New Orleans will be forever as it is now, the mighty mart of the merchandise brought from more than one thousand rivers. This rapidly increasing city will, in no distant time, leave the empire of the Eastern world far behind. With Boston, Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia on the left; with Mexico on the right, Havana in front, and the immense Valley of the Mississippi in the rear, no such position for the accumulation and perpetuity of wealth and power ever existed.
— Thomas Jefferson
Of the many developments coming to the Bywater, the cruise terminal to be established at Poland Avenue is one of the least divisive; almost everyone living in its vicinity agrees that the impact on residents will be substantial, and likely not for the better. Even though some aspects of its development are still uncertain, the image in many people’s minds resembles something like a full-scale invasion. If AirBnB already has the neighborhood straining at the seams with tourists, what’s a quiet riverside community to do when boatloads of cruise goers descend on the Bywater?
According to the Port of New Orleans, the terminal will be a home port, not a port of call, which means passengers will be alighting their vessel at Poland, rather than disembarking, unlike the terminals in the French Quarter and CBD. Still, when the Port presented the plan late last fall to the Bywater Neighborhood Association and its more recent offshoot, Neighbors First for Bywater, community members felt that questions regarding the capacity of the neighborhood to support the influx of people arriving to Poland went largely unanswered. Brian Luckett, an active member of Neighbors First for Bywater, feels the numbers don’t add up:
These very large cruise ships can hold 4,500 passengers and another 1,500 crew members. The Port is planning on two departures per weekend: one on Saturday and one on Sunday. That’s 9,000 passengers coming and going in a single day plus the trucks needed to resupply them. The Port cannot tell us how that traffic will be managed or even where all the cars will park. All we know is that on the couple of occasions when they previously used the Poland Street Wharf for cruise ship departures, the traffic was jammed up all the way to Elysian Fields.
During the presentation, the Port hoped to get the community on board by emphasizing the potential for retail space and showcasing local artists, but this didn’t do much to help people shake the feeling that they were being told, not asked. According to Mark Heck, President of the Bywater Neighborhood Association, “They never asked whether or not the neighborhood wanted it, and my sense, based on my immediate community, is that it doesn’t. I just don’t know how the positives would outweigh the negatives.”
That the Port held meetings with neighborhood organizations on both sides of St. Claude while still in the design phase seems to be a sign of good faith that they want to work with the neighborhood. The fact is, though, that the Port of New Orleans operates the wharves autonomously from city government, and has the power to make development decisions regardless of community response. Finding that the fate of the neighborhood is entirely in the hands the Port’s Board of Commissioners is troubling for those opposed to the Poland Cruise Terminal. As Brian Luckett put it, “Nobody even knows what the Port of New Orleans is: is it a state agency, a parastatal, a free trade zone? The rules that apply to the government don’t seem to apply to the Port—for all intents and purposes it’s a black box.”
When the Board of Commissioners for the Port of New Orleans was created in 1896, the New Orleans trade economy had entered a slump. Thomas Jefferson’s mighty mart of merchandise had not fared well in the tumultuous economy of the Civil War years, and during Reconstruction, maintenance of the port was neglected. As a result, excess silt began to clog the river, blocking passage and further discouraging trade. Towards the turn of the century, however, a new generation of businessmen came of age intent on restoring the port to its former glory. This was the era of the Panama Canal, and as Americans set their sights on Latin America, New Orleans was as well positioned as ever between Mexican and Caribbean sugar plantations and the burgeoning banana republics. As things stood, however, the city’s riverfront infrastructure wasn’t up to the challenge of seizing new economic opportunities. Men such as James W. Porch, an eager and industrious Midwestern transplant, argued that the city needed a cohesive and publicly-run port infrastructure. The wharves were run by corrupt private businessmen; the public had almost no control over the economic spine of the city. And so the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans was created to build and administer a state-of-the-art port facility, including 18 additional wharves along the river and a Public Grain Elevator. Through the vision of the first Board of Commissioners New Orleans saw a renewal of faith in the future of its international trade.
