I was enraged; the steam coming out of the ears type. It happened during a lunch at the Gumbo Shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans where for the first time in my stay, I was experiencing what my mind had deemed as being “Southern food”. I had gone to New Orleans my mind aglow with thoughts of beignets for breakfast, jambalaya for lunch, and any number of other delicious items for dinner. I was let down. Not only were these things hard to find, but they were expensive once found. I had vowed to align my middle finger along St. Charles Street upon departure in a general, “fuck you, New Orleans”.
These throes of frustrations brought on by the heat, humidity, and blisters from breaking in new shoes were largely abated due to the suggestion of my friend Mary to try the prix fixe lunch at Restaurant August. Mary (much like my wife) has the incredibly annoying ability to call me out on my bullshit and bring me in to line. The lunch was nothing short of brilliant and at $20, I highly recommend it for anyone going to the Big Easy. But, it was a much more of a modern style of cuisine. This can be found in relatively large abundance in New Orleans and naturally, at a rather hefty price–and this is someone who lives in the very pricey San Francisco saying this. Locals who can’t afford it, seem to eat at home most of the time. Budget options in dining are extremely difficult to find. This is something to keep in mind when visiting what is one of the United State’s most historically interesting towns.
But what brought this about? How is it that dining is in the shape that it’s in? I’m sure that there are places which are more affordable and serving authentic southern dishes, in whatever terms that may mean today. It’s just that they’re hard to find and most definitely not in the center or anywhere near the Old French Quarter. You probably need to go to Metarie before you get lucky.
I’ve seen this before in other touristic towns to a varying degrees. I mean, you can spend a lot to eat out in Venice, yet there is still the option to have a meal for 5€ if you look around. These towns without those options tend to be the ones that are recovering from great tragedy wherein tourism is the main business that the post-traumatic economy gets built upon.
Looking beyond the borders of the US, the main example of this for me is Dubrovnik, Croatia. The Serbs & Montenegrins shelled the crap out of that beautiful town in 1991. Their reasons for this were absurd and criminal, but the result was considerable damage that a) needed reconstruction and b) forced a lot of people out of the town who did not return. The reconstruction efforts rebuilt the city well, but they put a sheen on it that was artificial. Whereas Split (a town further up the coast) has a grittiness to it that many including myself appreciate, Dubrovnik is polished and heavily touristic now. Everything centers around tourism and if you want to find anything that is truly historical or real, you’ll have a hard time beyond the fact that the town was founded in the 7th century and the buildings are inherently ancient.
This problem is replicated in New Orleans as well. While this is a town that dates back “just” to the 17th century, there is a lot of history, but it feels like all it is directly associated with tourism to some degree as that is the main industry in the town now. Is this a bad thing? In the terms of the immediate existence of the town, no. They need some form of income there in order for the town to be tenable. In the long term though, it could very easily go bad as eventually everything and everyone in the town works to support an adult Disneyland and no other economy develops, making it a shell of a town, a lot like what you see in Venice.
What’s the solution? I look to Barcelona, Spain as something of an example as to how things can improve in this regard. While always an extremely important city in the Mediterranean, Barcelona took a helluva beating in the Spanish Civil War. Rebuilding efforts were slow and what really made the city come alive in the 20th century was tourism, specifically the worst type which were beach tourists. The Olympics in 1992 gave a massive boost to this surge of people I might add. In time though, people who had visited realized that Barcelona was and is an outstanding city and more business opened there that wasn’t tourism-related. Sure, it’s still a heavy element to the city economy, but at the same time, Barcelona is a viable city. It would take a hit if tourism were to end, but still remain standing.
New Orleans needs to attract more business and try not to focus on the boozing as much. Obviously, this will be hard as I saw that it is true that people in New Orleans really like having a good time and more power to them. But, it’s also a fact that these conferences are not going to inspire a lot of business to settle there, especially as “sciene” is misspelled. The local authorities need to buy some AdWords so that if you search for “conferences in New Orleans” you find their site promoting business to come to New Orleans instead of going to say, Atlanta. The details on the to-do list for economy rebuilding could go on and on, because I see a similar problem in San Francisco, but that’s due more to bureaucracy that’s out of control and not a hurricane having wiped itself across the city.