2015 saw the ten year anniversary of the broken levees that flooded New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The decade that’s followed this man-made disaster has brought various anxieties & concerns to the city, not least of all about the flood of transplants that have moved here during our long road to recovery. It’s easy to get bitter about the speed in which the city is changing. People move to New Orleans because they love its culture, but often try to change the city from within once they arrive. The fear is that along with positive changes like economic growth & much needed educational reform the city might be trading in its more unique cultural traditions, transforming into a modern, homogenized city no different than Anywhere Else, America.
The documentary New City bucks local negativity about the rapid changes we’ve seen post-Katrina, positing the last decade as “a renaissance” for New Orleans, playing almost like an advertisement for the direction the city is heading in. The film is relentlessly positive, countering the exhaustion & PTSD New Orleans has been struggling with in the years since the levee breach with unbridled enthusiasm about the hope that young transplants bring to our economic landscape. There are a few voices of dissent among the film’s interviewees, but they mostly belong to barflies trapping themselves in negative thought loops. Local business owners, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and other sober voices are selling a purely positive spin, declaring that the city is (in Landrieu’s words) “stronger & better than before”. No one is claiming that the storm’s death, destruction, and diaspora were a good thing for the city (at least I hope not), but when the loudest negative voices about post-Katrina transplants are coming from drunken rants that cover distaste for everything from President Obama to “job stealing” Hondurans, Landrieu & company’s optimism plays like a much more attractive way of thinking.
Form-wise, New City is about what you’d expect from a talking heads documentary about the current state of the city. It feels ready-made to be put in rotation on WYES (which is not at all a bad thing). The film does some interesting things with the format, though. Its aerial shots, most likely drone-operated, are very striking, inviting the audience to pull back & look at the city from a detached, distant angle. I also appreciated the way local cuisine is woven into its narrative. Narrator (and first time documentarian) Max Cusimano often exclaims things like “Let’s take a food break!” or “And now for some food porn” & values interviews from local chefs & food critics like Tom Fitzmorris & Out to Lunch‘s Peter Ricchiuti just as much as he values input from folks like the mayor. In a lot of ways, New City‘s bartstool interviews, drooling food photography, and stray footage of live music & Mardi Gras parades often work like a wordless reassurance that the city’s culture is here to stay indefinitely no matter how much or how quickly the population changes.
I’ll admit that I found certain aspects of New City‘s relentless optimism frustrating. There are entire lines of thought that the film avoids as long as possible in order to keep things posi. It takes almost 40 minutes for the doc to address people being priced out of their neighborhoods in this so-called “renaissance”. Words like “gentrification”, “Airbnb”, and “hipsters” are held off for even longer despite the severe weight they hold for locals. I also bristled at the way some interviewees valued “new, educated, business-oriented people” over undermined & underserved local talent. Even more uncomfortable was watching a Los Angeles couple gush over mix drinks with names like “levee breach” & “flood water” at a restaurant in the 9th Ward. Still, I found the film’s overall positivity to be downright infectious. My own tendencies to get defensive about who’s moving here & how they should behave once they arrive is unproductively negative & ultimately futile. New Orleans is a port city. As protective as we can be about maintaining local traditions, it’s good to keep in mind that our entire history, our very fabric is dependent upon constant influx of new faces & new ideas. This is far from our first “renaissance”.
I found myself agreeing with New City‘s the-future’s-looking-bright attitude most when it was tempered with a little caution for balance. As much as Landrieu lauds all of the new money & young talent coming through town, even he punctuates that opinion with the old adage that once you move to this city you don’t change it; it changes you. I also found myself encouraged by a bar owner’s levelheaded reminder that it’s great to have money flowing through the city that wasn’t here before the storm, but that “Money isn’t everything.” Even though I wish more of New City‘s sentiment was thoughtfully balanced in that way, it was still pleasant to see the city through the film’s hopeful eyes. At the very least, it put a lot of my own personal negativity about where the city might be headed & who’s moving here in check. I genuinely appreciated that. And when it wasn’t working for me, there was always food porn waiting to put my mind at ease.
Side note: When I watched this film on Amazon Prime there were a few sound quality issues in some of the interview footage that occasionally obscured what was being said. So, you know, that might not be the best platform to watch the film on even if it is currently the most convenient.