The Board of Commissioners is charged with setting policies and regulating traffic and commerce. The seven unsalaried commissioners are appointed by the governor from a list of nominees submitted by 19 local business, civic, labor, education, and maritime groups. Four are from Orleans Parish, two are from Jefferson Parish, and one is from St. Bernard Parish. From its inception until well into the 1960s, the Board followed the vision of their predecessors in using the Port to promote the city as a bustling trade hub. However, in the late 50s, when a technological change in shipping meant that thousands of dock workers were left without work, the trade economy once again suffered a blow. The Port then began to reevaluate how best to use its assets. As the commissioners figured it, the riverfront could be as valuable for tourism as it was for commerce, and as the city began to move towards creating a more robust tourist economy, the Port paved the way. In 1968, the Port opened a trade exhibition center called The Rivergate, which helped bring conventions to New Orleans and served as a precursor to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. In 1984, the year New Orleans hosted the World’s Fair on the riverfront, the Port spearheaded the building of the Riverwalk Marketplace and developed its first modern cruise facilities.
Bywater residents have only recently begun to experience life in the fishbowl of the tourist gaze. After the creation of new wharves in the neighborhood during 1896 such as Poland, Pauline, and Gallier, the Bywater offered enough blue collar jobs to maintain a thriving working class. As the city drifted towards a tourism-based economy, the neighborhood’s economy took a blow, but those residents who stayed were too out of the way of the French Quarter for the Bywater to see much exposure to tourists. Kevin Peri, who grew up next to Saturn Bar back when the owner had a candy window for neighborhood kids, says that in spite of the economic hardship, the community was strong. “I used to walk into Markey’s and know everyone there.” Now, however, Satsuma is featured in in-flight magazines, AirBnB keeps local bars flush with newcomers, and old-timers have trouble recognizing their own neighborhood. “Living here in the nineties, it was dangerous. I had drug dealers on both sides, people would set cars on fire outside my house. And that’s when the neighborhood was the coolest. Anything could happen—underground concerts, parties. There was a Bywater party called Decadence that the lady from Vaughn’s put on. It was an anything goes type of party. Now the neighborhood is safer, but nobody is left. The culture of the neighborhood is gone.”
For some, the changes the neighborhood has undergone mean that the coming cruise terminal will only exacerbate damage that has already been done. One resident who has owned a warehouse in the Bywater since 1989 where he lives and works, says “I’ve sort of given up on it being a neighborhood. Maybe it’s a neighborhood for those who have come recently, but a lot of people don’t stay year-round, and there are a tremendous amount of bed and breakfasts. For me that’s not a neighborhood. I don’t blame people for wanting to make money, but with everything that’s already happened I just don’t think the cruise terminal will make that much of a difference.” Even those long-term residents who, like Kevin Peri, are worried about the impact of the cruise terminal and would like to see a change in the direction the neighborhood is taking, have a sense that the city made up its mind long ago about the trajectory of New Orleans development. “I think whatever the city sees as the biggest money maker is what they’re going to do. I think the deal has already been done. Especially when you consider the [Crescent] park, I feel that the city had a plan before the plan came out,” says Peri.
The plan he is referring to has indeed existed for some time, and goes by the name of Reinventing the Crescent. While the cruise terminal is not explicitly included in the design plan, Reinventing the Crescent is a cohesive blueprint for developing downriver properties to maximize revenue from real estate and tourism. Conceived in 2008 under Mayor Nagin, the project, according to the opening letter of the design plan, aims to “to redefine and transform the crescent of the Crescent City into an internationally prominent waterfront.” The realization of this vision is being spearheaded by a “public benefit corporation” called the New Orleans Building Corporation, under the helm of its CEO, prominent developer Sean Cummings. Phase 1, the only phase listed on the website, is the creation the of the Crescent City Park. But the website claims this is only the beginning: “As we move into the 21st Century, New Orleans is reinventing itself as an entrepreneurial and artisan-based economy. Our riverfront property will emerge as a symbol of our reinvention—a beacon for New Orleans’ transformation into America’s boutique city.”
