Gone Fishing to Escape Gentrification
Moving to New Orleans from Florida in 2000 seemed a really sketchy thing to do at the time. Plenty of my old friends had gotten the hell out of the Sunshine State, but none of them had moved to the South’s murder capital. I figured the city’s vibrant music culture and cheap rents (the key to personal freedom) made it a risk worth taking, and New Orleans looked like the perfect place to hide out as the rest of America marched forward into the corporate maw.
Alas, in the last few years New Orleans has fallen victim to the same kind of gentrification afflicting every other “cool” city. Waves of relatively well-off, seemingly rootless young people have flooded in and co-opted and perverted and “improved” everything from the rents to the cuisine. The trendier parts of New Orleans now feel like Austin, which is to say a bit like Brooklyn, or Portland or… you get the idea. Invited here by politicians and other opportunistic natives, money and its attendant cultural trappings have more or less killed our blessed isolation and, in turn, a bit of the romance of living here. Where New Orleans’s landscape was not long ago dotted with beautiful, naturally occurring acts of originality by many different races, nowadays you can’t throw a gluten-free small-plate entrée without hitting a young, healthy, upwardly mobile person intent on creating something “cool.”
In times like these I’m thankful that fishing will never be cool.
Gypsy Lou Webb, New Orleans’s Patron Saint of Beat Literature
One of the brightest flags of late-period beat literature got planted in New Orleans in the early 1960s when Louise “Gypsy Lou” Webb and her husband Jon Webb founded Loujon Press. The Webbs ran Loujon mostly out of various small French Quarter apartments on Ursulines and Royal, and all their books and journals were art objects handmade on giant old printing presses, a process that resulted in pages in myriad different colors, textures, and typesets. Gypsy Lou even pressed flowers into the later issues of The Outsider, the couple’s literary magazine. The Webbs’ publishing venture was short-lived but they put out two of Henry Miller’s books and, in The Outsider, featured poetry from the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. They’ll always be best remembered, however, for unleashing Charles Bukowski upon the world, having hand-printed the drunken master’s first two major books of poetry, It Catches My Heart In Its Hands (1963)and Crucifix in a Deathhand (1965), both of which are now collectors’ items that cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
New Orleans doesn’t lay claim to Bukowski as enthusiastically as it does Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, or even Anne Rice. But the city is arguably as important to Bukowski’s story as it is to, say, William Faulkner’s. During the Loujon Press years, Bukowski came and went from New Orleans, carousing, drinking, fighting, fucking, and occasionally writing. He supposedly carved “Hank Was Here” into the cement outside of what is now the Royal Street Inn, which only in recent years renamed what was once billed as its “Bukowski Suite.” Meanwhile, Lou sold paintings to pay the rent so Jon could break his back producing Buk’s work.
New Orleans eventually heaped upon the couple a mountain of bad luck that forced them out of the city. They continued publishing from other locations until Jon (in his mid-60s and 11 years older than his wife) passed away in Nashville in 1971. Bukowski later wrote in one of his Los Angeles Free Press columns about how he’d immediately attempted but failed to fuck Lou, who appeared in the story as “June” mourning at “Clyde’s” funeral:
“June, the dead are dead, there’s nothing we can do about it. Let’s go to bed…”
“Go to bed?”
“Yes, let’s hit the sack, let’s make it…”
“Listen, I knew Clyde for 32 years…”
“Clyde can’t help you now…”
“His body’s still warm, you bastard…”
After her husband’s death, Gypsy Lou moved back to New Orleans and carried on as a respected eccentric and bohemian scene maven who could be found in Pirate’s Alleyselling touristy paintings that she did not take seriously. She served as a muse to transplanted New York painter Noel Rockmore, whose etchings graced Crucifix in a Death Hand. The Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans to this day proudly displays Rockmore’s paintings, including Homage to the French Quarter, which depicts Gypsy Lou and all of her now-dead friends. She was a chaste muse, however—she pledged eternal faithfulness to Jon, whose ashes hung in a vessel around her neck. Reportedly, she ate little bits of her husband over the years until none of him remained.
The New Orleans Murder Wall Won’t Stop Growing
Historically, New Orleans is the city of jazz, Mardi Gras, and semi-functional alcoholics. But while its residents are famous the world over for drinking hurricanes and showing their tits in exchange for plastic doubloons, their city also has a reputation for being a murderous, poverty-stricken town run by some of the most corrupt public servants in the country. In 2011 alone, there were 199 murders on the streets of New Orleans (around three a week). Defined by the amount of killings per capita, New Orleans is officially the murder capital of America, and with a homicide rate around 20 percent higher than the next city on the list (here’s looking at you, Detroit), the problems are snowballing out of control.
In addition to ongoing problems from Katrina, communities in the poorest parts of New Orleans are also being ravaged by an 8 – 10 percent unemployment rate, which isn’t helping to curb a growing culture of violence between youngsters in opposing areas. This, combined with an underground gun trading circuit, is turning Louisiana’s largest city into a powder keg.
Last year New Orleans police seized almost 350 illegal, unlicensed firearms in just two months. Although relatively clandestine for the moment, there are apparently licensed gun owners willing to buy and sell firearms for the sole purpose of distributing them on the streets of New Orleans to murderers and gang members with criminal records.
Despite the influx of illegal guns and the fact that murder rates have been on the rise for the past three years, there’s a strong feeling among residents that the government is turning a blind eye to the escalating violence in New Orleans.
A local priest from a church about two blocks from the French Quarter is trying to bring greater awareness to the problem. Father Bill Terry of St. Anna’s keeps a record of every murder in New Orleans on the outside of his church wall as an ever-growing tribute. He records the deceased’s name, date of homicide, their age, and how they were killed. I spoke to Father Terry about his project.
VICE: Hello, Father. How did the violence in New Orleans get so bad that you felt the need to start recording the deceased on your church wall?
Father Terry: First of all, I want to make it very clear that this problem cannot be blamed solely on Katrina. It’s been bad for years. It’s growing like a virus. The killings in New Orleans are a phenomenon—over 74 percent of the murders are between people who know each other. It’s different because they’re not always motivated by drugs, either. A lot of it is relational. Here people fight for turf, but not in the classic sense. It may be one neighbourhood fighting another, but it often has nothing to do with drugs or the economy—it’s bizarre.
A lot of it has to do with retaliation, too. The city has political subdivisions called “wards.” If somebody gets shot in the 7th Ward, for instance, people living there who are of this murderous nature usually decide to go to the 6th Ward where the shooter was from and just shoot somebody there—anybody at random. A lot of very innocent people get killed because of this.
How do you keep up with recording fresh murders on the wall when people are killed so regularly?
A person in the Dioceses of Louisiana gathers all the records, so we get a weekly list of the murder victims. Then, every two weeks I go outside and put them on the board.
And most of the deaths are from shootings?
Yes. Ninety-seven percent of the murders—believe me—are by gun.