Hurricane Katrina may have amped it up, but New Orleans tchotchkes still big after four years
by Chris Rose, Columnist, The Times-Picayune
Saturday August 29, 2009, 5:05 AM
The Times-Picayune Archive New Orleans love affair with itself didn't just start after Hurricane Katrina -- New Orleanians have always been proud folks.
New Orleans' love affair with itself is one of the historical, parochial, unifying and sometimes cloying characteristics of this city. For instance, very few of us feel the need to append any facts, statistics or evidence to the perpetual claim that is ours: "The most interesting city in America."
It's a given. Always has been. And if you live somewhere else and are generally tired of our prideful self-regard -- particularly every time the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina rolls around -- then get over it. Because it's true.
To paraphrase the late 7th Ward vaudevillian, Ernie K-Doe: Sure, we're cocky. But we're good.
And make no mistake: This is no Katrina effect, no manifesto of the "new" New Orleans. Our perpetual conceit is -- to put it in the popular lexicon -- a pre-existing condition.
After all, it was 1879 when the newspaper columnist Lafcadio Hearn took note of New Orleans' chronic states of decay, insolvency, lawlessness and prurience, yet still proclaimed: "It is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio."
Nothing against Ohio, of course. It's just... well, it's just not here.
And then one day. The unthinkable. The implausible. The impossible. They said the city -- our city -- was finished.
And we said: The hell it is.
The Times-Picayune ArchiveThe civic pride, nostalgia and general cussedness borne out of Hurricane Katrina fueled a massive and sustained commercial output of household items, textiles, novelties, songs, books, symphonies, tchotchkes and T-shirts -- lots and lots of T-shirts -- that identify New Orleans.
And in that one moment, that very big moment, the quaint expressions of our heretofore harmless vainglory -- tiny crawfish on polo shirts, Vic'n'Nat'ly, Cajun-in-Your-Pocket and the seemingly interminable productions of plays at Le Chat Noir about "ya mama an' 'em" -- shifted into a cultural, psychic and economic engine capable of delivering unto the city an organic unifying force and homegrown healing mojo that no business, government or charity could ever hope to achieve.
The civic pride, nostalgia and general cussedness borne of that moment fueled a massive and sustained commercial output of household items, textiles, novelties, songs, books, symphonies, tchotchkes and T-shirts -- lots and lots of T-shirts -- that identify New Orleans.
Look around your home, your office, your car, your wardrobe and your body: Chances are you will see symbols of this city sewn, stamped, affixed, printed or engraved on something, anything, everything. (As I type this story, I see a bracelet on my left wrist engraved with Hearn's proclamation of sackcloth and ashes -- $70 at Plum boutique on Magazine Street.)
Iconography of post-storm New Orleans -- those things that, to borrow a phrase from the Hornets, represent the city's pride, passion and purpose -- has become a cottage industry in this town and a none-too-trivial one. We make stuff that represents us and then we sell it to ourselves -- an economic paradigm that allows its participants to send a message, choose a team, stake a claim, flip-off the authorities, band together, broadcast pride and generally shine.
They don't teach this business model at Harvard. It's a veritable fleur-de-phenomenon.
Consider the fleur-de-lis, the mack daddy of New Orleans iconography, that delicate little sprig of a lily, the crest of the fallen House of Bourbon, the logo of the least successful team in NFL history and the international symbol of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.
The little lily that could.
What do you suppose the dollar value of this symbol is? What is it worth to the New Orleans economy? Think about that.
I stumped a couple of local economists with this question. After all, it seems such a frivolous notion. Then again: How much money will be spent on fleurs-de-lis in New Orleans this weekend?
Statistical data is tough to come by in the field of fleur-de-nomics, but we know this much: For a portion of 2007, items with fleurs-de-lis on them accounted for exactly 50 percent of the retail and online sales at Mignon Faget, the noted jewelry designer. At the other end of the market, variations of the fleur-de-lis still account for more than half of the tattoos done at the Electric Ladyland parlor in the Faubourg Marigny, according to owner Annette LaRue.
"The fleur-de-lis has helped my artists live better lives today," LaRue says.
"It saved my business," Faget says, with no equivocation.
The fleur-de-lis has transcended any derivations of French royalty, football fandom and decorative value to stand as the most ubiquitous symbol this city has ever had, maybe that any city has ever had, and one with a resounding message: This is our place. We believe in this place. We will fight for this place.
That's a big message for an umbrella, scarf, bumper sticker, flip-flops or a shot glass to carry.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but in the men's room at my office the other day, I noticed that a fleur-de-lis was stamped on the rubber mat that held the urinal mint. Talk about a captive audience.
