Life in New Orleans, According to a New New Orleanian

Sam Chapin


I am a Vermonter. I was born there, raised there, and have consistently spent my summers there, no matter where I’ve lived; it is the only place that I can claim as my own. Today I asked a ceramicist operating in VT where she was from, and she said, “Vermont. I’ve lived here since 2003.” Even though she was born elsewhere, she feels that she’s lived here long enough to lay a claim. Although internally I was calling nonsense, I nodded my head and smiled. Vermont has always been a state of outsiders--only a select few can trace their lineage in Vermont past a couple generations, and those who can are undoubtedly farmers. The constant flow of foreigners into the state is integral to its financial stability, as well as its basic survival. With a growing number of young people leaving the state, it is always searching for new ways to attract businesses and transplants and keep them there. Its culture and infrastructure is totally dependent on newcomers.


My current dwelling place is experiencing a similar influx of transients, but the results are far more complicated.


If you’ve ever spent time in New Orleans, then you know that there is no place like it on earth. The life and authenticity spewing out of every street, trolley, and trumpet is unparalleled among any city in the world. The history and hardships that the city has faced is omnipresent on the faces that you pass by, as well as on the cracked roads underneath your feet. This is a city that has experienced joy and pain, the likes of which we--the outsiders--can never fully understand.


Suffice it to say, I will never, ever, be from New Orleans.


I met fellow New Orleans transplant, Ellery Burton, 12 years ago, when we were fellow New York transplants, she hailing from Los Angeles. In the city we both attended The New School University; after graduating I stayed in New York and she immediately bee-lined to New Orleans, where she’s been living ever since. Though she’s only been living here for eight years, walking through the Bywater with her makes it seem as though she’s lived here forever. I recently sat down with her at her house in the Lower Ninth Ward to discuss how the city has changed over the past eight years, what makes New Orleans so unique, and what it means to “hustle”.



What brought you to New Orleans?


Nothing. I was really unhappy living in New York which I always was but I loved school, our school that we went to, so I kind of wanted to move somewhere I had never been and I was always interested in the South. I had done a road trip and the landscape always sort of spoke to me. I felt really unattracted to the idea of living in more of a whitewashed Southern city which can happen really easily, so I chose New Orleans with Naima, a dear friend, who is a person of color too, and we both just said let’s go to New Orleans and at least know that that city has a majority population of people of color--we knew we weren’t entering some conservative city, or college town or whatever, it was kind of on a whim. And then we moved here and saved up and took a rental car down and I never left. I’m still here.


Did you feel like you fit in more than you did in New York?


I don’t really know if I felt like I fit it, but yeah, compared to other places I had been to, within a week, I had a really awesome home, I had a job I made no money at, I adopted a dog, so did Naima--within seven to 14 days, we sort of had this life here that happened really quickly and felt pretty natural. And yeah, I’m someone who likes to venture out by myself, which, double-edged sword, I quickly realized that’s not something that’s really safe to do in New Orleans after dark, but I just found that if I entered a situation alone in New Orleans I would meet so many lovely humans. When I did that in New York City, zero humans would speak or look at me. Southern hospitality is still a thing down here--people are still nice to strangers, even if they feel like they don’t relate, or something. People are still down to chat.



What did the city feel like when you moved here?


It felt like I was at the tail-end of something, of this post-Katrina New Orleans that I can’t speak to because I wasn’t hear and I don’t know. This city is always evolving and always has for hundreds of years. This city has always been a place full of transient people that are in and out-- a train-town.

When I first moved here it truly felt like it was not okay to walk around at night alone. I see people doing it now a lot more, and it makes me afraid for them, but it’s not my job to police the world. I was on the tail-end of this transition. The city had been gentrifying for sure after Katrina--the Bywater was a neighborhood that no white people lived in before Katrina. My interpretation is that when all the young white people volunteered after the storm they all lived in the Bywater and volunteered in the Lower Ninth, and then they just started populating the neighborhood, and I contributed to that for sure. But since then, it’s been a faster process that most others in New Orleans, of people moving in. There’s hip restaurants where there were no restaurants in the Bywater--none of that existed when I moved there. Except Satsuma Cafe, which replaced a cafe that had already existed here--Cafe Ya. And it just kept happening.


Do you think that gentrification is taking something away from New Orleans?


