As I sit and wrestle with the issues that swirl beneath the working title of the book I’m writing—“Marching With Saints: The Fight for New Orleans Jazz Culture Since the Flood, and What It Means for America”—I’m forced to reflect on fears many of us shared in 2005 about the future for New Orleans, and to consider the ironic manifestations of these worries.
I recall feeling uneasy about the title and subtitle that Salon placed atop an October 2005 essay of mine—“America’s New Jazz Museum! (No Poor Black People Allowed): Jazz musicians warn against the Disneyfication of New Orleans.”
Yet eventually I warmed to such sensationalism; there were truths in there.
The idea of a Disneyfied New Orleans was a common theme then and now. In the December 2007 issue of The Journal of American History, an essay by J. Mark Souther (whose excellent book, “New Orleans on Parade,” I’m working my way through a second time) considered the matter in great depth. Here’s how he opened:
The idea of a “Disneyfied” New Orleans is not new. Walt Disney, referring to the city’s Bourbon and Royal streets, once remarked, “Where else can you find iniquity and antiquity so close together?” Sharing the assessment of the local author Harnett Kane that the French Quarter, or Vieux Carré, “means New Orleans to the outside world,” Disney added New Orleans Square, a cleaner, shinier replica of the city’s most noted district, to his southern California theme park in 1966. New Orleans leaders, developers, and preservationists, meanwhile, were producing an urban space that, if not as controlled as its Disneyland counterpart, nevertheless invited comparisons.
Souther ended by sounding this warning:
…. Such continued attention to the tourist hub, along with discussion of a “reduced footprint” for the city, conveniently salvages the Disneyfied facade seen by tourists, while writing off the hidden areas where tourism’s laborers lived and its culture thrived. Indeed, Katrina’s flooding consumed the 80 percent of New Orleans that tourists rarely saw, including the notorious Lower Ninth Ward and part of Tremé. Perhaps the countless tourists, trying to make sense of a national tragedy in their own way by straying from the well-worn paths scripted by promoters, may compel New Orleans leaders to recast their city in ways that educate, enlighten, and encourage reform. If not, New Orleans, with its French Quarter ever at the forefront, may well recapture its pre-Katrina reputation as a “Creole Disneyland.”
A post from Sarah Chase titled “The Disneyfication of New Orleans is an Actual Thing” at the NOLA Curbed site made mention of Souther’s essay, as well as the “DizneyLandrieu” brochure that was, as she put it, “the throw of Krewe du Vieux this year” during Mardi Gras season. (That brochure bore the subtitle, “Mitchey Mayor’s Gentrified Kingdom,” the implication being that this was something less than the “happiest place on earth” for locals and lovers of all things New Orleans.)
Chase’s real point was to alert us to some unwelcome irony: “….But for New Orleans to actually use a Disney character to tout tourism? Oh, it’s happening.”
The New Orleans Times-Picayune described “a new collaboration with the Walt Disney Company using the character Tiana from the film ‘The Princess and the Frog’ to pitch the city as a family destination…. The campaign presents family attractions as recommended by Tiana, giving people a view of “The Princess and the Frog’s NOLA.”
“So where does this Tiana chick like to go?” Chase asked. “Jackson Square, Cafe du Monde, the zoo, Audubon Park, City Park, the Steamboat Natchez, St. Louis Cathedral, and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District.”
The animated Disney film “The Princess and the Frog” did introduce theatergoers to a trumpet-playing alligator named Louis, whose horn was actually played by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, thus acknowledging meaningful New Orleans musical tradition. Still, the whole idea of this promotion seems tone deaf to the fears and hopes of anyone steeped in that sort of music and what it stands for and reflects.
“The Disneyfication of New Orleans that people talked about after Katrina was supposed to be quick and dramatic. But the danger is not like that. If you take your hands off the wheel and let business interests rule, that sort of thing happens more gradually, almost without people noticing.”