But it's not just the fleur-de-lis, of course. It's the hurricane symbol, reproductions of the city's water meters and ceramic street tiles, refrigerators, red beans, blue roofs, the number 504, the X-codes --even "Brad Pitt for Mayor"; these are visual glyphs, tokens and representations of who we are, what happened here and how we feel about it. And the weird thing is: With a lot of this stuff, we're the only ones who even know it means.
Do you know what it means? Print that on a T-shirt or coffee mug, and someone will buy it.
That's what it means.
So the question is: Why?
Why do hundreds of thousands of us -- here and in exile -- stamp our property, our bodies and our identities with the trappings of the city we love? Isn't voting, supporting the arts and maintaining clean storm drains enough to lay claim to good citizenship? Why is it so important to wear our emotions -- sometimes literally -- on our sleeves?
"People now understand that tattoos are not just for scumbags, bikers and junkies," LaRue says. "They can be very meaningful to their owners. They help people express their feelings and their love and -- in this case -- their love for this city.
"In some cases, a tattoo is a way for people to publicly prove how much they love this city and prove how much they belong here. It's elementally tribal. Think about it: You don't see people in Des Moines (Iowa) getting Des Moines tattoos."
And that raises an interesting point: Why don't people in Des Moines -- or most everywhere else -- get Des Moines tattoos? If an enterprising jeweler in St. Louis -- a proud, historic community; we can all agree on that -- made 75,000 sterling brooches of the city's famed Gateway Arch and sold them for $25 a pop, would they sell out in three weeks?
Not likely. The reason, Faget says, is not rocket science: "They didn't almost lose St. Louis."
In the post-Katrina age, Hearn's words never have rung truer.
"There is a certain amount of defiance in that quote and I think people are still feeling that today," says Dannal Perry, the proprietor of Plum, who commissioned the sterling bracelets with the sackcloth and ashes quote and has sold around 40 of them -- a paltry figure compared to the hundreds of bracelets she has sold that ask, "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?"
"In New Orleans, we're proud of our history, of pulling ourselves up after tragedy," she says. "And it seems that everyone wants to be identified that way. Everyone wants to own a piece of this city."
Faget echoes LaRue's theory: "I think it's tribal, I really do. People in New Orleans love to proclaim themselves. It's the same reason people wear Saints colors on Sunday. It says: We're on the team. We love New Orleans. We want to be part of the rebuilding."
There's an ironic element to all of this that Faget likes to point out.
"What I find odd," she says, "is that the fleur-de-lis originally represented royalty. The French certainly don't wear the fleur-de-lis; they had a revolution over it. And, now, here we are, using this as a symbol of our freedom. We use it to help emancipate ourselves from misery and the blow that nature dealt us."
Obviously, lots of people have lots of ideas about all of this. The Fleur-de-Phenomenon is a constant, pervasive, all-encompassing chorus of unified voices, passionate advocacy and willful relevance; a loud, resounding, unmistakably defiant, crystal-clear clarion call that says: Hell yes!
Unless you disagree with us, of course. Then it's: Hell no.
I was talking about this the other day with Andrei Codrescu, the prickly author, surrealist poet and cultural provocateur whose distinguished career has been marked by -- as much as anything else -- an overt disdain for sentimentalism and mush. Yet, the first book he published after Katrina was a collection of essays called "New Orleans, Mon Amour."
My love, indeed.
"We adorn ourselves to show off our opulence and decadence," he says. "The only other places I have seen anything like this are West Africa -- and maybe Martinique -- where art is one thread of continuity; symbols of our survival of a past catastrophe and talismans for protection against the next."
As we spoke by phone, I gave him the test I give everyone these days: I asked him to take inventory of his immediate surroundings -- the room he was in, the furniture, his clothes -- and to gauge his degree of immersion in the Fleur-de-Phenomenon.
I listened as he fished around in the pockets of his jeans. After a moment, he said: "You know, I had a pen knife with a fleur-de-lis on it but airport authorities recently relieved me of it in the name of Homeland Security."
He allowed a pregnant pause as he looked around and concluded, "That's about all I've got. But, as far as Katrina goes, I've got that tattooed on my brain."
Columnist Chris Rose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I couldn't find the right words to write about Katrina, so I posted Columnist Chris Rose's column here. I love all his writings, he has a way with words when it comes to New Orleans....
I did want to add a thank you to "all" the people that have come here and helped one way or another. A special thanks to Heather Graham and Sherrilyn Kenyon, wonderful writers that have brought many people to NOLA to spend some money to help out... Thank you ladies for continuing to keep coming back!!