In this five-part series, bestselling author Chris Rose reflects on New Orleans’ growth since 2005. While his book, 1 Dead in Attic, provided a harrowing account of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, these essays look forward as much as they look back, inspecting the resilience of the hospitality industry and sub-sectors like restaurants, retail, and arts and culture.
Even before Katrina, there was always a strong sense of New Orleans exceptionalism among the local populace. Bordering on anything from the provincial to the self-aggrandizing, our city’s love for itself has always been one of our cloying charms.
It is expressed in our literature and our music; we write and sing about ourselves with unapologetic fervor and sincerity. Our favorite TV shows and movies are, in descending order: 1) Those about us. 2) Those that were filmed here. And, 3) Everything else.
So what if “K-Ville” sucked? It was fun to watch. All you had to do was pretend it was “Law & Order” with gumbo parties.
The point being: We celebrate ourselves with unabashed pride of place and sense of community long before Katrina, but especially since. And, in no sector of our economy is this more manifest than our retail industry.
Up and down Magazine Street, Oak Street, Freret Street, St. Claude Avenue and, of course, all over the French Quarter, our retail and boutique storefronts are veritable altars of homage and honor to our city, our resilience, our equanimity, our hospitality and – more than anything else – our distinct and dutiful funkiness.
It’s on display in our jewelry, on our baseball hats, stamped on hand towels and scarves, dishware, bed linens, drink coasters, wall clocks, ties, wallets, belt buckles, candles and even underfoot on our door mats. It’s on our bumper stickers, coffee mugs, book bags, flower pots, soap, perfume, wall hangings, stationery, key chains, pillows, towels and refrigerator magnets.
Especially refrigerator magnets. Because, y’know…. refrigerators.
Walk into Mignon Faget, Symmetry, Plum, Funky Monkey, Miss Claudia’s, Hazelnut, Dunn & Sonnier’s, Buffalo Exchange, NOLA Couture, NOLA Flora, NOLA Rugs….you get the picture. NOLA anything, NOLA everything. NOLA everywhere, all the time.
Are you sick of it yet? Me neither. Unlike other cities – other tourist destinations – this stuff isn’t just for the visitors. It’s for us.
It is safe to say: We simply can’t get enough of ourselves. But we spend a lot of money trying. It’s almost tribal the way we mark ourselves as citizens of New Orleans, with our clothes, accessories, tchotchkes and even tattoos.
Take the fleur de lis: it’s practically its own cottage industry in this town. Slap it on a salad bowl or a beer koozie or an air freshener that dangles from your car’s rear view mirror – and somebody will buy it in this town. Hell, everyone will buy it in this town.
He or she who could trademark or copyright the fleur de lis would be a very wealthy soul in this day and age and location. But don’t try it. We will get very upset if you do. (See “Who Dat” for more information.)
But the fleur de lis is just one of the symbols, themes, totems, images, icons and phrases which we share as part of our common cultural DNA – and in which we engage as commerce. In what other city can someone make a living by developing a clothing line or a home accessory business based entirely on that city’s water meter sewer tops? There is something altogether bizarre and even macabre about such a notion, but there it is – and it is us.
Then again, nobody else has sewer tops as cool as New Orleans.
We love this place, hard, strong, unfailingly and unbendingly. But it’s more than just passion and pride. We’re willing to lay down our money for it. We are unequivocal about our support of businesses that reflect us, tell our story, lay claim to our culture.
The numbers bear that out. Finally. In 2014, the city collected more sales tax revenue than in 2004 for the first time since Katrina laid our city to waste. Obviously, it’s been a long, slow climb, but we are getting there.
According to Katrina 10, a Rockefeller Foundation initiative and the city’s primary source for economic statistics and analysis, New Orleans is among the most vibrant small business environments in the country now.
“Entrepreneurial activity in New Orleans is 56 percent above the national average, painting a rosy picture for the business climate,” says Katrina 10’s economic analysis. “Fueled by an engaged community, strong financial incentives, and an unmatched culture … the region is at the highest point of economic rankings in its history.”
Forbes magazine described the city’s economic growth since Katrina “the greatest turnaround of our lifetime.”
Whoa. Who says there’s no good news?
Much of the credit for our spending and growth, obviously, goes to our ever-expanding tourism and convention business. It turns out the rest of America loves us almost as much as we do.
New Orleanians have shown unwavering and steadfast loyalty to our local independent businesses, and a fierce commitment to support them as they opened in the weeks, months and years after the storm. From hardware to haberdashery, bicycles to books, flowers to furniture, salons to stationery – the record shows: Build it and we will come.
Perhaps no retail item more pointedly tells our story of economic recovery and resolve more fittingly – pun intended – than our T-shirts. There is no stronger indicator of New Orleans exceptionalism than the amazing growth and success of the T-shirt business in this town.
It may sound strange to hold the lowly T-shirt in such high esteem, but just look around you when you walk down the street and take in the messages that passersby wear across their chests: “Defend New Orleans.” “Be a New Orleanian Wherever You Are.” “No White Flags.” “NOLA Proud.” “Free Sean Payton.”
Pride, defiance, resilience and funkiness. Our special brand of character.
In what other city could four – count them, four – different T-shirt businesses cater strictly to local pride of place and sense of community? You can’t find Bob Marley, Nike or One Direction T-shirts at Dirty Coast, Storyville, Defend New Orleans or Fleurty Girl. These stores peddle more than just clothing; they sell culture. Identity. Community. And their success is astonishing testimony to New Orleanians unflagging self-esteem in the face of disaster, humiliation and disregard.
While much of the country was getting ready to write off our city, it was our T-shirt purveyors, of all the least likely candidates, who stepped up and rushed into print lines of clothing that proclaimed our heritage and uniqueness. Eschewing the simple tropes of Bourbon Street souvenirs, these stores went native, in a big way.
They brought out shirts about Tchoupitoulas, the “Best Bank,” K&B, McKenzie’s, Who Dat, Mardi Gras trees, Jazz Fest flags, King Cakes, City Park, Treme, and, of course, our sewer tops. Shirts that nobody from anywhere else would even understand, let alone buy. That’s a risky business plan. But we gobbled it up.
These shirts, they speak to us, they speak for us. To wear them is to stake your claim in the tribe, our tribe, this city. Where else could this happen? Does Cleveland have a bunch of T-shirt shops selling inside jokes to its residents?
Well, Cleveland being Cleveland – maybe so! But the point is, the T-shirt shops are just a small but vital part of the larger recovery of our retail community, a recovery finally set back on course last year when our sales, for the first time, surpassed pre-Katrina numbers.
That happened because we are New Orleans proud, New Orleans strong, New Orleans true. We don’t just wear our hearts on our sleeves.
We wear our pride. Literally.