Shame of the Nation

There are few pricklier subjects in urban areas than the concept of gentrification.

It’s happening in New Orleans now–has been, really, ever since we moved here, but it seems to have truly accelerated in the sixteen (!) years since Hurricane Katrina. You see it everywhere–the condos for sale for outrageous prices in targeted Facebook ads; the insanely high rents in targeted Facebook ads; the insane asking prices for houses up for sale, again in targeted Facebook ads. I also get email alerts and notifications from a few local realtors; I had to sign up for their mailing lists in order to view the interior of houses and condos and apartments (this began because a house in the Garden District I’d always wanted to see the inside of was up for sale and I went to the realtors’ website to see the interior; I’d been thinking about setting a book–a ghost story–inside that house so I wanted to see the layout and interior design) and I am amazed, on an almost daily basis, on what condos, houses and apartments are going for these days in a city not known for having the economic base to support such high monthly payments.

When Paul and I first moved here, the friends we had who already lived here told us that crime was an issue in the city, but it really didn’t matter where you lived–it was that omnipresent and inescapable. We rented an apartment on Camp Street–mainly because it was gorgeous, had gated secure off-street parking, and there was a park across the street. Our rent was, I think, $600 for almost 1200 square feet, enormous windows, hardwood floors, high ceilings and enormous windows. Our apartment had both a front door (which opened onto the front porch) and a back door that led out to the parking area; there was also a coin-operated laundry (two of each) in a shed in the back of the building. What we didn’t know was that the house next door housed a drug dealer; that the lights in Coliseum Square had been shot out and never replaced, and it was a late night place for people to hang out and do drugs–we could look out into the parking lot and see the pipes being lit out there in the park. The park was surrounded by big, beautiful decaying houses; the former on-ramp to the highway was still out in the neutral ground on the next block downriver on the neutral ground between Camp and Coliseum streets; I always called it “the on-ramp to nowhere” because it literally still went up for about a block and then….nothing. The Coliseum Theater–best known for being the movie theater Brad Pitt playing Louis in Interview with the Vampire exited after seeing Tequila Sunrise (at the time the film was shot it was still a functioning on-ramp)–was still there; closed, but still there. (It would burn to the ground a few years later in what I am absolutely certain was an insurance fire.) But within that first year after we moved there, two of the big houses on the other side of the park were sold and the renovations started. Utne Reader declared the Lower Garden District as the “coolest neighborhood in the country”, and the gentrification began. Houses were sold and became construction sites. Rents started going up. The St. Thomas Projects, a few blocks away, were closed and the residents relocated; new businesses began opening on Magazine, and suddenly…gradually…it was no longer the same neighborhood that it once was.

And the city has dramatically shifted since Katrina, of course.

I actually go back and forth about the gentrification thing in New Orleans, to be honest. I hate that a city that once had a high percentage of African-American home ownership and inheritance is seeing those numbers go down, and once vibrant historically Black neighborhoods–which birthed so much of what makes New Orleans so special–on the decline. I’ve wanted to write something about gentrification for quite some time….and then here comes Alyssa Cole with an absolutely superb take on it, creating a new subgenre that I am calling gentrification noir.

History is fucking wild.

Last fall, on a night when my ass was getting well acquainted with the uncomfortable guest chair in Mommy’s hospital room, I’d numbly tapped and swiped my way to an article about a place called Black America. Not the label politicians use to place our concerns into a neat box full of worries they don’t have to attend to immediately or ever, but an actual, tangible place–a slavery theme park that’d opened in Brooklyn at the end of the nineteenth century.

Slavery. Fucking. Theme park.

Black America, the theme park, was billed as “an opportunity to become familiar with plantation life for those of the North who belong to a general to which the word slavery has but an indefinite and hazy meaning.” This was, like, twenty years after slavery ended, mind you. I mean, I too get nostalgic when an eighties ham starts playing on the radio, but these motherfuckers really needed to reminisce about owning humans?

Alyssa Cole has written in several different genres, including both romance and science fiction, but this–what think may be her first thriller?–is an exceptional and extraordinary work written by a master novelist. Her two point of view characters–a Black woman named Sydney who lives in her mother’s house in a Brooklyn neighborhood being taken over by gentrifying racists (there’s no other way to describe them) and is also researching the history of the neighborhood for a walking tour she plans to do, and a white Johnny-come-lately to the neighborhood named Theo, trapped in a dying relationship after going in on a house with a wealthy white girl named Kim who now not only wants him out but plans to screw him out of the money he put into the house–both have deeply distinct voices that clearly delineate them as individuals, both of whom are more than slightly unreliable and have secrets of their own, and are two new and original voices to this reader in any case. But something awful is going on in this neighborhood–people are disappearing, houses are changing ownership overnight, and Sydney is beginning to wonder, as she bonds with unemployed Theo as he helps her with research for the tour, if maybe she isn’t being paranoid because what her mind is piecing together based on what she has seen and what she has researched…but sometimes paranoia is your sub-conscience warning you.

And it’s not like primarily Black neighborhoods haven’t been cleared out so white people could come in and make money before.

Claiborne Avenue here in New Orleans used to be a prime Black business district…until the powers-that-be decided to build the elevated I-10 highway over it, destroyed the district and Claiborne’s viability as a business district. There’s certainly a book in that story, for sure.

I cannot recommend this book nearly enough. The characters, despite their secrets and flaws, are highly likable, so you can identify with them and root for them. The suspense and tension builds–I could not put this down once I got past page 100–and I am going to be looking for more of Alyssa Cole’s work.


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