- Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy
Kevin Fox Gotham begins his engaging and tightly organized sociological study, Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy, by contemplating the future of the Crescent City in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Will it eventually become a dead city, like Pompeii after the earthquake? Will it, with the destruction of many of its neighborhoods and the departure of thousands of black residents from this "most African" of United States municipalities, be repackaged as a combination of Disney World and Las Vegas? Or will it summon its fabled history and inner strength to arise Phoenix-like from the silt and rubble as good as or better than it was before? [End Page 539]
In Authentic New Orleans, Gotham offers readers two books in one, or one book grafted upon another. The introduction and the conclusion address the three scenarios for the future of New Orleans outlined above. Meanwhile, the main body tells the story of tourism and New Orleans from the early nineteenth century to the present, only occasionally referring to the devastation wrought by Katrina in August 2005 and its aftermath. In these seven chapters, Gotham draws upon archival materials (many of which are housed at Tulane University, where he teaches) and forty-six interviews he conducted with long-term New Orleans residents involved in tourism, activism, preservation, and city planning. Gotham does not set out to identify what constitutes "authentic" New Orleans; rather, he seeks to establish that over the years the negotiation between what he calls "tourism from above" (global, commercial forces) and "tourism from below" (local, community-based initiatives) has been responsible for creating notions of authenticity in connection with the city. Asserting that "symbols and framings of authentic New Orleans have always been in flux and transformation" (viii), Gotham shows how over time power relations, conflict, and "tourism practices" have constructed and reshaped the authentic and explains the ways that residents through the years have defined authenticity. In doing so, he succeeds in demonstrating that racial inequities, upon which the Katrina disaster focused the nation's attention, helped to shape the images of New Orleans that promoters of the city projected to the rest of the nation and the world. Segregation, in other words, was as strictly enforced in advertising and the media as it was in public spaces.
Although Gotham organizes the book chronologically, two sets of paired chapters serve to enhance its coherence. He devotes chapter two and chapter eight to the history of Mardi Gras ("The Greatest Free Show On Earth"). The former addresses the evolution of the exclusionary Carnival krewes during the nineteenth century, which led to the development of modern Mardi Gras. The latter concerns the opening-up of Carnival celebrations to outsiders in the late twentieth century, which brought more visitors to the city. Chapters three and six focus on the relationship between tourism and the less-than-successful world's fairs that have been held in New Orleans. These were the poorly attended 1884 World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial and the financially disastrous 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, the latter of which resulted in the codification of the Holy Trinity of New Orleans tourism (history, food, and music) but also saw the previously exclusionary term "creole" reappropriated by African Americans. In addition, Gotham devotes one chapter to connections between Jim Crow and the rise of tourism in the early twentieth century, another to the efforts to market New Orleans to a global audience in the mid-twentieth century, and a third to the transformation of the French Quarter from a residential area into a haven for tourists in the late twentieth century. Despite the sobering and at times grim facts, both past and contemporary, he presents, Gotham concludes the body of the book on an upbeat note. Contending that tourism can help locals to "create new definitions of place character and transform meanings of authenticity" (196), he offers a cautiously optimistic assessment...