb groups cannot agree on what constitutes legitimate data, and the city punts short-term rental policy back and forth between the City Planning Commission and the City Council. Is this what we worked for through all those years of rebuilding?

Airbnb has become such an issue to the neighborhood that some of the larger-scale development proposals in Bywater promote themselves as much-needed antidotes to it. Like Stateside, initially proposed as a “poshtel,” a mash-up of “posh” and “hostel,” that, like Airbnb, subverts previous mores of travel and is aimed at budget travelers, primarily millennials and foreign tourists, who also want the trappings of design-centric boutique hotels. When the project first rolled out, there were objections to the size (48,000 square feet versus the 10,000 it was zoned for), the appropriateness of such a place in a residential neighborhood (though the empty lot, on the site of an old seafood-processing plant along the riverfront, is zoned mixed-use), and having outdoor bars, entertainment, and a swimming pool so close to people’s homes.

While warning the objecting neighbors that hotels and hostels were indeed coming to the neighborhood, as zoning permits them, the City Planning Commission voted unanimously to not recommend the project, arguing that this particular one wasn’t in the best interest of the neighborhood. The developers, in response to neighborhood criticism, significantly redesigned the plans, reduced the square footage by a third, dropped the “shared rooms” poshtel idea, and made various concessions to address noise concerns, like installing a noise monitoring system.

Stateside’s revised architectural renderings are actually something like what I’d envisioned for those blocks of empty lots around the neighborhood: a dynamic, contemporary mix of heights and styles that recalled the neighborhood’s vernacular Caribbean architecture, the pitched roofs, shutters, and porches, but didn’t merely impersonate it. What I hadn’t envisioned was that such a project would be built not for residents badly in need of affordable post-Katrina housing but for tourists who had thousands of rooms available to them downtown and elsewhere.

The City Council ultimately voted to greenlight Stateside, 6-1. One councilperson, Stacy Head, said she was responding to “the consistent drumbeat of requests to move tourists into other neighborhoods than the French Quarter and the CBD [Central Business District].”

That drumbeat had never reached my ears. The lone dissenter, Councilman Jason Williams, said: “High ground is scarce in this city, and I’m asking the question, does it make sense to devote this scarce resource to tourists and non-residents? Is it appropriate that we actually create a tourist attraction within this area that people live in. Whether it’s a mixed-use neighborhood or not, it is a neighborhood.” Next to the Stateside site is another empty lot, this one owned by the Housing Authority of New Orleans, the site of a former Section 8 housing complex yet to be rebuilt, another reminder that low-income and affordable housing has taken a backseat to tourism as a priority in New Orleans’s market-driven approach to rebuilding.

Not only is high ground scarce in New Orleans, since Katrina it’s become whiter and richer, reflecting the racially segregated residential patterns of the city’s early plantation era, the desirable front-of-town properties along the riverfront for the wealthy and swampy back-of-town lots for everyone else. Illustratively, Stateside is flanked by a meticulously restored plantation on one side and a historic marker for a former sugar plantation on the other.

Stateside is also across the street from one of the three entrances to Crescent Park, a beautiful $30 million linear park along the old rail lines and wharfs in Bywater and the adjacent Marigny that opened in 2014. With panoramic views of the Mississippi and downtown, it’s part of the early 21st-century trend of transforming former urban industrial sites into public spaces, landscape design showpieces, and real estate market catalysts, like Chicago’s Millennium Park and New York’s High Line. While it’s a lovely neighborhood amenity, and our family enjoys after-dinner strolls along the river among the artfully arranged native plants, that pleasure feels somewhat compromised. Crescent Park was spearheaded through a city nonprofit by Sean Cummings, a developer who owns adjacent riverfront property (his father, John Cummings, owns the Stateside lot) and was federally funded with a post-Katrina Community Development Block Grant. Now it’s being used to market high-end riverfront residences and hotels, cementing the housing inequity along the riverfront, the city’s scarce high ground.