The project of developing abandoned industrial waterfronts into bustling centers for condos, restaurants, and public parks has been taken up by cities around the country. City governments in Baltimore, Pittsburg, Memphis, and many others have facilitated a waterfront real estate boom. If the forces involved in Reinventing the Crescent have their way, New Orleans will be no exception. In 2006, the New Orleans Building Corporation, the City of New Orleans, and the Port of New Orleans entered into an unprecedented Cooperative Endeavor Agreement, which released property owned by the Port and set aside strictly for maritime use, thus opening up riverfront property for development.
For most of its history, New Orleans has been a bustling center of trade and international business, and its cultural traditions, legendary musicians, and diverse population have all been direct beneficiaries. If the Port of New Orleans was founded to maintain this legacy, at what point do we consider its current actions to be contrary to its mandate? In 1968, when the Port initiated a series of building projects designed for tourists, it followed the precedent of other port cities like Venice, Italy, which turned towards tourism and away from trade as an economic mainstay. This is not to say that the Port of New Orleans has abandoned riverfront commerce; with over 500 million tons moved annually on the Lower Mississippi, it remains a leading export hub. However, the Port’s infrastructure currently requires millions of dollars in investment funding to bring the it to its full capacity. While raising the necessary funds would be difficult no matter what, the task is made more so with the Port dividing the budget between tourism and trade; the Poland Cruise Terminal is expected to cost a total of $50 million.
While there are certainly those with plenty of fight left when it comes to the Cruise Terminal and other development projects, when you talk to most people about the drastic changes headed to their neighborhood, you hear the unmistakeable sound of defeat in their voice. And the more you learn about New Orleans development, the easier it is to understand why. Powerful organizations with money, influence, and savoir faire have come together to get behind a unified vision of the direction the city is to take. Read between the lines of Reinventing the Crescent’s rhetoric, with phrases such as “the new New Orleans is about smart, permanent economic growth, having maintained a steady in-flow of investment and young talent since Hurricane Katrina,” and you’ll see a strong commitment to a prosperous economy which may not include the city’s long term residents. In the process of making their vision a reality, churches and neighborhood associations may be nominally included, but if their vision differs, officially they have very little power to resist.
That said, enough residents are dissatisfied with the current direction of New Orleans development to warrant an investigation of other avenues of resistance. The first step, however, might be to learn from the opposition, and present a unified vision of alternative development. Reinventing the Crescent is in part a response to an economy which was floundering long before the storm. One reason the interests behind it have gained so much ground is that they offer what they perceive to be a practical solution to the problems facing New Orleans. How then, can those individuals and organizations frustrated with the status quo come together to find an alternative to policies which promote a widening economic gap?
Though it might be challenging, and it might not reflect the national trend, one option is to come up with a plan in which the city as a whole reinvests into trade, instead of tourism and real estate, thus providing the kind of steady blue collar jobs which have sustained the city’s most vital neighborhoods for centuries. Like in 1896, New Orleans currently has the potential to once again occupy a central position in international trade. As of June, the expansion of the Panama Canal has been completed. If New Orleans undertakes its own expansion and deepens the shipping canal, the city could accommodate larger vessels coming from Panama, and the century-old relationship would stand to become much more lucrative. The normalizing relations with Cuba is another promising sign for the future of international trade. Before 1962, when Kennedy cut off all exchange, more than 60 percent of our country’s Cuban imports and exports passed through the Port of New Orleans. As negotiations to end the embargo continue, there promises to be plenty of new opportunities for trade.
This is only one alternative to an economy which focuses primarily on entrepreneurs and the creative middle class, though there are surely many. What is most important is that we understand that while development plans like Reinventing the Crescent have already been set in motion, there is still time to make an impact on the final outcome. When it comes to the Poland Cruise Terminal, what kind of community resources can we insist be included in the development of the wharf? How can we do a better job of connecting across the city with those who want the New Orleans economy to bring prosperity to all its residents, regardless of race and class? If the coming changes inspire in us a sense of urgency rather than despair, then it is likely that we can still insist on taking up a seat at the table.