New Orleans culture is resilient on its own it seems. It seems like it’s like any situation in all of human history where it’s this cultural thing that exists, and then white people come in and say, “Oh that’s cute!” and they appropriate it and call it their own, or make it theirs, or participate in something that doesn’t belong to them. I see that happening all the time.


I’m sure when I moved here, I did that too. I was a little bit younger and not as self-aware. New Orleans culture has always been a tourist attraction that people come to look at and gawk at. See a second line and buy a little umbrella and pretend that they understand what’s going on. That’s kind of the weird thing too. Bourbon and the streets in the French Quarter have always been there--it’s a little bit like Disneyland. The city is poor and makes money off of tourists coming here to enjoy “New Orleans culture,” and it’s kind of always been like that; it’s just different because people aren’t just coming in enjoying it and leaving--they’re staying here.


White people come here and say that it’s all so cool and colorful and spunky, and then they buy a house and suddenly realize that it’s a half-block down from a bar, having live music without proper permits because nothing in this city is properly legal. There are a lot of businesses that have been functioning without that because the city doesn’t have the resources to regulate. So they just complain and a lot of businesses have been shut down, or can no longer have live music even though they have been doing it for 30 years and people’s incomes depend on it. I know that’s happened with Mimi’s, and Bacchanal, and other bars that have had to pay a ton of money to go to court to fight for their ability to function as an establishment.


They like it until they’re in it, and then they’re complaining. Like my favorite dog park, where I met all my first friends. The rich white people that came didn’t like seeing punk kids, or people that they viewed as degenerates, saying that they didn’t want them in their neighborhood, which is essentially why they fought for it not to be a dog park. Don’t move here then. People have been doing this for a long time. People think it’s interesting and then they want to change it.



I’ve heard you use the term “side hustle” a lot. What does it mean?


There’s so much here that’s under the table. It’s sort of how people survive because it’s just harder. This is definitely a city where there’s less resources--you have to just figure it out for yourself. I say side-hustle, but it’s also THE hustle. It doesn’t supplement--it’s your livelihood. There’s a lot of creative people here, and it’s a way to maintain that life, and then still be able to pay your rent. I’ll do anything: I do house cleaning, caregiving, I work in a convenience store, I’ve sold coconuts during festival season, my best friend does face painting and sells umbrellas during jazz fest and cuts hair once a week at a bar for a free beer with a haircut--she’s actually the one who taught me how to hustle. It’s a way to function to live in New Orleans.


There are so many people who are moving here now who have regular salary jobs. I don’t know who they are or what they’re doing. But a lot of the people I know all have so many jobs, they all just piece together to help them survive. And again, New Orleans runs on tourism, so when tourism season hits, it’s a great way to make fast cash. To sell on the side of the street when all the drunk tourists walk by and you have jello shots, or beers, or water, or some weird New Orleans craft or something--to take advantage of that is a thing that people do. I have had a hard time finding legitimate work in New Orleans, and I’ve even tried. But I’m a performer--in order for me to do the creative work that I do, I’ve had to have flexible work, so I need to figure out what that means--which apparently means five jobs.


What keeps you in New Orleans?


I’ve left before and gone through waves of wanting to leave because this city also drives me crazy, in the way that you can’t just be a normal person with a normal job--it’s really hard to do, actually. Also something that used to keep me here was affordable rent, which is super not the case for me anymore. I have never paid as much as I pay now to live here. So that is something that is hard, that used to be a really good reason to be here.


I would say the people--this city is full of just really interesting characters. And because of all the s**t that it’s been through, it couldn’t give a s**t about certain types of capital and commodities and having cool things the way other more affluent cities do. It doesn’t have this feeling of people wanting to show their worth through their physical appearance or something like that. You can do that here but it’s more in a costume-form--people are really creative. You are not considered successful here based on your income, or how cool your house is. It’s just: What do you do? How do you hang out? It’s just a creative place that’s full of freaks that can be themselves too.


I definitely learned a lot about myself moving here, because I had the freedom to. No one cares. No one gives a f**k. They’re like, “I don’t care how you look,” or anything like that. You’re more prized for being yourself here. I just feel that I really learned a lot about myself because I had this breathing space to do that. A lot of the marginalized communities have safe havens in New Orleans.



Author Bio:

Sam Chapin is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


Photo credits: Sam Chapin; Justinsomnia (Wikipedia, Creative Commons); National Pak Service (Creative Commons). 

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