Recently, the City Council changed zoning rules to allow these developments along Crescent Park to build higher and denser, at the last minute removing the affordable-housing provision for low-income residents. One council member justified his decision by saying he wasn’t “sure I would want to be one of the few poor people in an upscale development.”

During the post-Katrina era, the citizens were told, especially regarding the creation of the city’s Master Plan, that we’d have some agency. But we’ve seen developer after developer ask for special treatment and get it. And between market forces and the city’s lax short-term rental regulations, citizens suddenly have no choice as to whether the residential neighborhood in which we’ve invested so much of our lives is now going to become a commercial tourist destination.

Some developers, like Stateside, approach this directly, in a letter to its future neighbors: “Stateside is a place where the lifeblood of our city’s economy—tourism—could meet with the lifeblood of our city’s culture—its people.” The use of “could” gives some leeway, but more and more, we don’t have a choice about meeting “tourism.” I spent much of my young adult life waitressing and working in hotels, and I remember how much I loved going home to a neighborhood that felt like home. That separation between home and the hospitality industry was essential. Now, those borders have dissolved. Tourists have entered our home’s gate to take close-up pictures of our Easter lilies, have climbed onto our front porch for selfies, have drunkenly urinated on our crepe myrtles in broad daylight with the help of girlfriends. These are extreme cases, but they are part of the dynamic when a neighborhood becomes something consumed, not just dwelled in.

This tension between tourism and community reached emotional heights and activist frenzy in Bywater this past year when out-of-town developers floated plans for a hotel project called the Sun Yard on what some considered sacred ground—the former Truck Farm on St. Claude Avenue, just down the street from my house. If Stateside was claiming part of the riverfront of Bywater for tourists, the Sun Yard was an incursion into the neighborhood’s interior, both literally and metaphorically. The Truck Farm was a series of 19th-century cottages along a commercial corridor that for years shared a common owner and large green space in the center of the block. In the early 20th century, it was a market for farmers selling their produce directly from the trucks. Old bargeboard shacks were still largely intact among the oaks and spreading fruit trees, a bucolic, oddly rural idyll hidden beyond the littered sidewalks, buses, and tractor trailers of the avenue.

Prior to being sold, for the last 11 years it was the home of a one-day festival called Chaz Fest in early May, a local alternative to the Jazz Fest juggernaut (aka New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell). Its namesake, Washboard Chaz, was perennially not booked at the Jazz Fest, so Chaz Fest was created to showcase overlooked talent and other local acts. Communally run by the musicians and artists who lived in the cottages, there were two stages, neighborhood vendors, and lovingly hand-lettered signs. Blankets under the fig trees, street kids mystically transported to the country for a day, local beers sold out of an ice-filled flatboat. Money was made. Money was lost. An intimate antidote to the corporate influence of bigger festivals, Chaz Fest had a devoted following; it was emblematic of the possibilities of creative collective enterprise among neighbors. I’m a rare non-festival-loving Louisianan, but even I thought it was magical.

I wasn’t the only one. Liz Solms and Giuliano Pignataro, a husband-and-wife development team from Philadelphia, fell in love with the Truck Farm and “how enchanted it is… a place that has held so many memories and joy and the very essence of the Bywater for many many years for many many people. From those who lived there to those who go to Chaz fest to those who’ve just chilled there, it’s got such a unique spirit and soul. When the owners decided to sell, we jumped at the chance.”

That was probably their first misstep: announcing to the neighborhood via the social media platform Nextdoor that they were coming to town to buy and develop our “very essence,” our “unique spirit and soul” into a boutique hotel, capitalizing on the mystique of the space, its history, the accrued experiences of others. They called it a “community project,” would fence off all the properties, remove stoops from cottages, charge $200-plus a night “with a goal to preserve the beautiful space of Truck Farm for all to enjoy.” They had social-justice intentions for the boutique hotel, would hire formerly incarcerated people and use sustainable gardening and building methods. Like Stateside, they were asking for a conditional use permit to build over twice as big as the 10,000 square feet allowed by zoning.

A fierce grassroots “Block out the Sun Yard” battle swiftly grew through community meetings, social media, flyers, graffiti. Once again, the City Planning Commission unanimously decided to not recommend the project, agreeing with the neighbors that while the cottages themselves are in a commercial zone on the avenue, much of the complex, the pool, and the outdoor dining and bar would butt up against solidly residential blocks, with one lot needing a zoning change from residential to commercial. As one commissioner pointed out, there were many other locations the developers could’ve chosen that would’ve made the Sun Yard “an instant go,” but at this location, a line was being crossed. With that odd hubris reserved for developers, they decided to move forward with their “community project” in spite of the robust local opposition and bring their case to the New Orleans City Council.

Even a culture as exhibitionist as New Orleans can reveal itself in surprising and unexpected ways. After a lengthy presentation about the importance of STEM programming in the schools, the City Council meeting late last month was ripped open by the entrance of a drumming and dancing group of Garifuna, a Caribbean people of indigenous, African, and European descent, petitioning for Garifuna awareness week to highlight their contributions to New Orleans culture. One dance, featuring dancers with menacing white-mesh masks, dramatized the historical struggles of the Garifuna, who were repeatedly expelled from their native land by European colonizers. This was followed by the awarding of a proclamation to R&B singer Deacon John, who talked about his 60 years on the New Orleans music scene and growing up downtown in half of a shotgun house with his parents and 11 siblings (talk about density). Finally, accompanied by piano, he roamed the dais with a microphone, passionately serenaded the councilperson giving him the commendation, and received a standing ovation. Council chambers turned nightclub for several glorious minutes.

This explosion of deep New Orleans culture was not lost on the Sun Yard opposition. A generationally and racially diverse group, some were New Orleans natives, some transplants of years or decades. One retired African-American woman who lived next to the proposed Sun Yard site called the project “heartbreaking,” said that the kind of neighborhood culture that created Deacon John is disappearing, and insisted that “We have a housing crisis, not a hotel crisis!”

Another speaker, a long-time musical fixture on the 9th Ward scene, said he didn’t even care where the developers were from or how much money they had; he just opposed the size, and wanted them to stay within their 10,000-square-foot allotted zoning: “Don’t allow us to be traded out for a few tourist dollars.” And another pointed out that people bought houses with the expectation that zoning would protect them from such developments and asked that neighbors in the council chambers who were opposed stand up. Most of the room did.

This was a tough and charged atmosphere for the few Sun Yard proponents. Their muted defense included the developer, who introduced herself as a historic preservationist and environmentalist committed to restorative justice who was willing to make a $10,000,000 investment in the community; their architect, who proclaimed the project a “sensitive small hotel” with a “broad benefit to the community at large”; the husband, who talked about working with the City Planning Commission on design changes; their lawyer, who discussed zoning precedents; and a preacher who addressed the importance of jobs for ex-offenders, how he knew a man right now just out of prison who needed work. Women in the Sun Yard opposition seated in the front row stood to write down the man’s number and offer help.

During the debate, some council members seemed to be having their own conflicted moment about the current effect of tourism on the city. A year before, they’d passed an ordinance legalizing short-term rentals that some residents deemed too lax and difficult to enforce. Once again, Councilman Williams expressed concern: “Airbnbs are now killing some of these neighborhoods,” he said. While lauding the concept and design of the Sun Yard, he viewed the placement of it at the old Truck Farm as part of the erosion of the neighborhood; he said he’d gone to Key West looking for Hemingway and found Disneyland, and he didn’t want people coming to New Orleans looking for Tennessee Williams to have the same experience here.

In the end, the councilperson championing the project didn’t have enough votes to pass the motion, so she deferred it to the next meeting. Though the Sun Yard came back two weeks later with significant design changes to mitigate the impact on the neighbors, it was still defeated. Jubilant and a little stunned, after the vote, dozens of opponents crowded Faubourg Wines on St. Claude Avenue, not far from the old Truck Farm. Faubourg is the kind of successful small business that proves wrong the blight-or-boutique hotel dichotomy expounded by some supporters of the Sun Yard. It is owned and operated by a smart, savvy young mother from the neighborhood, and her ethos has always been sensitivity to the community, selling bottles of wine from 8.99 to 89.99.

While the Sun Yard’s developer said that her “personal values were intertwined with her business model,” these days I actually prefer clear messages of straight-up capitalism to murkier ones selling “community,” like those luxury high-rises slated for the riverfront by Crescent Park down the street. At least we are familiar with the equation: Developers like rich people, and rich people like views.

Riverfront developer Sean Cummings described Bywater in the early post-Katrina years as a “green banana.” That metaphor explained so much to me. While we residents were roiling in the chemistry of the ripening process, scrambling for functioning utilities and basic amenities and arguing over the changing identity of the neighborhood, developers were playing the long game. Throughout this ripening, in public meetings and on Nextdoor and in stoop conversations, I learned that there were also people in the neighborhood, some of whom had lived there much longer than I, who wanted the hotels, were fine with Airbnb and the escalating property values, and could generally afford the attendant higher property taxes. They had been anticipating the yellow banana for decades! And I discovered that there were neighbors who loved greeting the tourists and sharing the city’s culture as they meandered the neighborhood taking selfies in front of our funkily colorful houses.

The fact that no one can decide what Bywater is, was, or should be is what drew me here to begin with. Cheap enough to accommodate all walks of life, Bywater once fostered a multiplicity of people and experiences, a sense of spontaneous possibility and unexpected connections. To some extent, it still does. But the more people arriving who are drawn to those same things I was, the more those things have disappeared, lessening that cherished variety. With money and tourism, a sameness has begun to creep in, dull suburban paint jobs and topiaries, a homogenous Airbnb aesthetic flattening the contours.

While others are being priced out of Bywater, I have the luxury, for now, to stay in my home and cycle through all of my conflicted feelings about the changes in the neighborhood: outrage, excitement, sadness, fear, resignation, even curiosity. What’s it going to be like when there are high-rises at the end of our block? When the neighborhood becomes the tourist destination that the hotel developers want it to be? And if we do eventually have to sell because we can’t afford the property tax, where will we go?

This year the city is celebrating its tri-centennial with the heavily branded NOLA 300 and was named the number one travel destination by the New York Times. We also have a new mayor, our first female one, and an almost-new city council, many of whom campaigned on short-term rental reform, and who will hopefully work to balance tourism and our most vulnerable and valuable assets, our residents, via housing policy. Obviously, we need to increase our tax base, but focusing on high-end real estate projects and low-paying service industry jobs contributes to the city’s historic inequity, drives out the culture makers who made it a destination to begin with, and could turn some neighborhoods into picturesque husks for visitors and for those who can afford it.

New Orleans is often referred to as the northernmost capital of the Caribbean, and last summer, our family traveled to Costa Rica, the Southern Caribbean. As we walked around its capital city of San Jose, we marveled that whole blocks looked exactly like some Bywater blocks, Creole cottages lining the sidewalk, hipped roofs and corner stores, only how they might’ve looked fifty or a hundred years ago, lightly renovated, bright colors rain-softened, cut with dado lines and rusty run-off from the tin roofs. But, unlike Bywater, these blocks were alive with all manner of people and activity, dynamic and unselfconscious, the corner stores all still corner stores, not an Edison bulb nor craft cocktail nor subway tile in sight. I felt a deep longing, and it struck me how naïve I’d been all these years. I hadn’t realized what embracing commerce in our neighborhood actually meant in the 21st century. I’d been thinking in 20th-century, even 19th-century terms, progress neatly conforming to our neighborhood’s Caribbean and Creole design and sensibility and history. As a tourist a thousand miles away from home, I understood it was never really the future I wanted, with its unpredictable innovations and opaque motives. It was an idealized past, one that possibly never existed.

Anne Gisleson is the author of The Futilitarians (Little, Brown). She teaches at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

Editor: Sara Polsky